Posted by: Jarom Whitehead on Apr 9, 2020


A universal truth is that people like a good story. A good story resonates. A good story transcends usual boundaries of society and can act to bind us together and find common cause with complete strangers. What we [hope to] do as trial lawyers is tell our client’s story in a compelling and effective way that gets others to understand and empathize with their cause.

I am not a great storyteller. I have to really work at it. I have eagerly watched, listened and read anything I can get my hands on to help me get better. One of my favorite podcasts is The Memory Palace hosted by Nate Dimeo. Nate is an excellent storyteller. If you’ve never heard of him, use your Coronavirus lock-down time to give his podcast a listen. He takes historical accounts of events and tells the story in a completely immersive and engaging way. Many of his podcasts are 10 to 20 minutes long. He can convey a lot of important factual information in a short amount of time. They are perfect for today’s audience and their notoriously short attention spans.

Listening to Nate has reinforced that effective storytelling involves a deep understanding of human emotions, motivations, and psychology in order to truly move an audience. And while everyone can tell a story, there is a big difference between good storytelling and great storytelling.

I recently stumbled across Pixar’s 22 rules of storytelling — here are the top six we should learn from.

1.    Great stories are universal 

Great storytelling is about taking a piece of the human condition (things like growth, emotionality, aspiration, tragedy and conflict) and conveying them in an interesting way.
Acclaimed Pixar director Pete Docter puts it perfectly:
“What you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to write about an event in your life that made you feel some particular way. And what you’re trying to do, when you tell a story, is to get the audience to have that same feeling.”
As trial lawyers we are often telling the same story over and over. Our challenge is to make it resonate each time. What we face are negative bias and expectations from our audience [jurors] that we need to avoid. “I’ve heard this one before” could be a common refrain in the jury room.
Find the uniqueness in your client’s story and break down the elements that make them unique and worthy of your advocacy. I’ve heard experienced trial lawyers tell me - go to your client’s home. Find out about the person. The reason this helps is it necessarily evokes those real feelings you have to recognize in order to tell your client’s story yourself.
You and your client are part of the human condition and people will relate to that.

2.    Great stories have a clear structure and purpose

        Part A (Structure)

One way to develop a compelling story is to use “The Story Spine” formula created by professional playwright and improviser Kenn Adams.

It goes:

The Story Spine — Emma Coats
It seems basic, because it is. The problem is most people do not intuitively organize their thoughts this way. The next time you listen to a potential client tell their story to you, keep this in mind. Give the Story Spine a shot to help develop a truly unique story to tell.
        Part B (Purpose)
Your purpose in telling a story as a trial lawyer might be obvious, it might not. Asking yourself the following questions will help you identify the key to your particular story.
Why must you tell THIS story?
What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of?
What greater purpose does this serve? What does it teach?
Answer this to understand the heart of really great storytelling. We often call these themes and try and focus our case presentation around it but it is really more than that. When you focus on the purpose, you inherently begin to focus on the story that will generate the same passion in the listener as it does in you. If you can’t find that passion yourself, find a different case to work on. I think that gets lost a lot of the time.

3.    Great stories have a character to root for

Believe it or not, people want to root for your client (the main character).
AND they love a good underdog.
Find what makes your client’s cause a worthy one and focus on that. In a typical injury case we often worry about things like the amount of medical bills as the determiner of how “good” our client’s case is. While that might be a practical consideration, it doesn’t really tell our client’s story. Learn how to frame the client and their goals in the litigation in a way that resonates with other people. What journey is our client on and why should others care?
Good story tellers understand that the audience admires and identifies with a character for trying more than for their success. In other words, it’s more about the character’s journey than it is their actual destination.
When you and your client are battling against all odds, facing adversity, and their back is against the wall - you have yourself the makings of great story.
Give the people an unexpected hero to root for.

4.    Great stories appeal to our deepest emotions

It has been said that the law should be completely devoid of emotion. It isn’t true. In fact, it is impossible. Understanding the emotional impact of our client’s story is understanding how to tell that story effectively. 
The more you understand how and when your own emotional levers are pulled, the more you’ll appreciate how that works in other people (and the more you’ll be able to convey those emotions in your stories).
Work on being able to recognize the emotions the story evokes in you and think about the “why.”
Continuously question yourself in order to understand your own emotional reactions to your client’s story so that you can learn to convey the authentic story to the audience that counts.

5.    Great stories are surprising and unexpected

The stories we are often asked to tell seem mundane and “typical.” The great challenge for trial lawyers is to avoid confirming some negative bias or prejudice against plaintiffs in general when we present our case. WE can do this by finding the unexpected in our client’s stories.  Our particular audience needs to know that our client’s case is different than what they might have expected.  Stories are engaging when our perceptions of reality are challenged or changed in some way. That’s one of the great things Nate Dimeo does with The Memory Palace. See what you can do in your next case meeting to flesh out the unexpected or surprising elements of the case that make it stand out and worthy of engagement. Stories are compelling when our perceptions of reality are challenged or changed in some way.

6.    Great stories are simple and focused

We as audiences know a good story when we see or hear one.
Have you ever watched a movie or read a book where you had to keep asking yourself (or someone else) what was happening in the plot?
Not a great experience.
As lawyers, we naturally want to include as much information as possible in our stories to try and persuade and convince. We want to pack the story full of characters and facts. More often than not, we’re simply adding layers that don’t need to be there.
The good storyteller’s advice here is to “combine characters and hop over detours.”
While you as the lawyer may feel like you’re losing lots of valuable “facts”, it’ll set you free in the end and will allow your audience to get lost in the narrative. This is where focus groups are invaluable. It helps us focus on what people really want to know. But, don’t be suckered into bloating your case. The best stories are simple. For this I refer you to listen to the episode of The Memory Palace called “Secret Kitty.” To this day one of the best short (true) stories I have ever heard.  Give it a listen and see if you don’t agree. Find it at:
I’m still a mediocre storyteller. But I’m getting better. Now when I plan my closing arguments, I ask myself: “How would Nate tell this story?” I think it helps.