New Zealand Law Society - ‘Story’ - what does it have to do with lawyers?

‘Story’ - what does it have to do with lawyers?

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“The shortest distance between a human being and truth is a story” – Anthony de Mello.

The fictitious law firm of Smith & Same, located in Anywhere, New Zealand, recently committed to offering a mission-driven learning and development curriculum for its lawyers. The firm’s mission was to become more “business like” (and therefore more profitable), while retaining the unique, professional culture of the organisation. A key outcome of the curriculum was to enhance lawyer business development/profile building skills. This was “job one”.

The lawyers in the firm told me that a key way build a professional profile was to be an excellent public speaker.

Interestingly, however, even successful litigators admitted they did not know how to design and deliver a high impact/memorably good oral presentation. They were slightly embarrassed to admit this, but it was true. Although they knew how to argue effectively, they didn’t know how to reach an audience of non-lawyers (who were their prospective clients or referral sources).

I found myself thinking about Dan Pink’s book, A Whole New Mind. Pink talks about how, in a world dominated by left brain thinking, the way to differentiate oneself and be optimally successful, is through cultivating right brain capabilities such as “story – which is narrative added to products and services – not just argument.”

In other words, it’s about delivering facts and information, but doing so through the guise of story.

As Pink says: “Stories are easier to remember – because in many ways, stories are how we remember.

“Most of our experience, our knowledge and our thinking are organised as stories. When facts become so widely available and instantly accessible, each one becomes less valuable. What begins to matter more is the ability to place these facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact.”

If the lawyers at Smith & Same wanted to become better public speakers to build their practices/profiles, then they needed to become better storytellers.

When I suggested this approach, it was met with clear skepticism. I knew I was about to go out on a limb and this was quickly confirmed. One of the younger partners said: “Stories are what I tell my children at bedtime. They are not what I do as a lawyer”. I decided to spend some “political capital” on this one and asked the group give me the benefit of the doubt for at least one workshop session. Here’s what happened.

What makes the difference?

Penny, a trusts and estates lawyer at Smith & Same, attended my workshop and wanted tips on giving a presentation to a group of fund managers who are a source of future clients. Penny is passionate about trusts and estates administration but she knows that the ins and outs, dos and don’ts of her area of expertise are technical and complex.

What makes an effective public speaker? How often have you listened to a speaker at a seminar or meeting and not been engaged? The topic was on something you were interested in but you had to concentrate really hard to absorb the dense wad of information. You were initially somewhat dazzled by the expertise and depth of knowledge of the speaker but an hour later you really struggled to remember much of what was actually said. A day or two later your memory of who the speaker was faded into the mists of time.

Compare that experience to one of listening to someone who grabbed your attention from the outset. You were engaged. You came away with a clear sense of the core messages delivered, even if you couldn’t remember all the details. The personality of the speaker is still imprinted on your memory and you remember thinking how interesting it would be to meet them again.

So what makes the difference? How can the lawyers at Smith & Same learn to become the interesting speaker and what on earth do stories have to do with this?

Neuroscience and sense making

Understanding a little more about how our brains work helps us to understand why the use of story is so effective in delivering a message.

As rational thinking lawyers, skilled in organising relevant information in a logical way, we can be fooled into thinking that our “rational/thinking brain” or neo-cortex, is the most important part of our brain in assimilating new information. Our neo-cortex is responsible for language, thought, reasoning, creative thinking and integration of sensory information into meaningful patterns.

However our neo-cortex is integrated with other brain functions, in particular our limbic system or mammalian brain which is the seat of emotion and our capacity for empathy.

Thinking, reasoning and making choices all look like products of reason, but they depend enormously on emotions and feeling. Our neo-cortex is heavily influenced every moment by limbic brain feelings which are triggered by words, sensations, pictures, gestures and expressions. We make sense of our experiences at an emotional as well as a rational level.

Our brains are wired to seek out narrative. It is how we make sense of the world. Stories engage our imagination and the pictures that we create in our imagination when we listen to a story help us to organise information in a way that makes sense to us. Presenting information in story form can make remembering and understanding that information more enduring and interesting because of the way our brains function.

Setting the scene

Setting the scene helps to orient your listeners to receive your message.

After the workshop, Penny designed an introduction to her presentation by telling a story at the outset which illustrated the elements of the topic she wished to speak on. It was concise but compelling and asked more questions rather than giving answers to hook her listeners’ interest in what was to come next. We then worked on interspersing the delivery of factual content with illustrating examples and the use of metaphor and imagery where appropriate.

I had Penny and the other lawyers participating in the workshop create real life stories or scenarios to illustrate the facts or information that they wanted to present. Obviously care had to be taken to anonymise facts to protect confidentiality.

Penny worked on a scenario to illustrate a typical situation where a client had not sought specific advice with dire consequences following as a result. In this way, her audience could link the story to the information Penny had presented. In listening to the presentation, they would create their own images of parallel situations or possibilities in a meaningful and memorable way.

