You’ve been telling stories since you first learned how to talk. Stories are how we make sense of the world and the events around us. Everyone is accustomed to listening to stories, including judges, juries, and prosecutors. Instead of remembering unconnected and seemingly random vignettes of information, a story allows us to synthesize the information in compelling and memorable manner. Doesn’t it make sense to share your defense like it was a story?

Approaches to telling your story

It’s important to keep in mind that telling a story is not making things up. Testimony, evidence, and reasonable inferences from the facts (or lack of facts!) should always make up the foundation of your story. That said, points of view can differ. The prosecutor’s version of the “truth” may look much different than the one presented by your defense attorney. Your lawyer should explain the facts in the best possible light to help your case.

So why is the story method of defense so effective?  What do all great stories have in common?

  • They capture and hold our attention.
  • They cause us to become emotionally involved in the story.
  • They evoke our empathetic investment into sympathetic characters we can identify with.
  • They cause us to care about the conclusion of a preordained outcome, oftentimes completely fictitious.
  • They completely engage our senses.
  • They keep moving forward at a fast pace.
  • They engage our thoughts.

They accomplish everything we would want to accomplish with a jury or a judge!

We may think that great stories begin and end with nothing more than unbridled creativity. While creativity is certainly important, it’s not the foundation of a great story. The foundation for all great stories involves the exact same elements. Think of these common elements like a skeleton. They all must have the same bones and structure or else there will be problems. Creativity is the flesh and outward beauty of the story beyond the common structure. But you can have all the beauty imparted by unbridled creativity, but it will still be ugly if the skeleton is misshapen, misconnected, or unrecognizable.

All great stories have the same elements in common:

  • They all follow a three-act (actually four) structure.
  • They all feature a hero and a villain.
  • The Hero is sympathetic.
  • The Villain is bad. Really
  • They all feature a thematic question pondered by the Hero and a thematic argument offered by the Villain.
  • The Hero follows a path through four different archetypes (Orphan, Wanderer, Warrior, and Martyr) that corresponds with each act.
  • The same eight supporting roles are always present: Hero, Villain, Protector, Deflector, Believer, Doubter, Thinker, and Feeler.
  • There is an innocent “stakes” character who is in great peril. A peril that is ultimately dependent upon the Hero’s success.

Throughout my career I have worked to perfect this method of storytelling through countless hours of research, the experience afforded by well over 100 jury trials, and teaching these methods to other lawyers in legal seminars. I have learned unequivocally when a great defense story can be extracted through the trial process of jury selection, opening statements, cross-examination (by far the most important skill your lawyer needs to possess), and closing arguments, the prospects of victory are almost a certainty.

However, when the common elements of a great trial story are absent, your lawyer should be able to spot this deficiency and seamlessly move on to a different kind of story: a story of mitigation, or a story supporting a legal excuse or technical defense.

One thing is clear. Storytelling is the most vital and foundational part of any effective defense.