Diane F. Wyzga is an attorney, a nurse, and a professionally trained storyteller. She works as both a trial consultant and a communications coach to lawyers. Her company, Lightning Rod Communications, is based in San Clemente, California. A motto at her Web site: "The difference between the right word and almost right word is like the difference between lightning and lightning bug." Read on to see the many right words Diane uses in this interview
Diane, thanks very much for agreeing to participate in my series of interviews of thinkers and practitioners who have ideas that are valuable for the legal profession. Let's get started. The question I typically lead with because I Like to hear how people were drawn to their expertise is . . .
How did you get interested in storytelling in the law? What's the story behind your coming to have this expertise?
Once upon a time, long long ago & far far away in a book and coffee shop in Pacific Grove, CA a book fell off a shelf. I picked it up. The year was 1994. The book was a 20th anniversary edition of best-loved stories told at the Jonesborough, TN story festival. I read a story. I said: I can do this. At the time I had no clue how I would use storytelling; I only knew I was a storyteller. And time would have to take care of the rest.
I joined the local storytelling guild and the National Storytellers Network, traveled to conferences, workshops and festivals, met other storytellers, got mentors, learned stories and found venues to tell them. I told stories at the Different Drummer Bookstore (famous as the only gay and lesbian bookstore in Laguna Beach, CA), for every Rotary within a 50 mile radius of my home, for women’s groups and incest survivor groups, at holiday parties and rodeos, at local hospitals, environmental rallies, grammar schools, colleges and universities, prisons and juvenile halls. Some gigs paid. Most did not.
In time I built up a portfolio of keeper stories. In time I dared to write my own stories, and tell them. Then I went for the big time: I applied to join the National Speakers Association as a professional member. I was accepted. I thought I was on my way to the big time of national speaking gigs. The Universe had other ideas.
I applied to teach a college level course on storytelling at Learning Tree University. Two of my students were long-time practicing lawyers. They came to the course because they wanted to enhance their advocacy and presentation skills. What could I teach a lawyer about storytelling? Robert McKee had the answer:
Storytelling is the art of expressing meaningful change in the life situation of a character in terms of values to which the listener reacts with emotion.
This is what lawyers do all the time! I just needed to overcome law school’s linear analytical training that says he who dies with the most facts, wins. And show lawyers how we listen to stories.
I began teaching that the factfinder listener energetically connives and conspires with the attorney-storyteller because they want to believe the story and do something which matters. In the grip of a heartfelt story artfully told, the factfinder listener’s mind is fully engaged creating a parallel world of social judgment based on their world views and experiences. Now the attorney and factfinder are one: working in concert in a cooperative enterprise considering options, possibilities and outcomes. As of a recent verdict in June, I have 11.11 million reasons why I continue to believe that a heartfelt story artfully told using language with power, passion and precision will engage your jury every single time.
Whether we win or lose, the overall task of any lawyer is to speak for those who cannot. Even when the client loses the case, I believe that the saving grace is this: the lawyer has given the client a singular opportunity to tell their story and be heard. As Maya Angelou reminds us, "There is no greater burden than carrying an untold story."
To reinforce the notion of what lawyers truly accomplish in their day-to-day struggle to find and tell the stories of truth surrounding their clients, I'd like to offer this thought:
The stranger who tells our stories when we cannot speak not only awakens our spirits and hearts but also shows our humanity -- which others want to forget -- and in doing so becomes family.[Mende Proverb, Sierra Leone]
I am intrigued by what you say about overcoming law school's training. Here's a three-part question for you on that topic; I am very much looking forward to hearing more. (1) Would you describe how you do that? (2) Why it is important? (3) What's wrong with facts?
Now you have me on a roll! Let’s begin by asking what is law school training. Law school fosters uniformity in thinking and problem solving by emphasizing a dependency on intellectualism and linear thinking. Linear thinking forgoes the emotionally complex problems presented by our clients. Yes, facts are important. Facts are content. Facts help shape the story; however, we need the personal, emotional and conflicting aspects of the story to create an emotionally meaningful story to get verdict action. Listeners act when they comprehend our client’s universal story in their particular experience or world view.
