As part of my research, I wanted to know how other professions understood influence and persuasion. I didn’t believe that we in Corporate America, especially in mainstream corporate training departments, had cracked the code on how the most persuasive people influence outcomes. So, I spent time in professions outside my own: politics, journalism, and legal (what are trial attorneys doing to influence the outcomes with jurors?). And what are the neuroscientists saying about all this?
It’s all a form of persuasion. What are the characteristics of the most persuasive people?
In the legal profession, lives hang in the balance as lawyers attempt to influence jurors to believe what they need them to believe. Consider the infamous O.J. Simpson trial. In 1995, Robert Shapiro and Johnnie Cochran’s legal defense team stunned the world by convincing a jury that O.J. Simpson was not guilty.
How did they do it? I wanted to know.
I started with Robert Shapiro’s book about the trial: The Search for Justice: A Defense Attorney’s Brief on the O.J. Simpson Case. Shapiro writes that his defense team began the trial by “launching into a relationship with the jury”—a relationship that was established using story. Shapiro writes that it began with Cochran’s “riveting opening statement.” “He’s a natural born storyteller.” In the book, Shapiro describes the story delivered in the opening statements, in an attempt to humanize Simpson, and the affects it immediately had: “The jurors were obviously listening carefully.”
“What Are You Talking About?”
After I read Shapiro’s book, I had the opportunity to interview him. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of telling him right off the bat that I’d read his book about the O.J. case—the same book in which he mentions his disdain for interviews about the O.J. case.
“What do you want to know?” he said, already impatient.
I started to tell him that I thought storytelling was underused & underdeveloped in corporate America, especially in the profession of ‘selling’. But he cut me short.
“Underused?” he said. “What are you talking about? There’s nothing ‘underused’ about storytelling. It’s exactly what we do in the courtroom. It’s what we’ve always done.”
Before I could get another word in, the conversation got interrupted and Shapiro said he had to go. The call had lasted barely two minutes. I was disappointed I didn’t get more time with him. I’d been hoping to learn more from him. Instead, it basically felt like he’d said those of us in the corporate world are idiots.
It wasn’t until that night, as I was telling my wife about the call, that it hit me: Shapiro had told me everything I needed to know. His basic message was, “Maybe you geniuses in corporate sales haven’t figured out the power of storytelling yet, but the legal profession has—a long time ago.”
And he was right.
Whether we’re promoting an idea, a belief, a point of view, a product, or a service, the goal is the same—to influence others to believe what we believe. On the most fundamental level, it’s about influencing change.
Who are the greatest influencers in American history?
Take Abraham Lincoln
Lincoln was a renowned communicator, a skilled orator who understood the power of story. “Instead of berating the incompetent generals who blundered in the Civil War’s early battles,” writes author Jeff Beals, “Lincoln educated and motivated them by using stories. To smooth over ruffled political feathers with members of Congress, Lincoln would pull out a story and use it to establish common ground.”
Lincoln himself was very conscious of the power of story to “sell” his ideas and beliefs. Here he is in his own words:
I believe I have the popular reputation of being a story-teller, but I do not deserve the name in its general sense, for it is not the story itself, but its purpose, or effect, that interests me. I often avoid a long and useless discussion by others or a laborious explanation on my own part by a short story that illustrates my point of view. So, too, the sharpness of a refusal or the edge of a rebuke may be blunted by an appropriate story, so as to save wounded feelings and yet serve the purpose. No, I am not simply a story-teller, but story-telling as an emollient saves me much friction and distress.