Lawyers rightfully pride themselves on knowing the facts, understanding the value of applying their keen analytical skills to assess that information, and using their sound reasoning skills to pull things together to influence the ultimate result. This is a highly logical approach that typically serves them, and clients, quite well.
It thus is not a surprise that many lawyers follow this pattern in areas of their professional lives that are distinct from the actual practice of law. As an example, consider the prototypical business development pitch. As a former general counsel, I sat through many such presentations. In most cases, firms were very matter-of-fact in laying out who they are, what they had accomplished, and why they should be hired.
This always was done in a friendly, professional manner, but followed a typical script: “We’re very good and will work hard for you; we have successfully handled this type of matter, and, ergo, we should be hired.” This black-and-white, straight-ahead approach sometimes worked, especially in situations where a discrete matter needed a lawyer or firm with a highly specialized skill that was hard to find. In such situations, the decision turned on having that experience.
In many other situations, though, the choice was not so simple. As good as a firm may be, there normally are quite a few others that are every bit as good, or better, and can compete on quality, price and performance. In those circumstances, intangibles were often the determining factors and tilted the balance toward one firm. Sometimes those intangibles involved personal chemistry that quickly developed in the room and, in others, it was a more general feeling that the firm and lawyer(s) were the right choice.
I often found that those intangibles rarely surfaced in the more sterile, “lay-out-the-facts” type of presentation. Rather, they frequently developed when the presenters not only brought more energy, personality and panache to the discussion, but also were able to weave in a compelling story (or two) that captured everyone’s attention. Crafting a compelling story and communicating it well was often the difference-maker that separated one firm and lawyer from another.
Great trial lawyers realize this, as they do not rely just on the facts in making their case. Rather, the most gifted trial attorneys use their opening to frame their case as a story that will unfold as the matter proceeds. They describe the case, explain where they will be going (and how they’ll get there), and, in the process, humanize the witnesses so that the jurors are fully engaged. The story, if the case proceeds as planned, is then pulled together in the closing, in the hope that it will end with a verdict that is in sync with the tale that unfolded during the trial.
Storytelling, quite simply, makes a real difference. When done well, it gives the storyteller power, as it puts him or her in a position to influence the listener. A good story transforms a passive listener into an active one, who then pays much more rapt attention.
Studies have shown that stories get the listener to start tying their own experiences to the theme that underlies the tale they are hearing. Stories provide an audience with the mental space to reach a conclusion on their own. This has a lot of value, as the storyteller thus does not have to drill that point home, which many people can resent.
There are two other benefits of becoming a good storyteller. First, utilizing a story to make your point helps to avoid the “I, I, I” syndrome in which a speaker extols all his or her great virtues and accomplishments. This is off-putting and can be avoided, as a well-crafted story can more subtly illustrate those points without them having to be overtly laid out.
Second, people remember stories and they thus have a far-reaching impact. Very few people, as time passes, will recall how many $50 million-plus M&A deals you have closed, but they are much more likely to remember the unique and well-designed story that you told about one such deal that had interesting facts and an unforgettable conclusion.
So, what makes a good story? While a full answer to that is well beyond the scope of this article, there are some essentials that apply to typical situations in which storytelling would benefit lawyers.
First, the story should not be abstract and unrelated to the matter at hand. Many of us have likely sat through presentations in which a speaker started his or her talk with a joke or story, which, despite being funny or witty, had no connection to the subject matter at hand. Such speakers lose us at the very outset and often are unable to ever reel the audience back in. The same holds true here — your story should be tied into the topic, issue or situation of the moment.
Second, the nuts and bolts of the story often have a similar structure. Initially, it is important to describe the situation that confronted you at the outset of the tale. Normally, a good story has some type of tension, protagonist and hurdle or challenge that had to be overcome, which should be explained. Of course, you will want to illustrate how you or your organization surmounted that hurdle, and, in so doing, try to focus on the unique or special factors that came into play. This is the meat of the story and is often the ultimate takeaway for the listener.
In the process of telling the story, do your best to be genuine. While some lawyers are true superheroes, most of us have foibles and, if they were in play in your story, should be described. We mortals tend to relate to those shortcomings, which will make your story more authentic. Using imagery, and giving the story some flavor, is a highly effective technique, also. Remember, though, to be succinct, as the story, although important, is just one facet of the discussion. While Garrison Keillor has an hour or more to weave his tales, you need to get to the point much more quickly.
There are a multitude of situations in which stories can play a pivotal role — which are as far-ranging as an interview with a room of questioners to a one-on-one mentoring session. Recognizing these opportunities and learning to interlace a compelling and salient story to make your point can become a highly effective tool in your arsenal of skills.
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, http://www.attycareers.com, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting and consulting firm that focuses on law firm mergers and partner placements. He is a former partner in an Am Law 200 firm, general counsel in privately held and publicly traded companies, and vice president of business development. He can be reached at email@example.com.