In this episode of Trial Lawyer Nation, Michael Cowen sits down with Cowen | Rodriguez | Peacock partner, Malorie Peacock, for another installment of TLN Table Talk to answer the questions of our listeners. Today’s topic focuses on storytelling in trial and identifying the “characters” in your case.
They begin with the most obvious question on today’s topic, why do we want to tell a story instead of just presenting our facts? Michael explains that people don’t learn through cold, clinical facts and if you want a juror to connect to your client’s situation, they must relate to it. The easiest and most effective way for them to relate is oftentimes through a story. Michael adds that we are genetically programmed to think in story, going all the way back to the campfire in the cave scenario, also noting that people can tell when a story is not right. Malorie also describes what stories are on a very basic level, in that they aren’t something that is made up for a trial, but rather something that is very specific and still based on facts. A sequence of events with a beginning, middle, and an end with characters who have motivations for doing things.
Conversely, the real danger of not having a story, Michael explains, is that the jurors are going to come up with a story. For Michael’s team, the story might be about the greedy trucking company who pushed their drivers to drive more hours than are safe on the road, just to make more money. Whereas, a different story that could be formulated by a juror on their own might be about a greedy plaintiff’s lawyer who took a case and is trying to make a lot of money from it. And because the juror wants to be the “hero” of the story, they might stop the attorney from getting that money. This puts even more importance on the story that gets told, for the client’s benefit.
Does every story need to have a hero? Yes, and it’s always the same group of heroes (the jury). Michael refers to a book written by Carl Bettinger called Twelve Heroes, One Voice, that has really helped him to understand the dynamics of storytelling, heroes and villains, and how the jury must be the hero in a trial. He also notes that this book transformed his thinking from where he had thought he, as the attorney or his client needed to be the hero when in reality, the only ones who can do anything heroic are the jurors, because they’re the ones who can save the day.
Michael points out that it is important when starting to storyboard your case that you carefully consider who the “villain” is while also keeping an open mind to the idea that it could always change before going to trial. Michael has gone so far as to research and study playwriting and screenwriting books to find out what the common characteristics of villains are since most people have learned about heroes and villains through watching movies or tv and he wanted to be able to give people a story structure that they can relate to. He lays out his findings of the 5 ideal characteristics of a villain as he found them to relate to the courtroom, those being that they are: Powerful, Intelligent, Immoral, Deceptive, and an Individual (not a collective or an entity). Michael and Malorie go on to talk more about the immorality of these villains and the selfish quality that they portray, while also pointing out that these people are not typically evil just for the sake of being evil (like in some movies), but rather are just willing to risk others for the sake of their own gains. Again, it’s not that they actively set out to kill someone that adds to their guilt, but rather the act of knowing something is wrong and then doing it anyway, also known as conscious indifference, or as Malorie points it out, as a selfish quality to such villains.
Why is it so important to make the villain an individual versus a company or a collective? Michael explains that we just haven’t been programmed in our upbringing to see the villain as a corporation or collective and therefore it doesn’t translate as well into the courtroom. Corporations are not actual “people” and thereby do not have emotions or individual thoughts, again making it hard for them to take on the responsibility for making a decision. So, if you can find the person that made the decision, who knowingly endangered the public, it becomes so much more impactful to a jury, especially when that person is powerful, intelligent, deceptive, and immoral.
The focus shifts from heroes and villains to what role you, as an attorney, and your client (the plaintiff) play in the typical courtroom story, to which Michael sees the plaintiff as the survivor or the one who needs rescuing by the jury, and the attorney as the ones guiding the jury to the truth…like a courtroom Yoda. As a part of that Yoda-like role, Malorie and Michael discuss the need to stay calm and collected when dealing with people who are trying to be deceptive and allowing yourself to place the trust in the jury to see things for what they are and that they will do the right thing. Michael goes on to point out that going into the courtroom without that trust in the jury or suspicion that they may not do the right thing, will almost always do more harm than good to your case. It will show unconsciously in your body language, a tone of voice, and you will have a disconnect with the jurors. Michael also credits Joe Fried and Michael Leizerman on helping him to understand that concept as well.
This TLN Table Talk continues with vital conversations on how you structure a story for a trial where the jury can come to their own conclusions about the villain on their own so not to “tell them what to think;” why it is less impactful to accuse someone of being deceptive, versus exposing it; being aware of the other stories being told in the courtroom so not to seem like you’re beating up the defense and inadvertently become the villain yourself; along with many other real-life, and some fictional, stories to illustrate Michael and Malorie’s insights. Clearly topics they both have a lot of experience with and knowledge that any attorney can find helpful.