Lawyers telling stories

By Mark Weber June 27, 201727 June 2017

Lawyers telling stories

You are always competing for attention when you speak. Whether you are trying to get buy-in for a new legal process, have your say in strategic business decisions or get your child to put on her shoes in the morning, you need the other person to listen—and care about—what you are saying. And the simple truth is that all listeners have a lot of other things on their minds, and many of those things feel more interesting and pressing to them than you.

One of the most effective tools of engagement is one lawyers too seldom employ: good stories. Jonathan Gottschall calls humans the “storytelling animal,” and with good reason. We use story to transmit information in a memorable way and to create social bonds.

The problem? Lawyers do not generally like to think of themselves as storytellers, as if that somehow makes them manipulators or diminishes their importance. However, think of the most memorable presenters you have seen or the best conversations you have had. Such moments almost invariably involve a story. We are wired to listen to, absorb, and, to at least some degree, retain narrative.

People are far more emotional than they are rational. If you want people to take an interest in what you are saying, you need to engage their emotions as well as their minds. Stories do just that. They can help your audience make meaningful connections through analogy. Well-crafted and strategically positioned stories also allow listeners to draw their own conclusions, which they are more likely to trust than yours.

How can storytelling work for in-house counsel? Embed your legal expertise in stories that connect with your audience. They will not remember your charts and citations; they will remember your stories. Memory, engagement and connection will determine your impact, and all three are facilitated by good stories. You have the perfect starting point: case law.

Before you craft your story, you need to be clear on your purpose. What do you hope to accomplish? Complete this sentence: “After this presentation (or story or conversation), my audience will…” Choose your story and your approach to telling it with this purpose in mind.

Your goal may be to generate action or a decision, communicate your or your department’s role, reinforce organizational values, foster collaboration or simply share knowledge. Be as fastidious in your thinking and planning about how you communicate your ideas in story—or augment them with stories—as you are in constructing your legal arguments.

Psychologists talk about the “curse of knowledge”—the well-documented challenge that once we know or understand something, it is very hard for us to imagine others do not. This is a communication problem to which lawyers and other highly skilled professionals are particularly prone. So be sure to fully explain critical history or concepts to ensure your story and points are understood.

Mastering the art of storytelling takes practice. When you attend events, reflect on what presenters do that works, and what doesn’t. For those looking for resources, I recommend Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Health, and Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins: How to Use Your Own Stories to Communicate with Power and Impact by Annette Simmons. Also, build your repertoire and database of personal stories. Ask family and friends what they think your most interesting stories are, and seek feedback on how you can improve the telling of them.

And the single most important thing if you want your audience to care? Look and sound like you care. It is that simple. Some presenters like to blame audiences when things don’t go well, and there are certainly “tough audiences” or audiences that have reason to be hard to reach at a given moment.  But, in my experience, the vast majority of the time, whether people pay attention is much more about the presenter than anything else. One of the wonderful things about using stories is that presenters often come alive when telling them, and a presenter who is engaged will engage listeners.

Data, facts and clear argumentation are “necessary but not sufficient” much of the time. If you have a compelling story that sets up or frames the discussion, people are more likely to invest themselves in what you have to say. Lawyers who want to draw people into dialogue, want them to understand what they are saying and want them to care should tell more stories.

Mark Weber is an award-winning teacher, researcher and consultant. He is currently the Eyton Director of the Conrad Business, Entrepreneurship and Technology Centre at the University of Waterloo. He is also a professor for the CCCA’s Business Leadership Program for In-House Counsel. This article was initially published in the Summer 2017 issue of CCCA Magazine.

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