Commentary: Law Life: Stories have the power to change lives

By Craig A. Thompson

The Daily Record Newswire

Let me tell you a story. Those six words have captured our attention since our youth, and provided us with an initial reason to listen to whatever words followed.

As we have grown, a fight for our attention has taken place. But even though responsibilities with work, family, community and elsewhere have taken our brains in numerous directions, we are still drawn to a good story.

Unfortunately, many of us do not appreciate the extent to which storytelling is essential for success in our respective areas of practice. Whether a lawyer, business owner, nonprofit executive or academician, we each have a story to tell.

Most important, our stories can and will lead to success in the marketplace if we follow certain rules to tell them effectively.

Storytelling as an art form has been around since the dawn of time.

Entertainers, writers and filmmakers have profited from their capacity to tap into the emotions of their audiences. Politicians have become more adept at using stories to emphasize points, strategies, policies and vision. Trial lawyers use stories to persuade juries and judges.

There is power in a good story because the listener can relate to the theme or conclusion once it is finally revealed. Also, in an age of static PowerPoint presentations, short Twitter messages and impersonal emails, stories help restore much-needed human connection.

This lost art can be helpful for those who are seeking employment, developing pitches to potential clients or customers, running for office or explaining a multimillion-dollar merger or acquisition. The story adds a personal value that few other resources can offer.

Telling a good story requires boldness and a desire to think creatively. It also demands a level of self-reflection that keeps the story sincere.

Keeping it real

If we think critically enough, we can connect our personal, community, client, customer or company stories with our overall goals and find a way to tell them in our unique voices. I have studied the art of storytelling for some time, and determined that stories are best received when they incorporate certain characteristics.

Good stories are simple: Muriel Humphrey, the first woman to represent the state of Minnesota in the U.S. Senate, remarked that "a speech does not need to be eternal to be immortal."

The same holds true with our stories. It is important to refrain from telling too much and potentially losing the audience. Our juries, employees, listeners, stockholders are smart. They get it. Once the substance of the story is disclosed, it does not need to be hammered over and over to make the point stronger.

A story can consist of very few words but still chronicle a series of events. I am reminded of the Garth Brooks song with the chorus, "Papa loved mama; mama loved men. Mama's in the graveyard; papa's in the pen."

Good stories are real. There is nothing better or more intriguing than reality.

With the popularity of "reality television" outpacing more conventional shows, it is clear that people enjoy hearing and knowing real things about real people.

Juries want to know how and why a party to litigation behaved in a certain manner. Employees want to know how they will be affected by certain circumstances. Constituents want to know how policies proposed by their elected officials will impact their communities.

Sugar-coating the truth hurts a story. Being honest and real helps advance a story.

Making it personal

Good stories inspire: Think about the last great movie, book or show that you believe told a good story.

Chances are it inspired you to do something -- laugh, cry, write a letter, start a nonprofit company, join a mentoring program or just think more deeply about an issue.

Our stories must cause listeners to act. The greatest leaders in all industries are those who inspire action, and action can be inspired by stirring the soul with a compelling story.

Good stories are personal: Take a few minutes to Google the closing argument by actor Matthew McConaughey in the movie "A Time to Kill." In it, McConaughey's character determines that the only way to convince the jury of his client's innocence is to make the client's story personal to the jury.

To be successful in capturing our audience, we have to make our stories personal to them. Although it would be nice to think that all who listen to us really care about what we say about ourselves, the truth is that they would be more attentive if we talked more about how our stories are their stories.

As professionals, we are charged with working hard to position ourselves to succeed. Part of the branding process that comes along with creating our position is finding, creating and telling our story. When we find our voice, we are more likely to find our space in the marketplace.

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Craig A. Thompson is a partner at Venable LLP, and represents clients in the areas of commercial litigation, products liability, and personal injury. He is the chair of the firm's diversity committee. He is also the host of a weekly two-way talk radio show, and the author of a series of children's books on African-American history. His email address is CAThompson@Venable.com.

Published: Tue, May 31, 2011

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