Time and again, you have probably been told to “tell a story” during opening. People remember things best in story format. But not just any story – it has to be told right. There can’t be too many details or the story structure gets lost. Each sentence has to move the story forward in time; otherwise, you’re telling details, not a story. It must move chronologically (with very few exceptions). Sometimes it is nice to hear proof of what happens when one side tells a coherent story and the other side does not. Below are excerpts from post-verdict juror interviews I have recently done on a case. The plaintiff’s attorney told a story and the defendant did not (or at least not a coherent one that followed the rules of storytelling). I will remove any names or case information to preserve confidentiality.
Question: Tell me about the Plaintiff’s opening
Juror 1: I remember initially it seemed kind of goofy because they had already said these people admitted liability and they painted this dramatic picture, which I’m not saying it wasn’t…I understand now why he did it because he was able to give a picture of all the inter muscular damage that was probably done at that particular moment. Juror 2: It was long. He went over the details of the case and I was confused because the defendant admitted he was wrong. It was a case about a man whose life was drastically altered.
Question: Tell me about the Defendant’s opening
Juror 1: It kind of felt to me like he just didn’t have a story he wanted to tell. It was more like choppy statements than a story. Juror 2: I honestly don’t remember specific details of it. He just tried to paint the picture that none of this was connected with [the plaintiff’s] problems now.
Notice how neither juror remembers much about the defendant’s opening. Without a good story, their minds had nothing to grasp hold of. When you write your opening, make sure the story comes through. Follow good rules of storytelling and jurors will remember what you say. They will view the rest of the case through that story lens and shape evidence in their minds to fit with it. If you do not give them a good solid story on which to base the rest of their evaluations of the case, you lose a lot of leverage.