Science Explores the Power of Storytelling to Persuade

Posted on Categories Legal WritingTags ,

I read an interesting article from the Scientific American blog this morning, The Secrets of Storytelling:  Why We Love a Good Yarn.  As the article states, “Psychologists and neuroscientists have recently become fascinated by the human predilection for storytelling. Why does our brain seem to be wired to enjoy stories? And how do the emotional and cognitive effects of a narrative influence our beliefs and real-world decisions?”

As a legal writing professor, the most interesting part of this research is the way it is confirming, with good evidence, what good litigators have long recognized: “stories have a unique power to persuade and motivate, because they appeal to our emotions and capacity for empathy.”  I try to teach my students to think about the role of narrative in their legal analysis from the beginning of their work with a legal problem.  Of course, legal arguments must be based upon the law, but the best legal arguments are the ones that find a legal backbone for an appealing story.  (We are fortunate to have on the faculty at Marquette a leading scholar who has written extensively about narrative in legal discourse, David Papke.)

If you are interested in reading more specifically what the science shows, you could start with the “Happily Ever After” section of the article I am discussing, which discusses a few recent findings.  Some law professors are studying this stuff, too.  Kathryn Stanchi from Temple University (who had a long and strong litigation practice before going into teaching) has written two good articles on the subject: The Science of Persuasion:  An Initial Exploration and Playing with Fire:  The Science of Confronting Adverse Material in Legal Advocacy.  

2 thoughts on “Science Explores the Power of Storytelling to Persuade”

  1. “I try to teach my students to think about the role of narrative in their legal analysis from the beginning of their work with a legal problem.”

    Amen! I’m a big believer in the idea that any brief, or memo, or even complaint, needs to tell a story of some sort so that the reader can figure out what the heck is going on. It doesn’t need to be a dramatic story–it just needs to set the scene economically, so that you can get on with the heart of why you are there. Imagine if the opening scrolling titles of Star Wars (“Once upon a time in a galaxy far, far away…”) went on for 20 minutes instead of 1. That’s the way a lot of briefs open, with the writer detailing the statutory basis for the lawsuit and all of the procedural history to date, and only in the conclusion (if at all) stating what relief is sought.

    It also helps the lawyers, I think, frame the case for themselves and figure out what points to emphasize, or what facts to seek in discovery, if they have an idea of what narrative they will be constructing. I encourage my Civ Pro students, who have to “litigate” a case over the course of the semester, to think about what story it is they want to tell on behalf of their clients and how that relates to what documents and witnesses they should be seeking. Of course, there’s a trick to telling a story that fits with all of the facts, but better to have a bad story than no story at all.

  2. The philosopher Walter Fisher suggested we think of the human species as “homo narrans” rather than as the more familiar “homo sapiens.” He was pointing not only to the way humans beings find meaning in the telling and hearing of stories but also to the way a good story trumps a good argument. Appreciating the importance of narrative in the way we make sense of the world is obviously of importance in client counseling, brief writing, etc. If anything, it’s surprising that lawyers are not more adept narratologists than they are. Perhaps the lingering belief in (and longing for) a legal science impedes the development of a narrative jurisprudence.

Join the Conversation

We reserve the right not to publish comments based on such concerns as redundancy, incivility, untimeliness, poor writing, etc. All comments must include the first and last name of the author in the NAME field and a valid e-mail address.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.