Ambitious advocates use every means possible to persuade others to their position. And while the legal merits of law, logic, and economic advantage never lose their value, one of the most influential tools available remains the ancient art of storytelling.
Storytelling breaks through all barriers, cultures, and languages, offering the most powerful format for delivering messages that will resonate with different audiences. People use allegories to communicate, learn, and connect with others. Storytelling allows individuals to share knowledge and emotions, identify truths, find themselves and their place in communities, and make sense of the world they live in. People are virtually programmed to discover stories, patterns or morals— and this process helps them make decisions.
But you can’t become a talented storyteller by accident. These skills are honed via techniques that have been utilized over centuries. In this issue of Negotiator’s Edge, we’ll share a few lessons learned from master storytellers that will take your written and oral advocacy to the next level.
Theme is the central idea or message you want to convey to your audience. It serves as your organizing principle, and your narrative and inspiration must flow into this process. Having a clear vision of your theme before you craft your argument is paramount, so you can reinforce your theme as you finalize your memos or submissions. Your theme becomes the touchstone for all of the content in your argument. If your prose does not support, enhance or amplify your theme, it has no place in your materials or submissions.
Themes must emotionally resonate with your audience’s worldview on several levels. And keep it simple. If you include more than one or two themes in your submissions, you risk watering down their resonance or, even worse, confusing your audience. Restrict yourself to one, or at most two themes, and only if they work in harmony.
Many people find it difficult to distill the theme of their argument or story while drafting their submissions. The simplest way to discover the theme that resonates is to decide what emotion you want to illicit with your prose. This question should immediately identify a number of themes you can use.
Lawyers are trained in a tradition of stoicism, logic, argument and reasoning—and they may have trepidation about using emotion in their advocacy. But every human decision is influenced by emotion, often at key moments. If you don’t embrace sentiment as an advocacy tool, you’re weakening your position. Advocates need to tastefully embrace emotion to maximize their persuasive power.
Examples of effective themes might include:
- Mary had overcome her previous alcoholism to become a good mother before this car crash.
- The plaintiff has a long history of avoiding workplace responsibility.
- The actions of ABC company violated long respected community standards.
Verbs are the engines that drive advocacy. They’re the most important word choices you’ll make when planning arguments. The correct verb choice can transform a dull opening into a powerful and persuasive rhetoric. Conversely, the wrong verb choice can sabotage your efforts.
Always include a “verb edit” in written advocacy. This includes reviewing every verb used in the draft to decide if it’s the best choice. Avoid common and overused verbs in favour of evocative verbs that paint a clear picture and leave a lasting impression. Don’t have someone walking or running. Instead, describe how they sprinted, bolted, sauntered, swaggered, staggered or limped. With an online thesaurus, a focused verb edit doesn’t take much time, but it does pay significant dividends.
After you select the most influential verb, make sure the verb tense is applicable. Using the wrong tense can leech energy and dynamism, leaving your prose as taut as overcooked spaghetti. You don’t have to become a grammar maven to avoid this problem, just follow a few simple rules to stay out of trouble.
Avoid the “ing” form of words. Using them forces you to include supportive verbs, like “was advocating,” and forms of the verb “to be” are passive and lifeless. Consider the following examples:
She is running daily now.
She runs daily now.
She was running every morning.
She ran every morning.
She will be running tomorrow.
She will run tomorrow.
She runs tomorrow.
Similarly, avoid the passive voice, which causes similar problems. In passive voice, the subject of the sentence is acted upon, while in active voice the subject of the sentence performs the action.
Passive: The man was bitten by the dog.
Active: The dog bit the man.
The most powerful sentences are short, active, and simple. Strong subject, powerful verb, specific object. That’s the complete formula for compelling sentences that’ll have the most impact on your audience.
Readers enjoy material that moves quickly and doesn’t get bogged down in flowery language or legalese. Traditional legal writing is often too dense and technical, losing its persuasive value. Powerful written advocacy builds momentum as the work progresses, transporting the audience to the desired conclusion. Whiplash pacing is a skill you should develop.