How come this is so? We are all storytellers, homo narrans, by birthright. Stories are the most powerful tool we have for communicating because they engage our imagination. Homo narrans learn by telling and hearing stories, relating our experiences, and transferring messages created in our imagination.
How does storytelling persuade us? I like this quote, “We are generally persuaded by reasons we discover ourselves than by those given to us by others.” [Anonymous] Storytelling persuades when the listener can place himself inside the story with ease, listen deductively, absorb a story that explains the conflict early on, articulate the story in his own terms, and filter the evidence selectively to be consistent with his personal story, world experience and understanding of the world order.
Moreover, we believe what we understand. We understand what comes to us in a story that mimics our life experiences, our world views. Storytelling is such a natural, instinctual process that we sometimes are hard-pressed to fully comprehend its uses or more importantly, to explain its effects.
Listeners organize and sort out complex legal information, especially conflicting information, into meaningful structures that make sense and create a parallel form of social judgment that anchors legal questions in everyday understanding. The bottom line is that in the grip of a heartfelt story artfully told, the listener’s mind is fully engaged. When fully engaged, the listener works in concert with the attorney in a cooperative enterprise, all listeners are connected and considering options, possibilities and outcomes.
I believe you know how listeners follow a story. And probably experienced it as well. Listeners journey - virtually - with you into a different world, an imagined reality, another mental location where the story actually exists while never having left their physical state. The process of transition from physical world to virtual world is active with the listener energetically conniving and conspiring with the attorney all the time to actually will the virtual world into existence. Why? Because the factfinder wants to believe the story and that they can do something which matters.
Facts do not engage. Facts cannot engage. And that’s the part of law school training we must overcome. How do I help lawyers do this? By using storytelling techniques and principles to formulate a story that explains the alleged activities in familiar terms using key messages or themes that define the case from the listener’s point of view. Remember, it’s not what we say but what the listener hears.
A trial consultant told me that the storytelling concept, while crucial, is so outside a lawyer’s frame of reference, skill set, comfort zone, and experience that it seems little more than a luxury to which one can attach neither value nor importance. Would you agree? If we do not learn the effects of story and practice its uses when we speak to jurors and judges and mediators and arbitrators and even our clients, we have lost the singular opportunity to get the action we desire out of any one of these listeners.
Very, very, very interesting and helpful. Thanks so much, Diane. I have about a dozen follow-up questions. But I promised only five questions in this interview . . . When reading your answer, I am reminded of a book I read about how important it is to create images in the mind's eye in order for something to be remembered. The author, Ian Robertson, said that people vary in how best to create in them vivid and lasting memories. I posted about this book and am wondering if what Dr. Robertson said relates to storytelling? Or is telling a memorable story more one-size-fits-all? Here's the post Which kind of memory works best for you? about which I would like you to comment.
In order to put your question into context, I suggest that your readers take a look at the post you mention. I selected the following passage to distinguish storytelling from Dr. Robertson’s theory that people who read passages store their understanding either visually or in text:
When children are presented with passages to read, the differences in their memories are startling. The visualizing children perform much better at recalling those words and sentences that are easily visualizable. They will more easily than verbalizers recall a sentence such as "The stars on the European flag are white." The word-oriented children, the verbalizers, will, better than the visualizers, recall the sentence "People use salt more than pepper."
Unlike reading, storytelling is an ancient oral art form. Storytelling is based on narrative. And for centuries people told each other stories to convey information, record events, settle disputes, teach the young ones, and so on. Storytelling predates the written transfer of information. As such it had to rely on imagination to create the virtual reality of the world in which the story took place.
How does storytelling work? Story is a narrative account dependent on listening, imagination, themes, plots, and images to convey emotional meaning from facts. Oral language and imagination move the soul. We, as ‘homo narrans’ learn by telling and hearing stories, relating our experiences, and transferring messages created in our imagination.
There are always three parts to storytelling: the teller, the listener, and the story. When the teller can ‘see’ the story she is telling she can convey the images clearly and precisely to the listener. The listener’s role is that of willing participant in the two-way storytelling process. Indeed, the listener absorbs the story in the particular ways in which he best stores and retrieves information. Typically, the listener will store and retrieve information in a visual, aural or kinesthetic manner. For example, the visual learner might “see” frames of pictures as he hears the story being told. The kinesthetic learner will absorb the tactile sensations in the story and convert feelings to images.
