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The Power Of Storytelling In Your Legal Practice

by Paramjit L. Mahli

During February’s Super Bowl, sports buffs, approximately 97 million according to news reports, witnessed not just a great game but also a great story. The New York Giants were the underdogs, while the New England Patriots were favored to win. The underdogs won! The story, essentially of the underdogs winning, connected and resonated with millions of viewers and supporters. The game had drama, tension, conflict, beginning, middle and end. In sum, all the ingredients of a great story!

Storytelling is as old as civilization itself, and part of the collective human consciousness. Its roots can be traced back to the days of the shaman sitting around the fire. The shaman’s primary responsibility was to document the history of the tribe: its beliefs, values and tales of great heroes, including their triumphs and tragedies. Part of this responsibility included passing on the wisdom of these stories to new generations so that they could learn, be inspired and be motivated.

The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle defined three rhetorical proofs—pathos, ethos and logos—that are fundamental to the art of persuasion.

Pathos is the ability to evoke in an audience or another person a desired emotional state. It is this area where audiences are receptive to speeches because they have connected with the speaker on some level.

Ethos focuses on the credibility and reputation of the communicator, his or her perceived trust and position in society.

Logos appeals to the rational reasoning mind; this is all about facts supporting the premise of the speech.

When all three of these elements cohesively work together, they inspire, motivate and persuade the audience into action.

In recent years a multitude of books such as Story: Substance, Structure, Style and Principles of Screenwriting, by Hollywood screenwriter Robert Mckee, and The Story Factor: Secrets of Influence Form the Art of Storytelling, by Annette Simons, have espoused the importance of storytelling in all commercial activity.

Robert Mckee, in a Harvard Business Review article, “Storytelling That Moves People”, argues says that stories “fulfill a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living-not merely as an intellectual exercise, but with a very personal, emotional experience.”

The writers have been stressing this factor because most business activity is about the art of persuasion, whether it’s converting prospects into clients, selling the services of practice groups, gathering support for new strategic business plans or inspiring employees to do their best. All of these goals require some form of persuasion and action. At the heart of all this activity is communication. In business settings well-constructed stories serve a multitude of functions. They inspire, convince, motivate, mentor, entertain and educate.

Does This Mean That Facts Should Be Ignored?

Facts and data have an important role to play, but when compared to storytelling, the latter is considerably more effective in establishing rapport with the audience; engaging the listener as a participant, rather than a spectator; bringing forth an open-mindedness, as witnessed in children; and, most importantly, reducing resistance and cynicism.

For law firms, often rooted in technical and legal bookish jargon, this means returning to the basics: connecting with clients, prospects and other important alliances. On a basic level that means crafting messages for the firm’s Web sites and in all other marketing materials that essentially move, motivate and connect.

A Tale of Two Law Firms

Consider the following scenario: two competent firms compete for business, both of which have good track records and are known in the community. The one that makes the connection on that fundamental human level with the prospect is much more likely to come out on top! Simply put, since businesses is all about building relationships and most people tend to do business with people whom they like, know and trust. Incorporating stories that resonate with your target constituents is critical.

So the question arises, how do attorneys when giving speeches and business presentations connect with their audience without losing themselves in legal-speak?

Connecting On a Human Level

On a basic level it means showing and sharing emotion. This demands both generosity and vulnerability, which can be challenging for many attorneys. Paradoxically, though, by exposing fears, anxieties and shortcomings, the presenter is able to connect with the audience and bring the listener to a place of understanding, which often results in action.

In the final analysis, regardless of who your audience is, the task of the attorney/speaker is to enter the hearts of that audience, even though the information they are looking for typically lives in the brain!

This also means that you have to be credible and trustworthy to your audience. They already know you are qualified. In today’s fast-paced technological world, where most of us are up to our eyeballs in information, that trust you will convey through your story renews hope and belief that your ideas DO offer what you promise.

So where do you start?

Collect Stories from a Variety of Sources

Stories serve many purposes. They clarify and show meaning, bridge cultural gaps, help identify with a particular audience, persuade the audience, inspire people to act and build a shared vision.

When preparing for a speech, start a notebook and jot down stories from real-life situations and current events that support and inspire you. When you know have a good story, sooner or later you will find a way to weave it into a presentation. Characters in films and popular literature all help. Films such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington capture your audience’s attention immediately.

Learn the Characteristics of a Good Story

Review your own favorite films and books, whether it’s Jane Eyre or Citizen Kane, and ask yourself, Why do you like them, what is it about them that resonates with you.

Consider the following:

    * Is the story told well?
    * Does the plot involve a transformation?
    * Is the storyteller sincere?
    * Does the story fit the occasion? Is it appropriate for your audience?
    * Do the characters come alive?
    * Can the audience relate to the story?
    * Does the story address the issues at hand?

Analogies, anecdotes, metaphors and idioms are all storytelling methods for conveying wisdom and illustrating points. Since no two clients are alike, attorneys should reflect on some of their current and former clients and what nuggets of information they can share with their audience.

On a practical day-to-day basis, pay more attention to personal experiences with clients. Which of their case histories, particularly war stories, reinforce your speech’s key points? Start from the beginning of the story and move through it chronologically. When doing this make sure you answer the “w” questions: “Who, What, When, Why and Where.”

For drama you can always pull out an e-mail from a client, particularly one with a great horror story, and read it. You can bet your bottom dollar the audience will pay attention.

Begin with Something That Grabs the Attention of the Audience

This may be a startling statement, fact or some current news event that relates to your speech or your own story. Just imagine the attorney beginning with the statement “Yesterday I fired a client.” Immediately you have grabbed the audience’s attention.

You can also begin with a question, thereby getting the audience’s participation right from the start.

Power Point presentations can have an important role to play, but don’t let your technological equipment detract you from making eye contact with your audience. This is probably one of the few times they get to see you up close and personal. Your brief notes are supposed to be a guideline for your presentation or speech; they should not make you invisible from the audience. Making that eye connection is imperative.
Finally, leave your audience with something to think about. This could be achieved, for instance, by recapping your main points may indeed give an audience something to ponder, but perhaps, alternatively, concluding a speech with something that’s dramatic/inspiring would be even better for thought provocation? Since I’m writing about giving good presentations, I’m going to end this article with a quote from the great Roman philosopher Cicero, who said many centuries ago, “The skill to do comes with the doing.”

About The Author

Paramjit L. Mahli of the Sun Communications Group is a former journalist who has worked with international news organizations including CNN Business News, and now helps small to mid-sized law firms increase their visibility, build their reputation and helps them grow their business by using public relations. She also developed popular tele-seminar class, "How To Grow Your Law Practice On A Shoestring Budget".

The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinion of ILW.COM.

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