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Folktales Reveal a Powerful Persuasion Tool for Trial Lawyers

Ken Lopez
By: Ken Lopez

Psychology, Storytelling, Persuasive Graphics, Visual Persuasion, Opening, Persuasion, Visual Storytelling

I recently read two studies by Professor Jeffrey Loewenstein of the University of Illinois that offer extremely valuable persuasion tools for trial lawyers. They were not written with trial lawyers in mind, but the lessons they teach are universal when it comes to persuasion. Together they provide an important toolset for those of us who craft or hone opening statements for a living.

The first of these studies, The Repetition-Break Plot Structure Makes Effective Television Advertisements [paywall], helps answer the question of why some advertising campaigns outperform others. It turns out there exists an ages-old and highly persuasive storytelling structure often seen in folktales around the world.  Advertisers who use it tend to win more awards, generate more purchases, and see their advertisements shared virally -- much like a folktale.

It is my experience that techniques that sell products sell arguments just as well. We've written about this before in articles like Could Surprise Be One of Your Best Visual Persuasion Tools? and Repeat a Simple Message Repeatedly to Maximize Courtroom Persuasion. It is exactly these types of inherently persuasive language tools that arouse core human instincts that we must deploy in the courtroom for our clients benefit. After all, if we can give our jurors an easily memorable story, we give them a potent weapon to argue in favor of our position with other jurors.

The study's author refers to the storytelling structure as a repetition-break plot structure. It is essentially a two-part technique. First, one tells an audience about a series of similar events (at least two) in a way that causes the audience to compare those events, detect a memorable pattern, and then develop an expectation of what they are going to hear next. The second part of the technique involves deviating from that expectation. In a nutshell, you establish a pattern of events, you set expectations for what happens next, and then you surprise your audience with the outcome.

The well-known Mastercard "Priceless" advertising campaign follows this technique. The folktale of the three little pigs follows this structure, where the wolf easily blows down the houses of the first two only to be thwarted by the brick construction prowess of the third pig.

How might this translate to an opening statement?

We frequently work on patent cases at A2L, and a narrative you frequently see deployed is that of the inventor who toils for years only to succeed after many failed attempts. It's an appealing tale to be sure. What if instead of going down that wrote path, one defied expectations, surprisingly, and told the story like this:

Since she was a kid riding in the back seat of her parents' car, she tried to find a way to prevent rain from getting into the car when the windows were slightly open during a hot summer Texas thunderstorm. Her parents kindly let her test the quirky devices she built. Unfortunately, they all blew away or otherwise failed miserably. She presented her favorite design in her high school science competition. Sadly, she didn't even place. But she kept trying.

Then she got her big break. A friend of her father introduced her to an automobile design executive at the factory in her town. When she went in for a meeting at the factory, the executive listened intently, and she felt the excitement rise almost uncontrollably when he called in an even more senior executive to join them in the conference room. Everyone was entranced by how simple and yet how effective her latest invention was. They told her that day that she "had something here." She texted her parents everything in near real-time. After she was called back to the factory to discuss "next steps" one morning a few weeks later, her parents planned a celebration with balloons and streamers for the afternoon.

When she arrived home and walked in the house, parents and friends waited to shout with joy -- but fell silent when she burst into tears at the front door. They had simply returned her device and said that while they were impressed, they didn't see a need for it in a future that where air conditioning would do the job. That was a gut punch.

Can you then imagine her surprise when she saw a nearly identical version of her device on the next model of that very car produced in her town the very next year?

Here, one could have simply told the story in a fail-fail-fail-theft pattern. My telling is a bit of a twist on the three little pigs structure, but it plays to expectations in a similar way. By setting up similar events and using language like "then she got her big break," I set up an expectation that we will see a classic fail-fail-success pattern. As Professor Loewenstein notes, "[d]eviating from the pattern spurs cognitive efforts to resolve the incongruity and make sense of the final event and the larger meaning of the narrative." Here, it's the surprise ending that makes it so sticky, and that's what Professor Loewenstein's second study, Surprise, Recipes for Surprise, and Social Influence, speaks to.

Here, Professor Loewenstein talks about recipes for surprise and persuasion. I love the use of the word recipes in this context as it supports something we already know as litigation consultants at A2L -- anyone can use storytelling in a persuasive way if they follow the right recipe. Helping insert these and other techniques of persuasion into an opening statement and an opening visual trial presentation are key ways A2L helps top trial lawyers be successful and outperform their peers -- just as a good advertisement following these techniques can do.

It's worth noting that Professor Loewenstein compared repetition as a persuasion technique and a before/after/surprise contrast as independent persuasion techniques. The key finding in his work is that it is the combination of repetition followed by surprise that works radically better. I think the findings support the use of the repetition-break structure in most, if not all opening statements.


Other A2L Consulting articles and resources about storytelling, building a narrative, surprise and other persuasion techniques include:

opening statements toolkit ebook download a2l


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