Platform skills or presentation skills enhance the storytelling experience for the listener. Body language demonstrates size and character and movement. Tone of voice conveys the emotion of the story. Eye contact grounds the listener in the story. Pacing delivers the story with a certain tempo. And so on. The best storytellers become like a vessel for the story. The storyteller “disappears” and all that remains is the story.
Let’s look at the selected exercise you cited in you article. Dr. Robertson suggested that the reader read the following passages and note how long it takes you.
The cows' udders swung like heavy bells as they plodded, slip-slopping through the steaming newly fallen dung of the leader. Their breath rose in the still, frosty air, smearing the crisp outline of the rising sun. The last cow reared and kicked as a large brown rat darted between its legs.
But if the storyteller becomes the character of the cow, the translation that must occur between reading text and transcribing text diminishes leaving ‘verbalizer’ and ‘visualizer’ on an equal playing field of comprehension. Try this yourself: become the cow in this passage. Imagine arms and legs swaying slowly, plodding. A soft inhale and exhale could imitate the breathy sound of the cow. Speech would slow down as each set of words are carefully enunciated. Now tell the story of these cows (and the rat) moving along in this time and space. I guarantee that your listener will have vivid and lasting memories because a picture, especially one that we create in our imagination, is worth a thousand words.
What happens if the other side in a case has a better story than one you can tell about your client?
First off, I’d like to know what is a ‘better story’? And then, how and when do you know if the other side has a better story?
In my experience with legal stories, the ‘better story’ is the one that is compelling and persuasive because it is emotionally meaningful. It is also grounded in a value or set of values to which the listener can relate. Think about it: each side has basically the same set of facts to work with. If you ever competed in Moot Court competitions in law school you recall that the appellant and the appellee had the same fact pattern to use. What made the difference in the outcomes? Well, certainly research into the case law to support your version of the facts and refute the other fellow’s version. More importantly, the story was crafted into one that was compelling and persuasive because it became emotionally meaningful to the listener. Inotherwords, it made sense in the world view and experiences of the ‘judges’ who were ruling on the competitions.
What do I mean by ‘emotionally meaningful’? James Joyce wrote, “In the particular is contained the universal.” Joyce is saying that when he wrote about Dublin, Ireland others could see their own city in the descriptions he wrote. Likewise, the listeners to the legal story are seeking their universal experience in the particular one of the client. And that’s where craft comes in.
A common loss in a personal injury case is the death of a loved one. Not everyone has experienced the loss of a loved one. But everyone has experienced loss. Think about moving away from a neighborhood, leaving a school and schoolmates behind, watching as your parent flushed the belly-up goldfish down the commode. We all know the universal feeling of loss. When we tell the story about the plaintiff’s loss we are tapping into that universal experience. Once the client’s particular loss means something to the listener on an emotional level, they are better prepared to relate and respond.
Early on in my storytelling years I learned the importance of imagination to storytelling. And the imagination is just as important whether you are sitting under a tent on a fall night hearing tales or in a courtroom hearing a case. I crafted the following statement to help explain how story works to get the listener to act, “Storytelling thrives on imagination. Images touch the heart and become sensations, sensations trigger memories, memories create meaning, and meaning leads to listener action.” So, the ‘better story’ is the story that creates images, sensations, and memories that compel the listener to act.
Whether you are sitting with a few folks hearing a story or with a group of people the story being told is heard individually and universally. What I mean is if you were to ask each person what story they heard they would tell you a version of the story that was parallel to their particular world view. Yet, when you were done polling all the listeners you would discover a universal story that all the listeners could agree upon. And, profoundly, their universally accepted story would be grounded in values that acted as a moral underpinning to what they heard.
How come this is so? Joseph Campbell answered this question for us with his life work delving into the stories that have been told over the millennia. Campbell is especially well known for deciphering the “Hero’s Journey” story construct. Generally, the Hero’s Journey is made up of seven elements: the hero is living a life and then encounters some upset (1) which turns his life upside down forcing him to go on a journey (2) to figure out how to right his life and along the way he meets allies (3) and enemies (4) who will show him the way to the ‘truth’ he needs to discover (5). When he has discovered the truth he must return to his community (6) to share his particular truth so the entire community is improved (7).
