Oregon State Bar Bulletin — FEBRUARY/MARCH 2003

Using storytelling to make your case
By David J. Dempsey

The best orator is one who can make men see with their ears.
—Arab saying

Great speakers are engaging storytellers. Stories captivate an audience, and powerful stories will be remembered long after a presentation is completed. A powerful story sparks the imaginations of the audience members or jurors.

Successful trial attorneys are masterful storytellers. They engage the jurors on a visceral level with the magic of storytelling. They polish all the details of their stories, and they make their stories come alive. They ensure that their evidence is consistent with the story, and if it is not, they explain that to the jury. They do not permit inconsistencies in the evidence to diminish the impact of their story.


Consider several ways in which an opening statement involving an automobile accident might be delivered to a jury. An attorney could simply convey details:

'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: This case involves a horrible automobile accident in which my client, Mr. Gleason, was severely injured. He suffers permanent paralysis. Mr. Gleason’s life has been dramatically altered, and he will be confined to a wheelchair for the remainder of his life.'

While factually correct, this opening is feeble and flat. It may engage the jurors on an intellectual level (they understand the facts that the attorney is sharing), but not on an emotional level (they feel no connection with the injured party). Moreover, this version also involves vague concepts like 'severely.' This word will have dramatically different meanings to different members of the jury, depending on their life experiences.

Imagination is more important than knowledge.
—Albert Einstein

On the other hand, a skilled attorney who understands and capitalizes on the impact of powerful stories might explain what happened in the following manner:

'Ladies and gentlemen of the jury: At 8:45 A.M., Sunday, Sept. 22, Albert Gleason, the manager of the Ace Hardware store on Main Street, was enjoying a morning drive with his seven-year-old son, Justin. They both looked forward to this special time together because Albert’s job required long hours. This was their time to catch up, their time to talk like a father and son.

'They were traveling south on Peachtree Street near the Brookhaven Marta train station, enjoying the beautiful, sunny day, when Justin suddenly let out a piercing scream: ‘Dad, look out!’ Albert reacted instinctively and immediately slammed on the brakes when he saw the gigantic sport utility vehicle being driven by the defendant in this case, Devon Cutler III, barreling through the stop sign. Mr. Cutler admits that he was distracted, even agitated, as he held his cell phone while negotiating the terms of a very significant transaction.

'Albert could not avoid the collision. The next thing he recalls was a bone-shattering impact, the horrific sounds of metal ripping and glass shattering as the mammoth mountain of steel slammed broadside into the Gleasons’ Toyota Corolla. As the Corolla’s air bag exploded, Albert’s head was snapped violently back. He felt warm blood trickling down his forehead and into his eyes, but when he went to wipe it, he could not, because he had no movement in his arms. He was paralyzed, his neck shattered. Worse, he felt totally helpless because he was unable to help his son, who was screaming uncontrollably. He cried out to his son, ‘Justin, Justin, Justin!!!’ That is the last image Albert remembers before he lost consciousness.'

The second story is gripping because it speaks to the audience members on an emotional level. They relive the accident with the attorney because the story is so vivid and realistic. They understand the fear a parent experiences when his child is in danger; they can visualize the horror of a sport utility vehicle crashing into a much smaller passenger car; and they feel the terror of being trapped in a vehicle, paralyzed.

Let thy speech be better than silence, or be silent.
—Dionysius the Elder

How could the attorney describe Albert’s injuries? Paralysis is a concept that is alien to most jurors. Since most enjoy good health, they take for granted the ability to engage in ordinary, day-to-day functions. Describe the injuries in terms that jurors understand:

'Albert’s neck was shattered in the accident. He will never walk again, never drive a car, never toss a ball with Justin. Every day, it takes Albert nearly two hours to get out of bed and get ready for the day. Two hours. He cannot do that himself — he requires the assistance of a male nurse 24 hours a day. He cannot comb his hair, brush his teeth or put on his socks. He is fed, sponge bathed and dressed by his nurse. He can do nothing for himself. He is forever confined to a wheelchair, a prisoner in his own body.'

These details will connect with the jury on a human level, in a manner that simply telling the jury that Albert is permanently paralyzed will not. Helping the jury understand the overwhelming problems Albert faces every day while engaging in activities that they take for granted drives home the catastrophic impact of his injuries. The jury can understand the severity of Albert’s injuries on a much more personal level.


