The Reason Storytelling Works

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01Apr2010

The Reason Storytelling Works

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By Brad Bradshaw, Ph.D., Bradshaw Litigation Consulting

“Storytelling” is an unfortunate name for an extremely important concept. When used in a non-legal context “storytelling” has a negative connotation – denoting myth or even deception. However, in the legal arena the term “storytelling”’ refers to both the emotional and descriptive elements of the case that provides context and meaning to the facts. Facts are important but facts are not the story.

There are several reasons that presenting a case as a story is favorable over presenting a case as a set of isolated facts. One reason is retention. If two groups of people are presented with the exact same information – Group 1 as a list of facts and Group 2 in the format of a story – the second group will always retain more of the information than the first. This happens for several reasons. First, a well told story will prompt the listener to think visually about the information. Creating a mental representation of the events helps solidify the information in long-term memory. Second, stories tie information together like the links on a chain. Therefore, if a listener is able to recall one piece of information, it is likely that he or she will remember other information that was presented in close proximity. Third, people are accustomed to receiving information in the format of a story. Nearly all of our entertainment is presented as a story because doing so keeps the audience’s attention. Boring information (e.g., a list of dates and facts) prompts the mind to drift and the information is not received.

Another benefit to storytelling is that it delivers information the same way people organize information. Humans think in terms of a story. That is, in our everyday lives we have the tendency to take very limited information, assess that information based on our life experiences, and then speculate about the missing information in order to complete a story that makes sense. This process occurs naturally, without any conscious effort, and is the mechanism by which we make sense of the world around us. The way a jury processes a case is no different. Therefore, if an attorney does not provide a sensible story from the very beginning, the jury will speculate in order to create one (or several) themselves. The more they are allowed to speculate, the less predictable the verdict will be. That is not to say that storytelling eliminates speculation entirely because it is impossible to tell a story that includes every possible detail. However, by presenting the case in the format of a story, jurors will fill in the gaps in conjunction with the information that was presented. Therefore, assumptions remain fairly predictable.

For example, let’s assume a medical malpractice case involves a doctor who was paged during his dinner and had to rush to the hospital to help treat victims of a bus accident. Without presenting the case as a story (which would include descriptive information about the people involved), it would not be altogether surprising for a juror to speculate that the doctor was drinking alcohol during his dinner and his drunkenness was the reason the patient did not survive (we see this type of speculation all the time in mock trial deliberations). Despite no mentioning of alcohol or any allegations that the doctor had been drinking, jurors consistently make this type of assumption. However, if the defense attorney tells a story about a trustworthy, reliable doctor (and jurors accept that story), assumptions become more predictable. In this example, jurors would be less likely to assume the doctor was drunk because that is not what trustworthy, reliable doctors do. From the juror’s perspective, the story makes more sense if the doctor was sober. Without the story to provide context, the attorney has very little control over the speculation. It is not possible to predict every potential gap the jury will want to fill, so it is much more effective to shape the context by which they will evaluate the gaps in the story. In short, storytelling helps control speculation by providing context.

Finally, when a case is told as a story, jurors are more likely to find something in the case with which they can relate. Stories are about people – who did what and why? Providing a list of facts may influence the way a jury thinks, but it will not influence the way they feel. By presenting the case as a story, thereby providing the context and emotional element, an attorney can influence the way jurors feel about the case. Consider the typical contract case. Very few jurors will be able to relate to the inner workings of the average contract case. However, by presenting the information in the format of a story, jurors will be able to relate to the case because the focus is not on the contract – the focus is on the people who agreed to the contract. Telling a convincing story influences the way the jurors feel about the people involved in the case and can prompt an internal motivation to do what is right.

Gregory (Brad) Bradshaw, Ph.D., is a litigation consultant based in Nashville, Tennessee. Dr. Bradshaw helps attorneys prepare for mediation, arbitration, and trial, anywhere in the country. For more information, please visit www.bradshawlitigation.com or call (615) 739-6553.

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