Now take this model and apply it to the Harry Potter series: Harry is a baby living a good life when his parents are murdered by Lord Voldermort which event sends him to live with his uncle before he is summoned to Hogwarts where Hermione and Malfoy and others help him and foil him as he works to discover the truth of who he is and who his parents were so he can destroy Voldermort and make the world safe. Here’s a link you might enjoy: http://www.mugglenet.com/funlists/lukevsharry.shtml
Do it again with Beauty & the Beast (here is the plot line to get you started), Titanic, Shirley Valentine, Juno, Michael Clayton, Lord of the Rings, The Twilight Samurai, The Station Agent, and just about any film current and past, American and foreign you can think of. What Campbell showed us is the universality of the journey of the hero story format. So no matter whether you are in Alaska or Afghanistan you will get the story. Imagine how you can use this model to frame the story of the plaintiff’s struggle. And even the defense can make use of the model to show how it is in battle with the plaintiff.
How and when do you know if yours is the better story? At every opportunity you test your case and its legal story with a focus group. I say this time and again, “Do them early and do them often.” Would you walk into a car dealership and hand over thousands of dollars for a car you did not test drive? Would you marry a person you did meet for a coffee? What about signing for a mortgage loan without walking through the house you were buying? Why treat your cases any differently?
A focus group asks folks from the community what is believable, credible, and trial worthy about your case. For the price of a lunch and a token honorarium they will tell you about the certainties and deficiencies they hear and see. What you learn as you test drive your case early on will focus your discovery and depositions. As the case matures you can test whether gaps or distortions or legal principles among other landmines will doom your case in trial. With critical listening techniques you will learn language, metaphors, intentions, emotions and sensations that arise when they discuss and deliberate on the case.
And the best part is you get to lose before you walk into the courtroom. And you should lose to understand those parts of the story that are confusing, distracting, unbelievable. I’ve heard it said, “When the dogs are chasing you, whistle!” I guarantee that if you test your legal case story before you walk into the courtroom, you will more often than not be whistling a happier tune when it’s time to try your case.
Thanks so much for both your thoughtful wisdom and your deep expertise. I can see that stories can serve lawyers not only in trial but also at other times when they want to persuade, including when marketing, managing, and leading. What practical steps do you recommend for lawyers to learn, or improve, story crafting? Of course, they can work with you and doing so would be very beneficial. What other steps? Any other good resources available? Exercises you would recommend? Books they might read?
I like your first suggestion best: You asked, “What practical steps do you recommend for lawyers to learn, or improve, story crafting? Of course, they can work with you and doing so would be very beneficial.” I am happy to be of service via phone or e-mail or in person. Your readers should feel welcome to contact me to learn how we can work together.
Practical Steps to Improve Your Storytelling. When I teach attorneys we begin with the basics of storytelling. Only when the lawyers understand and can work with fairy tales, folk tales, legends, and the like are they ready for the legal story. How come? Because the legal story is a subset of storytelling generally. Once you recognize how to shape a story you are well on your way to shaping the legal story.
One thing that’s very easy and available: begin to look and listen for legal story ideas in the world around you. You can create a theme, an opening or a story that is different from everybody else’s if you pay attention. The world is full of raw material for your use: signs, billboards, roadside junk, labels on packages, graffiti on walls, instructions on appliances, menus, catalogues, 2nd class mail, and the New York Times. Regardless what your political position is I have found that the NYTimes has remarkably beautiful language. Read for the language; stay for the news. Messages and ideas are everywhere and waiting for you to make something of them.
Look up some of the classic movies: To Kill a Mockingbird, 12 Angry Men, The Scopes Monkey Trial, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and My Cousin Vinnie. The film may be a bit outdated but the messages are as current as Microsoft’s move to scoop up Yahoo! You can use them. Remember what Pablo Picasso said, “Mediocre artists copy but great artists steal.”Check out storytelling workshops and festivals in your neighborhood. Here is the link to one of my professional organizations: the National Storytelling Network. You can find information on resources, events and programs. When you attend a festival, just sit and listen and imagine. Later on ask yourself what you remember of the story, of the teller, of your experience as a listener. And then relate this to what the juror or legal story listener might experience.