What techniques can attorneys use to craft their stories for maximum impact? Here are a few ideas:

1. Titillate the senses. A mesmerizing story engages the senses, the emotions and the intellect of the jurors and audience members. Make the characters in your story come alive by incorporating the techniques of the master storytellers: use different tones of voice to demonstrate the different characters, exaggerate your gestures, use expressive body language and pause to create drama and suspense. Do not just tell the audience that there was a 'loud noise' or an 'awful smell.' Describe the frightening shattering of glass, the squeal of the tires, the violent shredding of metal; describe the acrid smell of burning rubber and chemicals. Make your listeners experience your story by describing the events in a way that will touch their senses, and the message will be much more powerful.

We think in generalities, we live in detail.
—Alfred North Whitehead

2. Constantly gather stories. You must constantly look for ideas that you can weave into stories. . . . Masterful storytellers are always alert for material they can use to convey their stories. The events they experience or read or hear about every day, and the lessons they teach, are captured in their notes, in their journals or on their computers.

3. Display emotions. Your delivery must be congruent with the message. Passion, fear, love, antipathy and anger are powerful emotions. If you tell an audience that a plaintiff was angry when he entered the house, but you do so without inflection, passion or a sense of urgency in your voice, and without body language that displays anger. Your message will be far less effective. The audience will not feel the emotion.

4. Strive for universal appeal. What is the universal message found in your story? Is it about overcoming obstacles, perseverance under the most trying circumstances, the meaning of courage or the definition of a hero? Successful attorneys use the power of a story to teach and to demonstrate lessons learned from experiences.

What lesson did you learn by continuing to try out for the swim team or the cheerleading squad despite being repeatedly cut during tryouts? What lessons in perseverance and optimism does your disabled child teach you? What message can you share about the feelings you experienced as you witnessed your grandfather and grandmother renew their wedding vows after being married for 70 years?

Those lessons will resonate with any audience since they have universal appeal. Everyone has real-life experiences that can become the vehicle for a universal message that will move and teach any audience. These experiences should be your starting point.

What comes from the heart, goes to the heart.
—Samuel Coleridge

5. Make the point of the story clear. Although stories are a wonderful way to connect with an audience, you must ensure that the story is relevant to your presentation. If it is an interesting but irrelevant story, it will only confuse the audience. Moreover, it will dilute the impact of your message.

6. Describe people, not concepts. People are always fascinated with human-interest stories. Tell your audience about real people — the firefighters who raced into a burning office building, the athlete who failed again and again but refused to quit, the teacher who sacrificed lucrative opportunities because of his love for teaching. Your jury or audience will not relate to abstract concepts like the 'reasonable man.' Audience members and jurors do not care about abstract concepts. They care about real people and real events.

[The passions] are the winds that fill the ship’s sails. Sometimes they submerge the ship, but without them the ship could not sail.

7. Deliver the details. If you tell an audience about a 'car,' the audience members are filtering that word through their perceptions. To some, it will mean a sport utility vehicle; to others, a European sedan; to others, a compact domestic model. But if you mention a 'shiny, black Chevrolet Corvette,' it conjures up an exact picture. Use details to help your audience visualize.

Author Gene Griessman eloquently describes the power of our words to make our stories vivid: 'Words can reveal thoughts, conceal pain, paint dreams, correct errors, and pass along dearly bought lessons to the latest generation. Words can transport knowledge from the past, interpret the present, and speak to the future. Words can build walls between people, or bridges. Words can tear down or build up, wound or heal, tarnish or cleanse.'

One of the most flattering compliments that you can be paid as a speaker is to have jurors or audience members recall the details of your story months, even years, after a presentation. If that happens, you created vivid images that made a lasting impact. That should be your ultimate objective.

David J. Dempsey is a practicing trial attorney and a general partner in the Atlanta, Ga., firm of Coleman & Dempsey. This article has been excerpted from his new book, 'Legally Speaking: 40 Powerful Presentation Principles Lawyers Need to Know' (Miranda Publishing, 2002). For more information visit www. Legallyspeakingonline.com or call (800) 359-5731.

© 2003 David J. Dempsey

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