Stories are incredibly potent, reaching a place deep in our cultural DNA. When presented with a great story, we simply need to hear it through to the end. As the great writer Neil Gaiman once remarked, nothing speaks more to the power of stories than the plaintive question, "And then what happened?" Stories are very important to the practice of law. Trial lawyers often discuss "telling a story" to the jury, or making sure that the judge sees the case through the lens of our narrative, and not that of our adversary. Our goal should be to make our client’s story resonate with the judge and jury on a fundamental level.
Notwithstanding our respect for story-telling, trial lawyers would benefit from greater insight into exactly which stories resonate most powerfully, and why this is the case. Numerous other disciplines, from neuroscience to psychology to literature, have focused their attention on these issues, and have much to teach about why certain tales matter more than others. The findings of these studies would allow us to better harness one of the most powerful rhetorical tools at our disposal.
Throughout human history, stories have been used to entertain, to teach, to frighten and to inspire. It is no accident that religions use stories as a delivery system for their morals and values. From the lessons of the Old Testament to the parables of Buddha, stories are the bedrock of most faiths. Stories also play a role in a variety of modern-day professions. For example, new programs at medical schools focus on "narrative medicine," which teach doctors to use stories in the diagnosis, treatment and education of patients to improve care and health outcomes. And politicians have long understood the critical role that narrative plays in their work. Indeed, although his intelligence and determination cannot be ignored, President Obama’s origin story — as told in his memoir Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance — struck a chord with the American people, fueling his meteoric rise from Chicago to the White House.
As attorneys, we know that stories make a difference in our work of advocacy and persuasion. Recent scholarship bears out this professional intuition. Neuroscience is discovering the incredible ways that stories impact and stimulate the brain. Because the brain is predisposed to organize experiences in narrative form, storytelling is an important tool in influencing people. In contrast, when presented with bare facts and statistics, people only become further entrenched in their own point of view — this is known as the "backfire effect." Put another way, stories are far more effective than argument and facts at changing people’s minds.
Given the importance of stories, it is worth thinking about which stories have the most power. Certain stories — or, rather, certain types of stories — are universal, existing across cultures, geography and time. Whether named Hercules, Gilgamesh or Beowulf, heroes who go on quests and slay monsters are a staple of the storytelling tradition. Most cultures also have less heroic characters, such as trickster gods like Loki or Coyote, who cause mayhem and foster change. Recurring themes extend beyond stock characters to plot points and symbols. The return of the prodigal son, the rise from rags to riches, the tragic hero done in by hubris, and the struggle against temptation: These are the themes that appear again and again in our collective cultural history. People respond to such stories, called archetypes, on a deep level; these stories matter in a fundamental way.
For me, the legend of King Arthur has always had particular resonance. While the Round Table and the adventures of gallant knights captured my imagination when I was younger, it is the tragedy of Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot — who loved each other deeply but could not help but bring themselves to grief — that speaks to me as an adult. One reason why the Arthurian legend is so powerful is the extraordinary number of archetypes within it: Arthur, the youth who rises from obscurity to the throne; Lancelot, the gallant hero; Merlin, the wise mentor; the quest for the Holy Grail; and, of course, the love triangle at the heart of Camelot that puts the rivalries of recent popular fiction to shame.
For over 100 years, scholars have tried to determine just why it is that stories like King Arthur matter. Noted psychotherapist and psychiatrist Carl Jung, a friend and collaborator of Sigmund Freud’s, wrote extensively about archetypes and the ways that certain stories represent — and tap into — the most subterranean recesses of the human mind. Jung claimed that all people have a "collective unconscious" containing "primordial images" from the earliest stages of humanity. Jung believed that archetypes are the way we bring primordial images into the light of day and, as such, studying these stories is a way to understand the human mind. This theory may explain why certain stories resonate so deeply with both the teller and the listener.
The field of literature studies also has much to offer in understanding the power of stories. Unlike Jung — who came to stories by way of the human psyche — scholars of literature have found patterns by focusing on the stories themselves, often in the context of mythology. Noted literary theorist Northrop Frye explained that myths are "stories [that] seem to have a peculiar significance: they are the stories that tell a society what is important for it to know, whether about its gods, its history, its laws, or its class structure." These foundational myths are similar across continents and cultures. For example, Joseph Campbell’s seminal work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces,analyzed the archetypical journey that heroes take in tales from around the world. Regardless of their source, these stories contained a fundamental structure that Campbell called a "monomyth." According to Campbell, the stories of Moses, Prometheus and Buddha all fit into this basic outline, which include the departure (in which the hero receives a call to adventure), the initiation (in which the hero must face trials, overcome obstacles and achieve victory) and the return (in which the hero travels home with hard-earned wisdom).
Scholarship like that of Jung, Frye and Campbell can and should inform the way that we, as attorneys, use stories to better represent our clients. The content and structure of stories matter as well. While not all cases fit neatly into a basic archetype or the heroic monomyth, a portion of any pretrial strategy session should include brainstorming ways to incorporate these themes into the narrative of the case. Books of mythology might even earn pride of place on our bookshelves next to the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Even the driest corporate litigation — if framed appropriately — can in some way take advantage of the deep power of ancient stories and recurring motifs. If we do our jobs correctly, we can align our clients with themes that register deeply with the judge and jury to persuade them that our clients deserve to win.
Michael J. Newman is an associate in the litigation department of Hangley Aronchick Segal Pudlin & Schiller. He has broad experience in complex commercial litigation involving contractual disputes and insurance coverage issues. He has counseled clients facing serious allegations such as securities fraud, insider trading and breach of fiduciary duties.