Saturday, April 13, 2019
It is quiet and dark. The theater is hushed. James Bond skirts along the edge of a building as his enemy takes aim. Here in the audience, heart rates increase and palms sweat. I know this to be true because instead of enjoying the movie myself, I am measuring the brain activity of a dozen viewers. For me, excitement has a different source: I am watching a neural ballet in which a story line changes the activity of people’s brains.
That's from Paul Zak, founding Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies. Recently, scientists strapped brain-scanning and other sensors to a group of test subjects and had them watch a Bond movie. The researchers wanted to see how people reacted physically and neurologically to a good story.
"When James Bond found himself in stressful situations--like hanging from a cliff or fighting a bad guy--the audience’s pulses raced. They sweated. Their attention focused." In other words, the subjects connected with the hero on a physiological level, experiencing what Bond was experiencing. And something else: the participant's brains synthesized a neurochemical called oxytocin.
Oxytocin's influential power on our minds is well-documented. And stories trigger it.
Take another study showing that when we read a story, the neural activity in our brain increases fivefold. Neuroscientists have a saying: “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This increased activity, no doubt, makes it much more likely that readers will remember a story over some other random information.
Research shows that the mere act of reading a story changes how we think. In a 2011 study, participants read stories with strangers. The results? Storytelling, the researchers concluded, “fostered empathy, compassion, [and] tolerance.” Reading a cohesive story (of any kind) affects us. It makes information more palatable and more memorable. This is all piled on top of the long-standing cognitive science research showing that nearly all of our thinking is done by constructing story-like schemas and categories in our minds.
In short: research proves that storytelling engages readers, it burns information into their memories, and it forges the sort of close bonds that you need to persuade them. If anything, these powers are most important for lawyers. We legal writers are desperate to engage our readers--and to get them to care--amid the constant legal noise. Storytelling can cut through that noise and touch our readers on deep levels.
Legal storytelling is a field and art to itself, but I thought I would offer some core storytelling tools that you can easily incorporate into your legal writing.
1. Start with a movie-trailer paragraph.
Try taking a paragraph or two at the outset of your factual story to spool up a preview of the best scenes. If your fact section is the movie then this initial section is your movie-trailer. You will not only excite and engage your readers, but you'll lay out the basic storyline so they can better sort the details as they go (an important cognitive science tool).
The two tricks here are to (1) roadmap the basic storyline and theme ("this is a corporate bullying case") and to play a highlight reel of some of your best material to prime readers and get their emotions in the right place. I've seen good movie-trailers take up a few paragraphs or a few sentences. Take this one from a recent SCOTUS case--it doesn't get more simple or persuasive than this:
Justice Kagan is a fan of the movie trailer. Here she sets up the story in the Sherman case last term:
The thrust of the complaint is that plaintiff has worked at the defendant’s store for several years and repeatedly complained about sexual harassment. For example, he complained that his supervisor allegedly made comments about his ‘great stature.’ Eventually, the defendant acted, but by then, plaintiff alleged he had already been harassed so much that he quit.
Here's an example of a lawyer also adding some helpful roadmap to his trailer:
Three periods in plaintiff’s employment are relevant here. First, plaintiff offers allegations about when he was interviewed and how the defendant made promises to him then, like that he would be a foreman within six months. Second, plaintiff alleges that over the next six months, his job turned out to be a “glorified secretary…”
2. Uncover your familiar plot and highlight it.
We all know the good storylines: the underdog who defeats the bully, rags to riches, the do-gooder who is underestimated by everyone in town. We are hardwired to be moved by these storylines. The good news is that you can construct an emotional storyline out of just about any situation, if you look hard enough. Once you've distilled down your basic plot so that you can relate it in a sentence or two--highlight it at the outset of your story and throughout your brief.
