Words Matter: Expert Advice on Effective Language (Part 3 of 3)
In two recent blog posts (here and here), I resurrected one of my favorite books on communication: Dr. Frank Luntz’s “Words that Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear.” Although his approach is often political, I believe Dr. Luntz’s “Rules of Effective Language” apply just as easily to the world of litigation and courtroom persuasion. Because words matter.
In this installment, I’ll finish up with rules 7-10.
Rule #7 | Speak Aspirationally
About five years ago, Budweiser premiered a commercial featuring a cute young man and his sweet yellow lab. Obviously, Budweiser was hoping to sell some suds, but it was also promoting an important social message: don’t drink and drive. This was five years ago, and I still remember it – not because of the cute guy, but because it caused me to feel all the feels.
The message was personal, human, and universal. And it stuck.
Aspirational messages are those that cause the listener to want something better for him/herself, or for society as a whole. It speaks to our better angels and attempts to inspire us to listen them. In the world of litigation, it can mean humanizing a corporation, a concept, or an experience and framing the message so the listener can relate to it on a personal level.
For example, when defending a corporation accused of wrongdoing, it’s always important for witnesses to communicate a message of pride in the workplace and a connection to something bigger than oneself.
This is not canned “I love working here” testimony, or testimony that attempts to elevate the company’s reputation. The message is aspirational when it conveys a solid work ethic, integrity, respect for peers, teamwork, opportunity, and community. More times than not, jurors, prospective clients, and even students, can connect on some level with these traits.
When trying to impart a message of any kind, consider how you can tie the takeaway to your listener’s own life. If your audience can identify with your message, the odds of making your point and making it stick increase exponentially.
Rule #8 | Visualize
When you want to engage listeners, create opportunities for them to visualize what you’re trying to convey. Years ago, I had the absolute pleasure of listening to an esteemed criminal defense attorney, Tyrone Moncriffe, speak on the impact of visualization. He asked audience members to close their eyes and to join him on a journey to the refrigerator. Over the course of a few minutes, his skillful storytelling quite literally caused audience members to salivate. By the end of the story, we were – at least in our minds – drinking the perfect glass of freshly made lemonade.
Dr. Luntz sums up the power of visualization nicely:
[V]isualizing has as much to do with words as it does with pictures, and there is one word in the English language that automatically triggers the process of visualization by its mere mention…: imagine. [It] is perhaps the single most powerful communication tool because it allows individuals to picture whatever personal vision is in their hearts and minds.
In the courtroom, ask jurors to imagine the plight of your client in the most evocative, empathetic terms you can muster. If you can get them to empathize with your client, you’re halfway there.
Rule #9 | Ask a Question
I’ve written before about the power of a rhetorical question, and I’m a fan of strategically incorporating them into your messaging repertoire. Whether you’re giving a speech, a pitch, or an opening statement, a rhetorical question engages listeners on multiple levels. It can cause them to tap into a personal memory, recall previous evidence or things learned, ponder hypotheses and brainstorm possible solutions. It’s really a win-win most of the time.
One will suffice. Perhaps two. But you may distract rather than persuade if you go overboard.
Although procedural rules prohibit argument during opening statement, there’s nothing that prevents you from using a rhetorical question to make your point. For example, in a trucking fatality case, simply telling jurors that the company’s driver caused the accident because he was speeding is one thing; incorporating a rhetorical question designed to evoke fear is quite another.
For example, if you show a photograph of a damaged vehicle, you can add power to the visual by saying something like this: “Can you imagine how fast this 80,000-pound truck had to be going to cause this kind of damage?” If you’re the plaintiff, you want jurors to conclude the driver must have been driving at an extremely high – and dangerous – speed. The image, coupled with the rhetorical question, becomes more persuasive than simply saying, “And the evidence will show that the driver was speeding.”
Rule #10 | Provide Context and Relevance
Most humans are more invested in a decision when they reach conclusions on their own. This holds true for most settings: the classroom, the boardroom, and the courtroom.
In the world of jury consulting and litigation strategy, we often discuss storytelling, communicating the “here’s why this matters” and “here’s how it all fits together” portions of your message. Potential clients, conference attendees, judges and jurors really can’t accept the value or importance of your message until they understand the context and the purpose.
Simply stated: if your intended audience cannot identify with your message in a personal, individual, and meaningful way, the odds of your listeners buying in to what you’re selling diminishes greatly.
The danger in the legal industry is that we often get so caught up in our own version of the events, or the power of our own messaging, that we forget about the decision-maker: John and Jane Juror. What do they value? Desire? And, what matters to them, and why?
I once consulted on a complex patent infringement matter. There was some conflict within the trial team about best strategies, so we conducted pretrial research to discover what jurors needed to hear. After all, they would be the deciders of our client’s fate and we knew that our messaging needed to meet their expectations and needs.
What we discovered was that jurors were more interested in the relationship between the third-party patent holder and plaintiff than our client’s use of the patent. This completely changed the trajectory of the trial strategy and we re-tested things with a subsequent focus group. The feedback confirmed that we were on the right track.
The trial team and clients were now armed with persuasive talking points, strategic argument, and confidence that the case was potentially winnable.
Try One On for Size
There are a number of simple adjustments you can make to take your communication skills up a notch, and this blog series covers ten of them! Try just one on for size and see how it fits. You might just decide to keep it in your repertoire and add a few more.