Telling the Jury a Compelling Story

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The general rule in organizing statements presented to the jury is the same used by teachers with children: Tell them what you’re going to tell them; tell them; and then tell them what you’ve told them.

The trial format itself echoes this general rule:

 

  1. The opening statement is the first opportunity to “tell them what you’re going to tell them;”
  2. Through the evidence that comes in, you do “tell them;” and
  3. In the closing argument, you “tell them what you’ve told them.”

In addition, you should use the opening statement and the final argument as vehicles for repetition, more or less like this:

I will now discuss with you what the evidence will or did show in this case, and why we will ask you to find in favor of Joe Smith, my client; the evidence will be or was as follows, and that is why Joe Smith will be or is entitled to your verdict at the end of the case or today.

Remember, too, that if a juror hears a fact once, she believes that it’s possibly true; if she hears it twice, she figures it is probably true; but if she hears it a third time, then she can’t get it out of her mind.

It’s also the way that you say what you say, the particular words that you choose, that can make a difference. You want to tell a story and you want to do it in evocative language that exudes connotations favorable to, and mental images suggestive of, your theory of the case. And keep your language simple; you want the jurors to grasp the issues and not feel confused or intellectually inadequate.

It’s generally not a good idea to write out your opening statement or closing argument, because if you have a text, you may be tempted to read it. And if you read it, you have instantly lost most of your effectiveness. But using an outline listing each essential point and noting each important exhibit can be very helpful.

The traditional story begins with a time (“Once upon a time”), a place (“in the State of Kansas”), a cast of characters (“there was a girl named Dorothy, who lived with her Aunt and Uncle”), and a problem (“then there came a great tornado”). Eventually, after the story is told, there comes a resolution (“there’s no place like home”). The trial and both the opening and closing should follow this format and, ideally, conclude with a happy ending—a verdict in your favor.

Want more great tips on developing and presenting an effective story for the jury? Turn to CEB’s Persuasive Opening Statements and Closing Arguments, chap 2.

Related CEB blog posts:

© The Regents of the University of California, 2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

8 Responses

  1. Great topic, Julie. I’m not sure jury experts would agree with the suggested first sentence, but here’s the single biggest tip that I would offer lawyers who are writing their case story:

    CHRONOLOGY IS NOT A STORY. Too many lawyers think that just telling the facts in the order in which they happened is their case story. So untrue. As I point out in CLE’s, in any fact pattern there are 20 ways to tell the Story; 18 of them stink; 1 is OK; and 1 is good or better. Fact-driven, data-driven people — which good litigators are, especially by the latter stages of a lawsuit when mediation & trial are on the horizon — aren’t generally gifted at finding the right way to tell the Story that will connect with laypeople who haven’t spent two years with the case. It’s worth considering contracting that task out.

    Also, a Story does not contain every single fact known to the storyteller. Too many lawyers think that it is facts that win lawsuits; it’s not. Persuasion does not occur by the hearer receiving more facts. Every single person who thinks President Obama was born in Kenya heard all the facts but was not persuaded. Facts do not persuade.

    I suggest Robert McKee’s book ‘Story’ for a great course on how to think about Story.

  2. I like to try and weave an important theme of the case into the story and repeat it as I go through the evidence. For example, if I’m defending a company against a wrongful termination case, theme might be “and that’s why he was fired – because he didn’t do his job”. Don’t flog the theme to death but repeating it 4-5 times after mentioning critical evidence will help hook that into the jury’s mind. I never understood the importance of opening statements until a juror once told me that I won the case after my opening statement….

  3. I hate to say it, but this all holds true for the mediator or arbitrator, too. Though your audience is different, and hopefully more sophisticated, when you’re addressing a professional neutral, we still need the story told to us in a way that is logical, linear, chronological and concise. This holds true for both writing pre-hearing briefs and for verbal discussions and opening statements.

    While a mediation opening statement is very different from a trial or arbitration opening statement (http://www.mediationtools.com/articles/advopening.html), clarity is nevertheless critical. And even if you have already briefed the facts, while it’s not important to repeat them, your opening statement can be useful to organize the facts in a way that is easily digestible and that tells the story in the way that you want it told.

    Thanks Julie for yet another excellent post. And as always, I invite your readers to contact me with any questions they may have about mediation or arbitration.

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