Supreme Court high-flyer (and one of my favorite legal writers) Deepak Gupta gets the value of building a simple and emotional storyline at the outset. With these couple paragraphs, Gupta injects his factual theme, storyline, and the punchiest snippets of his factual story. In short, the big bad credit card companies are pulling the wool over innocent consumers' eyes--to the tune of billions:
Here's another example. This time, it's a story of vulture debt buyers looking to prey on the weak:
3. Deftly weave emotional facts into the story (even when they are not strictly relevant).
Legal readers hate reading facts that are obviously not relevant to the legal questions they are wrangling with. But if you insert those same facts into a cohesive story about the facts that do matter--your readers will never get wise. For example, Justice Kagan mentions in this snippet below how much the plaintiff spent on fees, even though this fact really had nothing to do with the legal questions presented to the court. But because this fact was weaved into the story about the background that was relevant--you'd never know:
We legal writers are often too specific about things that don’t matter. The problem is that when you give your readers a bunch of specific details without purpose, they get confused. They try to remember everything, not knowing what they'll need for the legal analysis later.
So cut dates, amounts, names, and any other details that won't help you win on the merits. Look how this federal district judge avoids inundating the reader with dates, page numbers, and needless details that other lawyers and judges love to squeeze in:
Late last year attorney Denton Jackson filed a chapter 13 bankruptcy case  for debtor Sarah O’Neill. Shortly after filing the case, Jackson filed a form fee application, Form No. 23. In the portion of the application entitled “Use of Model Retention Agreement,” Jackson checked the box indicating: “The attorney and the debtor(s) have entered into the Court’s Model Retention Agreement.” Some months later, chapter 13 trustee Thomas Lanner objected to Jackson’s application because the [Model Retention Agreement] between Jackson and the debtor . . . attached an “addendum” that prescribed fees in addition to the flat fee to which Jackson was entitled.
5. Try to tell a complete, cohesive story about any important factual events.
Make sure to tell a complete story--beginning, middle, and end--for any event that matters. Readers get skeptical when there are obvious plot holes. So answer natural narrative questions readers will likely have. Consider telling the story in a familiar arc:
setting > characters > complication/conflict > resolution (how they got to court)
This is a familiar and easy to understand format for readers (as a preview for later--you can use this same structure when telling stories about the rules, too).
Some other story elements to keep in mind:
- Consider whose perspective might be the best to follow as you deliver the facts. The defendant? The plaintiff? Some third party?
- Focus on people or entities when possible. Frame the story as actions they took out leading to the issues or dispute.
- Provide your reader with helpful context to set up those important factual events. How did the plaintiff and defendant come to meet? Why were they where they were that night? You don’t want to lose your reader in irrelevant details, but if some factual events are critical, it will be much easier for your reader if you set the scene first.
Here's some nice scene-setting about why there are so few debt-buying firms, which sets up the critical factual events in the case:
Here's a great example of a lawyer telling the whole story and paying attention to familiar story elements:
Here's another cohesive story. Notice how the lawyer keeps the facts in the perspective of the entities, not abstracts. Note also the editorials about what the entities were thinking at the time:
Defendant Oztark co. launched it’s company last year to help individuals who want to charter a private plane. It filled out its corporate paperwork with the state of Delaware, but it forgot to send in a check to cover the corporate registration fee. Delaware, in turn, sent its request for payments to the wrong address—so Oztark never realized it’s mistake. Oztark then started providing services, not realizing that it was effectively not a legal corporation . . .
Here's an example of some scene setting that lays out how different parties relate to each other. Is it all legally relevant? Probably not. But it sure helps keep the story straight:
6. Share specific details that make a point (rather than telling your reader why they matter).
This is a classic and always important: Use choice details to lead your readers to the emotions and images you want, don't just tell them what matters.
So instead of telling your reader that “plaintiff was severely and permanently injured” share the specific details: “Plaintiff’s hips were both broken.”
But choose specific details with care. Juicy details will build imagery in your reader’s mind, making the story come to life. And if you choose the wrong details you might lose control.
7. Use tools to emphasize the good facts.
Emphasize the best facts by describing them with the best style. Imagery-laden, vibrant, and pithy writing is memorable. And using this sort of writing when talking about the good facts will make them stick.
You can emphasize key facts by placing them in positions of emphasis like the beginning and endings of paragraphs, the beginning or end of sections, and the ending of sentences. You can also emphasize these facts by repeating them subtly, say, in your introduction, in your fact headings, in your movie-trailer section, and in your conclusions.