If there is a theater organization, summer stock, improvisational, Shakespearean, or other style in your town, take a class. I find that the exercise of getting on stage and out of “legal head” helps understand how art is persuasive and compelling. Of course, the ‘platform skills’ work will make you a more confident presenter whether you are marketing your services, leading in a professional capacity or trying a case before a judge, jury or ADR trier of fact.
Books I Have on My Shelf. Friends call me “the Imelda Marcos of books.” They are right. I have many more books than shoes and if given the choice would take an Amazon gift certificate over a Jimmy Chou. Well, maybe not. I’d begin with The Power of Personal Storytelling by Jack Maguire. It’s a nice primer that covers many of the basics of storytelling. Anything by Joseph Campbell will give you a wonderful head start to the notion of the Hero’s Journey. You may wish to read The Hero’s Journey or The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Touch base with Benjamin Sells work to remind yourself that we are “counselors at law” first and foremost. Order in the Court and The Soul of the Law remind us how better to craft a just world in lawless times. Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury by Lief, Caldwell, and Bycel, is a wonderful review of closing arguments that read like passionate poetry. Lawyers have to write difficult stories all the time. A text that was first in its field, Inviting the Wolf In, by Loren Niemi and Elizabeth Ellis shows you necessary creative structure and theory beyond “The Rules of the Road.”
Exercises. Impro for Storytellers by Keith Johnstone is a text one can use in a group setting to slice open the place where the acting juices reside, turn them loose and enhance your creative ability to get into the story character. The Write-Brain Workbook by Bonnie Neubauer is a great text of 365 exercises to liberate your right-write brain. And if you are ever in one of my workshops you will walk away with a treasure trove of interactive exercises that attorneys swear gets them the story they need to tell. Attune yourself to enhancing what you know naturally by paying attention to any movie you watch: look for the three parts of the story (beginning, middle and end), the theme(s), and character development.
Basic Communication Skills. When we speak to each other we are looking for answers to the three universal questions: (1) Can I trust you? (2) Are you committed to me in this process? (3) And do you appreciate me for me not just the skills I have? This is no more true than in the voir dire setting. By and large lawyers say they hate voir dire. How come this might be so? Because the best voir dire is a conversation encompassing verbal and non-verbal interaction. This type of discourse fosters an open and relaxed atmosphere encouraging jurors to participate with you rather than feel they are being interrogated about private matters in a public place. Law school does not train us for empathetic conversation. To train yourself, here are some things you can practice with jurors who are your allies, not your enemies (well, most of them anyway):
• Empathy. Acknowledging the nervousness and discomfort jurors feel helps allay fears.
• Sincere Interest in Responses. Do you really care what they are saying?
• Pleasant Warm Relaxed Posture. Dogs smell fear. No reason the jurors should.
• Support Your Jurors and They Will Support You. They are asking if they can count on you not to intimidate, threaten, embarrass or criticize them.
• Identification. How are you like me? And how does that matter? Here is something I’ve used: I see you served in the Navy. Were you based in Portsmouth Naval? (Yes) I was there in 75-78. When were you there? (Same time - we might have crossed paths) . . .You mentioned you went to UVa. I was in the graduate nursing program there. What did you study? (Law) What years were you there? (78-80) Same time as me. Did you have a room on the quadrangle? (Yes, and it was OK but you had to share a public bathroom & walk to it in all weather)
• Listening. In the Story Skills session you learned about the importance of listening with attention, sincerity and interest to facts, emotion and intention. HEARING WHAT IS BEING SAID. And so often we attribute the wrong marital status to a juror, overlook a tragedy, use a wrong name
A closing thought: Fare thee well. May your lives proceed by your own design. Fare thee well. Go off and tell your tales. I have told you mine. Fare thee well.
A million thanks. This interview is filled with your skilled guidance and original thinking, and you have provided an outstanding survey of resources. Fare thee well to you, Diane.