Science Explores the Power of Storytelling to Persuade

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.  

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Podcasting Legal Writing Lessons

Over the course of the six years I have taught here, the Law School’s technological resources have gotten better and better. For instance, every classroom in which I teach now has equipment that allows me to project documents onto a screen at the front of the classroom, working on edits as we discuss them in the classroom. I can project from the web as I discuss legal research tools, such as the law library’s helpful start page. I can play audio or video files for the class, such as tapes of oral arguments from or from the Wisconsin Supreme Court site for my appellate writing and advocacy class.

Most recently, with the help of our IT department I have been using digital recording technology (a headset microphone and audacity software) to record some of my instruction and make it available for students to work through at their convenience. The podcasts are especially effective for material that some students need more help with than others, such as citation, grammar and punctuation, or editing for conciseness. Last semester, my students’ responses to the podcasts was overwhelmingly positive.

The pioneer podcaster among the legal writing faculty was Alison Julien, who, I understand, has moved on to “webcasting,” i.e., digital videorecordings of her instruction.

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The Door’s Open, But the Ride It Ain’t Free

The Open Door Church has sued the Sun Prairie (Wis.) Area School District in federal court in Madison. The complaint alleges that the district has adopted a broad policy permitting community groups to use the district’s facilities. However, the district seems to have adopted a policy of permitting waiver of rental charges for all potential users, except religious groups. As a result, the church has paid a fee for using a school classroom for weekly meetings of a club for children, while a variety of other groups, allegedly engaging in similar but nonreligious uses, were not charged.

Although the district has now changed its policy to require that all groups be charged, it has grandfathered those users for whom fees have already been waived, thus perpetuating any unconstitutional distinction between religious and nonreligious users.

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