Try using shorter sentences, as longer sentences can be confusing and slow your pacing. A good sentence only needs a strong subject, a sizzling verb, and an interesting object. Clauses and qualifiers drain the energy from your prose and often force the audience to review the sentence more than once. Not good. Instead, make your point and move along to the next topic.
Paragraphs should be short. Readers will be deterred by long unbroken blocks of text. Their eyes automatically skip through lengthy paragraphs, often missing an important point, bored before they begin. A page makes a visual impression, and that impression is more inviting when it offers significant amounts of white space.
Even if your material is dense or complex by nature, it’ll be easier for the reader to consume in bite-sized pieces rather than in big chunks. Paragraph breaks also give readers time to rest before digesting your next point.
Remove material that’s repetitive or states the obvious. Long diatribes about legal basics or undisputed facts or implications of a fact aren’t helpful. Readers want to reach their own conclusions rather than be force-fed, and can feel insulted if you include basic material that speaks down to them.
You can’t go wrong with the legendary Elmore Leonard’s writing advice: “Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip.” This means you should read your draft again from the point of view of opposing counsel and remove any material they would skip over. There’s a reason that the phrase “kill your darlings” is often used by top writers and editors.
Every good story needs a hero to cheer for or a villain to root against, and it’s your writing that will make the audience experience those emotions. If you can entice the reader to invest in a certain outcome for your client, you can control their emotions and bias them to act in your favour.
One of the most powerful techniques for creating affinity towards a person or distance someone from an individual is called “psychic distance.” This term involves the use of names or pronouns for a person, and it can make you feel closer to them—or unconnected to them—on a subconscious level. The correct use of psychic distance has been proven to produce significant emotional changes in your audience. Certain names and pronouns impact how readers feel about the subject. The closest and most intimate of those is simply “he” or “she.” Stay close and use this point of view so that readers connect to the characters in your briefs. After he or she, the next best choice is a nickname, followed by a first name, a last name, a full name, and later—ranks and group associations ranging from the smallest to the largest.
Take thriller author Steve Berry’s character Cotton Malone. His love interest calls Cotton “Pappy”. In this case, the spectrum would be from closest to most distant: he, Pappy, Cotton, Malone, Cotton Malone, Special Agent, FBI Agent, American. If you would like the reader to invest in this character, refer to him as he, Cotton, or Pappy as often as possible. If you want the reader to feel distant or hostile towards him, choose Special Agent or the American.
The same principle should be used for the parties to an action. If you are trying to build sympathy for an injured person, calling her “the plaintiff” instead of “Lizzie” is undermining your effort. To really amp up the connections, refer to the person as “he” or “she,” as often as you can, only resorting to their nickname or first name where clarity demands it.
Specific Over General
To capture the attention of your audience and sway their emotions, paint an evocative picture with your prose. While lawyers are trained logically and analytically, the latest studies share that emotion plays a role in almost every decision we make. Persuasive logic is a dynamic tool, but remains incomplete until it’s combined with an emotional prompt. This can be achieved by using powerful imagery. The clearer the image in a reader’s mind, the more impact it’ll have.
Always choose the specific over general when writing. The term “motor vehicle” is particularly diffuse and powerless. The “truck” is better. The “cherry red 1994 Ford F-150 pickup” is even stronger. Strive to be as specific as possible in your writing. Even if certain details are not relevant, the impact on readers will serve you well.
With fewer cases going to trial and judges becoming busier, strong written advocacy is critical. In the mediation context, all key parties will be exposed to written advocacy on both sides. The mediator, your client, opposing counsel, and the opposing party all need to be persuaded by your prose or writing style. In addition, other interested parties who don’t attend the mediation will be impacted by your memo. Using these influential storytelling techniques will help make your written materials shine. Advocate using your most persuasive prose and secure your clients the best results.