Everyone has a story. And everyone likes to hear a story. Think about it: From the time we are little when we’re being tucked into bed at night, or riding in the car, we loved having stories read or told to us. Now, we tell stories to our children and to our grandchildren, and we relish their reactions to the stories we tell. We tell stories to our friends and our significant others. Stories are passed along from generation to generation; stories keep cultures and traditions alive.
As trial lawyers, we are storytellers by nature. The ability of each of us to tell our client’s story in the most compelling way—whether it be to judge, jury, or prosecutor—is a must.
So, what makes a good story great? And, what makes a good storyteller a great storyteller?
In storytelling, we have all heard about the drama triangle with the rescuer, the persecutor, and the victim at each point. Dr. Stephen Karpman developed this drama triangle decades ago as a model to show the various roles of human interaction in conflict situations. We have all heard, and probably use, some version of Dr. Karpman’s drama triangle. At the start of any criminal case, the persecutor is our client, the victim is the actual victim or complainant, and the rescuer is the lead detective or the prosecutor. In order to be successful, we have to tell our stories to a jury such that the triangle flips, and the jury—rather than the police or prosecutor—becomes the rescuer of our client who is the victim (versus the complainant), and the persecutor is the lead investigator, the analyst, the prosecutor, etc. (instead of our client). Flipping the drama triangle is done through effective storytelling. It’s much easier said than done, though.
Every story, regardless of where or to whom it’s told, has a clear message or theme. So, too, must the stories that we tell in courtrooms. Sometimes the message or theme is apparent from the beginning and sometimes not. It’s there, though. We just have to find it and communicate it in a clear way.
The characters in our stories must have dimension. The jury must be able to really know the characters, whether those characters are our client, the complainant, the officer, or the eyewitness. And the jury must be able to see what motivates them. We must give these characters dimension (or not), depending on their role in the story.
Authenticity and passion are what turn good storytellers into great storytellers, no matter the venue. We must have some sort of connection with our client. It comes naturally in some cases and with some clients, but we must always work to cultivate that authenticity and passion. It takes time—investing our time to get to really know their story so we can effectively tell the story of the case. Juries can always spot a fake. Being genuine is what matters. If we don’t believe the story we are telling, we can’t expect a jury to believe it either.
In short, great storytellers invest their time, patience, and energy into their stories. Great storytellers take the time to develop the story, invest patience to discover the heart of the story, and give the energy to tell the story. With every story we tell—whether to our children, grandchildren, family, or friends—we have a chance to practice and improve our storytelling skills. We can, and should, also learn from those whose stories we enjoy hearing. We generally know someone in our circle who can just tell a really good story—someone who is a gifted storyteller. Study that person; what makes them a great storyteller?
It can be scary to stand in front of a group of captive strangers (i.e., a jury) and genuinely tell a story. Standing alone in the well of the courtroom with only the sound of your own voice can feel simultaneously terrifying and empowering. But it’s important to tell the story. Win, lose, or draw, it matters to our clients. It matters to our system of justice.
Enjoy the great stories in this issue from two great storytellers. You’ll find the Saga of Slippery Sam Cates an intriguing read, and Mr. Hart’s experience with discrimination, as told by his lawyer, is compelling. And, as always, we welcome and invite your stories, too.