A Good Story Guides Good Argument

Quick, what’s the story with that brief, petition, or argument you were last working on? What’s it all about?

If you spent more than thirty seconds answering, you may want to call your grandmother and start working on a clear, concise and memorable story that accurately explains what you’re trying to communicate. If you don’t, whoever hears or reads what you’re working on will and you (or your client) might not like what they come up with.

Whenever you communicate there are at least two stories being written: the one you intended and the one perceived.  To effectively communicate, you have to be good at one to have a shot at effectively influencing the other.

Even the best communicators can’t hope to capture an 100% of an audience’s attention 100% of the time. Unfortunately, audiences use whatever they get and cobble together a synopsis that may or may not accurately reflect what you set out to communicate. So it’s vital that every atom of your argument, correspondence, or story begin with and return to a single, compelling, and memorable idea.

Judges, jurors, colleague, movie goers–constantly and unconsciously–compose a summary of what’s going on. Someone hears nine months of testimony and remembers only that, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Someone sees an Academy award winning movie and describes it as, “Teen fails to get abortion, ruins lives.”

Jurors have been shown to actively organize information they receive into a narrative framework. The story framework is so powerful that one study demonstrated how an attorney’s promised testimony of innocence in opening arguments caused jurors to be more sympathetic to the defendant even though the evidence was never presented. More amazingly, the jurors were more likely to recall actually hearing the promised testimony.

As attorneys we get hung up on the many and varied reasons why something must be right or wrong. We compile arguments, cases and counterarguments, each one interdependent on a series of assumptions and precedents and so on and so forth. Attorneys seldom take pity on their listeners who can so easily get lost in this forest of ideas. After law school and years wrapped in legal research and writing, we forget how damn impenetrable the law can often be. Tell us the what you’re trying to say, tell us again, and tell us one last time.

To play a more active role in your audience’s perception of what you bring them, think of them first by defining the very core of your argument. Its clarity, memorability and meaning defines everything. A good story core should have these characteristics:

  1. Succinct. Resist the temptation to throw the kitchen sink into this sentence as only attorneys can do. Make it a simple, declarative sentence that expresses a single thought. Pretend you’re in an elevator with your audience and you have a thirty-second ride to tell them everything.
  2. Relevant. This should be a bit redundant as your entire argument should be tailored to your audience but this kernel must be especially plain spoken. Pretend that you’re explaining your brilliant legal argument to your grandmother or grade-school daughter. Brutally eliminate every single shred of legal mumbo-jumbo.
  3. Prevalent. It must be incorporated and related to throughout your argument. Think of your argument as a mobile and this sentence must be the point everything else hangs off of. You may have different cores for different audiences. A test of its utility is to see how directly you can relate every detail of your argument to the core.

Once you have that, you have a shot of your argument being recalled in a way that’s constructive to you. More importantly, you will begin to eliminate the counterproductive repetition, detail and mumbo-jumbo that might have gone into an audience’s unflattering portrait of your argument.

Now, what was that brief you were working on about?


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