Keeping it real: storytelling, metaphors, and concrete language

Here’s an example of combining storytelling, metaphors, and concrete language to create a powerfully effective combination. And it comes from one of the most talked-about U.S. law firms in the 1990s. 

Being a juror in a trial is a bit like being the scorekeeper at a basketball game without knowing the rules. Do free throws count the same as a 10-foot jumper? What about a last-second shot from half-court? Now imagine you’re the coach of one of the teams. How do you call the plays so that your naive scorekeeper will declare your team the winner at the end?

That’s how Jerry Jones describes the job of jurors and the trial lawyers who argue in front of them. Jerry spent two decades as an attorney at the Rose Law Firm in Little Rock, Arkansas, working alongside other notable partners such as Hillary Clinton and Vince Foster. He says judges don’t typically give the jury instructions until after all the testimony and closing statements have been made. And even then, those instructions leave much to the jury’s discretion. Then they retire to the jury room and tally up the score. That’s why Jerry always found it helpful to give the jury ideas on how to keep score in his opening statement.

Like any good trial lawyer, Jerry is an experienced storyteller. He masterfully weaves in relevant metaphors and concrete examples to make his message clear and compelling. For example, Jerry recalls one particular case where he represented the plaintiff in a breach of contract case. A multimillion-dollar company had broken the terms of a franchise agreement with his client, a much smaller company, costing his client lost revenues and profits. The jury found in favor of his client, but then had to determine how much the big company had to pay in damages. In addition to the actual loss incurred, Jerry was asking for punitive damages because of the intentional and malicious nature of the breach. Here’s where the scorekeeping comes in. How much a company should pay in punitive damages is left largely to the jury. Jerry needed to give the jury members a way to determine what was fair, but not too damaging to the defendant. So he told them a story they could all relate to.

“Do you remember that big snowstorm we had a couple of years ago?” Jerry asked. “Five inches, I think.” The jury members all nodded. It doesn’t snow much in Arkansas, so when they get a really big snow, it’s hard to forget. “Well, then you’ll remember there were a lot of people around here who couldn’t get out of their homes to go to work or to school for about five days.” More nods from the jury. “Yeah, it was tough for a few days. But we got on with life afterward, maybe even a little smarter. Because the next time the weatherman said a big snow was coming, what did you all do? You went out and stocked up on food and water and batteries, and maybe even got a generator, didn’t you?”

“Well, we want to do the same thing with this company. We don’t want to put them out of business with punitive damages. We just want them to remember this and change their behavior in the future. Now, according to their annual report, they make about $200,000 in profit every working day. So if they had to stay home for five days like we all did with that 5-inch snowstorm a couple of years ago, that would cost them $1 million. A 10-inch storm might cost them $2 million. Your job is to decide how much it’s going to snow. I’m sure you’ll pick a fair number.”

Jerry was hoping the jury would award one or two weeks’ worth of profits. And that’s exactly what he got.

The snowstorm and the days stuck at home was a brilliant metaphor to help the jury understand the value of punitive damages to teach a lesson and change behavior. Quantifying the company profits in terms of profits per day made the numbers real, understandable, and relevant to their daily lives, especially as it related to the snowstorm metaphor. All wrapped in the story, this combination of narrative tools was highly effective in Jerry’s hands. With them, he taught the jury how to keep score. And his team did win the game.

[You can find this and over 100 other inspiring leadership stories in my book, Lead with a Story.]

PAS square profile Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a Story and Parenting with a Story.

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