When less is more: Advocate more effectively for your client with a short and simple story
BY PAUL LUVERA
Too many lawyers are afflicted with the curse of not distinguishing the important and relevant from the unimportant and irrelevant. They either lack the skill to do so, are afraid to do so, or are just unwilling to make the effort to do so. The result is they talk too much and for too long. Remember, great ideas do not require a lot of words to express them. The Gettysburg address has 256 words. The Ten Commandments are only 297 words. The Declaration of Independence has only 300 words.
In Milo Frank’s book, How to Get Your Point Across in 30 Seconds, he cites 1990 media research showing that people were only able to give their full, undivided attention in 30-second “bites.” After 30 seconds, the mind will “wander off” unless something new or interesting occurs.
More recently, Microsoft conducted a study measuring how long people can focus on one thing. The results showed that the 30 seconds of the 1990 study had shrunk: the average attention span of the Microsoft study subjects was 12 seconds, which dropped to 8 seconds the longer the communication they were supposed to focus on continued. We live in a world of tweets, not novellas. TV news stories last 41 seconds. The median length of a network TV news package is less than two-and-a-half minutes.11 According to 2012 data from Pew Research Center Journalism & Media, available at www.journalism.org/2012/07/16/video-length/. Most TV commercials during the Super Bowl are 30 seconds long.22 https://www.marketingcharts.com/featured-116081.
Clearly, today’s communication consists of instant news seeking to capture our short attention spans. That’s why trial lawyers need to learn simplicity, clarity, and brevity in their advocacy, both written and verbal. As someone once observed, “Few sinners are saved after the first 20 minutes of a sermon.”
SHORTEN AND SIMPLIFY YOUR COMMUNICATIONS
Lawyers can learn from the methods used by journalists and other professional writers: present the facts accurately, in a straightforward manner. Successful screenwriters create compelling movie and television scripts with storylines that hold an audience’s attention. Trial lawyers should aim to do both, through short, clear, and compelling stories.
The most important tip for both written and oral stories: Tell the whole story in the first paragraph, in as few words as possible. The idea is that even if the reader doesn’t read beyond the opening paragraph, or the listener doesn’t listen beyond the first minute or two, they will know the whole story. The rest of the text or speech should expand the details of the basic story.
TELL A STORY, DON’T PRESENT A REPORT
Good communication is not only brief and understandable, it tells a story—it should not be merely a chronological, narrative report. Stories capture interest and hold it. Joseph Campbell is an acknowledged expert about story creation and storytelling. He outlined the basic format of all well-told stories, known as “the hero’s journey.” Campbell argues that all stories have the same basic outline, regardless of cultural differences. In the hero’s journey, an ordinary person is faced with a challenge. First, they avoid it, but then change their mind and take the first step to meet it. They are faced with tests, find allies, and confront enemies. In spite of the challenge, they persist, and in the end their efforts are rewarded and they triumph.
The presentation of a case can and should be told as a story, structured like a hero’s journey. Considerations for a compelling story include the following:
- The starting point of the story.
- The perspective or viewpoint from which the story will be told.
- The sequence of events that make up the content of the story.
In choosing the starting point of your client’s story, keep in mind it doesn’t have to follow the chronological sequence of events. For example, a products liability case doesn’t have to start at the injury event. It can start at the factory where the product was made or even the board room where the product was approved. The perspective the story is told from can be that of someone other than your client, such as the doctor or a witness. The order in which you present the facts that make up the content of the story is equally important. Once you decide on a starting point and a perspective, you should strive to lay out the content in a compelling sequence that holds your audience’s attention.
Tell the whole story in the first paragraph, in as few words as possible.
Here are some illustrations of these points from journalists and television and movie screenwriters:
Jimmy Breslin won a Pulitzer Prize for his work as a syndicated columnist for the New York Herald Tribune. His manner of writing about John F. Kennedy’s burial became a subject taught in journalism classes—known as “the gravedigger school of news writing”—because he wrote from the perspective of the man who dug JFK’s grave. Breslin was the only reporter to track down this man and write about the funeral from his perspective.33 Read the full article, “It’s an Honor,” here: www.thedailybeast.com/its-an-honor. Here’s how he starts the article:
Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by 11 o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
The same skill of capturing and holding an audience’s interest is demonstrated in a 2006 episode of the TV drama Boston Legal.44 David E. Kelley and Lawrence Broch. “Trick or Treat.” Boston Legal, Season 3, Episode 7. In a scene in which attorney Alan Shore (played by James Spader) is defending a juror who lied in voir dire about his true attitude regarding capital punishment, he makes this argument to the jury:
Let’s forget all about capital punishment for a minute and look at this another way. Say, a small town is having a community meeting to vote on whether or not to build a big incinerator. But before the selectmen let you into the meeting, they ask you how you feel about incinerators, and if you’re opposed to them, you don’t get to go to the meeting. Does that seem fair to any of you? Don’t we want all sides represented at a community meeting? Jury selection is supposed to work the same way. All of you, in theory, should represent a cross-section of the community. … But anyone who [is opposed to capital punishment] cannot be a juror in a federal death penalty case. This isn’t just weeding out people with idiosyncratic opinions; this is weeding out the majority. It’s strategic. We all know, intuitively, if you start talking about punishment before a trial even begins, you’re putting the idea of guilt in the forefront of everyone’s mind. Yet, presumption of innocence is the foundation of our whole justice system. Without that, we’re no better than totalitarian states who imprison and execute people on the whim of an all-powerful leader. Jerry Espenson is fundamentally, a law-abiding man, who simply saw an injustice and tried to do something about it. If he’s guilty of anything, it’s of appealing to his sense of fairness. Now, I suppose, he’s appealing to yours.
Movie scripts have also compellingly framed legal issues so as to hold the audience’s interest. In the 1991 movie Class Action, Gene Hackman, playing the role of a lawyer defending an environmental protester, says the following:
This is not a court of law. You did not enter through a doorway. That gentlemen, is the rabbit hole and we, like so many Alice’s, have plunged through it directly into Wonderland. Behold, the Queen of Hearts, Carraghan Chemical. A company that has spewed its bile into the Leffingwell River for 17 years. Plants wither. Children die. And there isn’t a court in the land that can stop them. Finally, one man has had enough. Frustrated, desperate, he slams his truck into the plant manager’s office and for one bright, shiny day, that hellhole of a factory shuts down. Do we honor him? Do we throw him a parade? Do we even say thank you? No. He is put on trial. Welcome to the Mad Hatter’s tea party. Yes, yes. He rammed through that wall. And, yes, he did shut down that hellish factory for one day. And, yes, he is responsible for damages in the amount of $427,000. How high a price is that to pay if you save just one single life?
These are three illustrations of telling facts through a compelling story using short and clearly understandable words. It is how great advocates should communicate.
The legal advocate’s role is to communicate clearly so as to persuade. In today’s world of instant communication and shrinking attention spans, we need to respond to our audiences’ needs. Good communication—whether to clients, judges, or juries—should be short and clear and should tell a compelling story. To accomplish this, consider using the techniques outlined in this article.
1. According to 2012 data from Pew Research Center Journalism & Media, available at www.journalism.org/2012/07/16/video-length/.
3. Read the full article, “It’s an Honor,” here: www.thedailybeast.com/its-an-honor.
4. David E. Kelley and Lawrence Broch. “Trick or Treat.” Boston Legal, Season 3, Episode 7.