Another important way to emphasize key facts is to tell a more detailed story about them. The more details and time you spend setting up a factual event, the more it will be emphasized for your reader. Justice Kagan gets it here, as she spends two paragraphs revealing every detail leading up to the critical event of the banner being unfurled:
Respondent Joseph Frederick, a senior, was late to school that day. When he arrived, he joined his friends (all but one of whom were students) across the street from the school to watch the event. Not all the students waited patiently. Some became rambunctious, throwing plastic cola bottles and snowballs and scuffling with their classmates.
Then came the incident we are concerned with here. As the torchbearers and camera crews passed by, Frederick and his friends unfurled a 14–foot banner bearing the phrase: “BONG HiTS 4 JESUS.” The large banner was easily readable by the students on the other side of the street.” - Morse v. Frederick, 551 U.S. 393 (modified)
8. Use the first sentence of fact paragraphs to persuasively frame and prime.
Like I mentioned recently in "The Strength of the Start," first sentences are powerful. Use the first sentences of your fact paragraphs to set up the persuasive pitch for all the facts that come after. Gupta does just that here:
9. Use your own voice and narration whenever possible.
Any good storyteller will tell you that half of this art is in the voice: the power, the pauses, the pitch. For writers, this is tricky, because you must craft a "written voice." One of the big pitfalls here is to let fact quotes drown out your own narration. So consider using some of my prior pointers about quoting here, and keep other people's voices to a minimum. Check out how (yes again) Gupta keeps quotes to a minimum while maintaining his own narrative tone throughout:
Defang unhelpful facts by surrounding them with helpful facts (the "halo"), by placing them in the middle of paragraphs, by not repeating them, and by sharing less detail or spending less time exploring their nuances.
But top lawyers will all agree that you should not ignore the bad facts that the other side is sure to raise. That just makes them that more powerful in the other side's hands. But here is an example of an attorney deftly putting bad facts into context. Instead of saying: "Defendant admits he punched the plaintiff in the face," the lawyer says:
Defendant is a nurse. He has never done anything violent. He was being beaten from three sides and—to save his own life—flailed and made contact with one of the assailants in the face. There were no injuries.
11. Use headings to separate the story's different scenes.
This may be the most helpful fact tool: separate different factual events with headings so that your readers can keep track. Good headings also allow you to help your reader understand what matters from each section.
For example, this lawyer plucks out the key facts about how long it took to file a motion:
A. The plaintiff waited to file the motion until three months after receiving documents.
Here's another Gupta example of headings that preview key facts and help readers keep track of all the different parts of a single, cohesive story:
12. Telling the rules' story.
One of the most powerful stories is a type you might not think about: Rule stories.
Really, every rule is a story. Whether it be a statute, a common law principle, or the reasoning of a court case. Some situation or circumstance gave birth to the rule. The rule grew over time--changed, expanded. Perhaps it matured into a more flexible version of itself, benefiting from the wisdom of experience. Or maybe it became strict and unyielding after too many litigants took advantage of it.
There is a lot of magic to explore here. For one, when you have a critical rule interpretation that may make or break your brief--telling the rule's life story can be the most memorable, engaging, and persuasive tool in your belt. Rule stories just beg to be read.
Most legal writers would introduce a rule like this:
The Free Exercise Clause does not exempt religious persons from laws of general applicability. Employment Division v. Smith, 494 U.S. 872 (1990).
Once your reader absorbs your rule's story, it will be hard for them to shake. The other side's surface interpretation of the rule will ring hollow.
Another power of the rule story is that it gives you flexibility. Root around long enough in any rule's past, and you'll find some skeletons. Perhaps a shotty case that caused a twist in the law that never should have been there. Or some assumptions or factual circumstances that suggest an entirely different purpose animated the rule than what you might expect. You can take more liberty when interpreting rules as a storyteller rather than a scrivener.
Joe Regalia is a law professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, William S. Boyd School of Law and regularly leads workshops training legal writing and technology. The views he expresses here are solely his own and not intended to be legal advice. Check out his other articles and writing tips here.