Persuasion Matters

Words Have Power spelled out with Scrabble tiles

Words Matter: Expert Advice on Effective Language (Part 2 of 3)

Words Have Power spelled out with Scrabble tiles

In my last blog post, I dusted off an old favorite, my dog-eared copy of Dr. Frank Luntz’s “Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear” and shared three of his “Ten Rules of Effective Language,” along with some insight into how those rules apply in the world of litigation and courtroom persuasion.

In this installment, let’s talk about rules 4-6.

Rule #4 | Consistency Matters

If you’ve been tuning in to the political debates lately, you may find yourself wondering what the talking point du jour will be for any (or all) of the candidates. All too often in politics, the messaging changes like the wind (or, in reality, changes depending on what the polling data shows). Is this smart strategy? Meh.

In the courtroom, it’s critical to have consistent messaging that begins in voir dire and continues through closing argument. The most effective themes, key phrases, and talking points not only match the evidence and facts presented, but are limited in number and consistently applied throughout trial. Having too many themes, or changing them up mid-trial, is counterproductive.

Think about the world of advertising. When you hear “breakfast of champions,” what company comes to mind? How about “plop, plop, fizz, fizz”? Wheaties and Alka Seltzer have used these slogans – or themes – for years, and consumers effortlessly link the slogan with the brand. Consistency sells in the marketplace, and it sells in the courtroom, too.

With a caveat: There’s a slight difference between consistency and repetition. Just because you repeat a message does not mean it’s consistent.

I once worked on a wrongful death trucking matter and the plaintiffs had two key themes throughout the trial: (1) the driver was unsafe because he was speeding, and (2) the driver was unsafe because he was driving too slowly. Um, okay. Which is it? Choose one and stick with it.

Saying something over and over doesn’t mean it will be accepted by the jury. Your trial themes absolutely must be supported by the evidence.

Rule #5 | Offer Something New

Inside the courtroom, everything is new to jurors, and even the things jurors think they know are usually fraught with inaccuracies.

One element of effective communication involves weaving elements of surprise, intrigue and discovery into your communications. This, according to Dr. Luntz, is “offering something new.” But wait, you think, “Learning about software patents or gas well construction is surprising and intriguing and will be a new discovery for jurors!” Sure, the information will be new, but new does not automatically equate to interesting or memorable. (And yes, you can weave in elements of intrigue and mystery even with the most mundane of fact patterns. I’m talking to you, accounting fraud.)

Creating intrigue and mystery helps “hook” your audience and maintain their focus and interest, which, let’s be honest, is a ginormous challenge when most folks have the attention span of a flea. If your jurors are actively listening, the chances of something sticking increases dramatically. And if you can provide an “a-ha” moment or create a powerful “I never knew that!” moment, you’ve effectively created something new.

Rule #6 | Sound and Texture Matter

There’s no magical formula for jazzing things up, but the benefits to incorporating word play, alliteration, and mixing up the tone and pace of your delivery are many. I’ve written about this topic before, but here are the highlights:

  • Vary your rate: There’s a delicate balance between speaking at a rate that is too slow or too fast. Listeners need time to process what we are telling them, especially when the content is new, complex or technical (which, in the case of jurors, is about 99.9% of the time).
  • Inflection: By varying the power or strength we place on different words, we add persuasion and interest to the message. Make a concerted effort to move around the whole scale, and add some punch to phrases or words that demand a bit more attention.
  • Pitch: Higher-pitched speech conveys a sense of excitement, fear, or even nervousness. A lower-pitched voice typically communicates confidence, certainty, and a sense of calm. Consider using a different voice frequency when introducing a new issue or character.
  • Volume: Often, people only think of increasing volume. But don’t forget the power of a whisper. If you want your audience to take notice, lean in, and really listen, try a whisper. Think about the emotion you want to elicit from your listeners and adjust your volume accordingly.
  • Pause: By integrating carefully orchestrated pauses and/or silence into your speaking, you are essentially speaking in all caps, bold with a large font. It’s an easy, effective way to let listeners know that what you just said (or are about to say) is important.

Dr. Luntz’s book is a great read for anybody looking to engage in persuasive communication, whether it’s in a political campaign, the courtroom, or the boardroom. Stay tuned for my next post, which will cover the last four of his Rules of Effective Language.

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