Making a presentation come alive

An effective speaker does not just tell stories. He or she can develop public speaking skills to make all elements of their presentation come alive.

There have been many books written on how to prepare and deliver effective presentations, but I wanted these lawyers to have an experience of both being the speaker and the listener by working together in small groups of two or three, and giving each other constructive feedback on how engaging and interesting they were as speakers.

In the workshop I invited the lawyers to list the qualities that they felt distinguished an effective speaker. It was a given that the speaker knew their topic and something of value to say. So what were the other important factors? Here is what they came up with:

  • the presenter made eye contact with the audience;
  • the presenter didn’t read verbatim from his or her notes – notes or PowerPoint slides were used only as a prompt;
  • less was more in terms of the content of the presentation;
  • the content of the presentation matched the interests of the audience;
  • the speaker seemed interested in the people in the audience and was not an aloof person looking down at them from a platform or hiding behind a podium;
  • the speaker used humour; and
  • the speaker looked animated and interesting rather than wooden and bland.

Creating rapport with the audience

Establishing an immediate connection or rapport with your audience is a skill developed by effective presenters.

If you can engage your audience from the start and make them feel welcomed, they are warmed up and will be receptive to your message more quickly, just as with a good stand-up comic. This doesn’t meant that you have to tell jokes. The trick is to find ways that suits your particular personality and are appropriate to the situation.

If you are not well known by your listeners you can start by introducing yourself – telling them something about who you are and how you have come to be there with them. If your listeners already know you, you can acknowledge your relationships or connections to them in some way to make them feel special and included. Again, in the workshop, I had the lawyers practise these strategies in small groups, giving each other feedback and tips on what worked and didn’t work.

In the workshop I worked with the participants on maintaining engagement with an audience during their presentation. Each person practised speaking to the whole group, and the feedback from their colleagues helped each one to see what they could do to improve their effectiveness.

We worked on maintaining eye contact with groups both small and large; how to connect with and reach even the listeners in the far corners or back of a room; how to observe and gauge the mood of the room – to notice when you lost their attention and adjust your presentation, or when puzzled expressions might alert you to stop and invite questions or check that they are all still with you.

It is important that each speaker finds their own style and understands how to build upon their strengths and utilise their individual personality. One of the keys to effective public speaking is to be authentic, which means not trying to be someone you are not! This does not mean that you cannot try new things or challenge yourself to expand your skills. Start with what you are comfortable with and work from there.

It is useful to watch a video recording of yourself presenting and to notice any unconscious mannerisms which distract rather that add to your presentation. These can be worked on over time and positive attributes enhanced.

Awareness of the tone, speed and dynamics of your voice is useful. Varying your tone and dynamics of your voice can help to keep people awake and engaged. When delivering complex information, experiment with speaking more slowly; breaking the

information down into smaller bites; watching the audience to check they understand; pausing a moment to allow information to be digested. Learning to use our voices more effectively is another workshop in itself!

Use of humour is very engaging if this is something you can do. However, just being an entertaining clown is not going to impress your audience if you are not able to present the message they are there to receive. I encouraged the group to continue to work together to coach and encourage each other to improve and build their skill base in all these areas.


Some weeks later, I checked back with the lawyers at Smith & Same who had attended the workshop. I was interested to hear how they were going putting their new skills into practice.

Several of them, including Penny, had made presentations to existing client groups, industry seminars and even to a local community meeting on a proposed law change.

They told me that the most significant difference they noticed was they actually had fun and could sense that their audience was interested and engaged. They had been thanked by members of the audience and the partners had received emails acknowledging the firm for their contributions.

During the workshop, I had suggested they could continue to build on their confidence and learning by reflecting and practising together and supporting each other in further developing their public speaking skills. They invited each other to attend their presentations to share feedback and learn from each other. This built capacity and knowledge within the firm which they could then pass on to other colleagues.

By enhancing their professional profiles through presentations, the lawyers at Smith & Same were able to advertise their services and communicate their knowledge base to a wider client base in an effective, informative and memorable way.

Emily Morrow was a lawyer and senior partner with a large firm in Vermont, where she built a premier trusts, estates and tax practice. Having lived and worked in Sydney and Vermont, Emily now resides in Auckland and provides tailored consulting services for lawyers, barristers, in-house counsel, law firms and barristers’ chambers focusing on non-technical skills that correlate with professional success; business development, communication, delegation, self-presentation, leadership, team building/management and the like. She can be reached at

Deborah Sim is a barrister, mediator and storyteller practising at the specialist family law Wyndham Chambers in Auckland. Deborah is an assessor for the NZLS mediation trainings and is on the teaching faculty of the Collaborative Law Association of NZ. She enjoys presenting at seminars and conferences and successfully combines the use of stories and story technique to add interest and focus to her presentations.

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