Developing the Defining Narrative & Winning at Trial

It’s been said that whoevers owns the dominant narrative in the courtroom wins.

How do you make sure that your story becomes the dominant story?

In Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die: Made to Stick, Chip Heath and Dan Heath provide six simple elements for creating narratives that stick. These elements are:

  1. Simple
  2. Unexpected
  3. Concrete
  4. Credible
  5. Emotional
  6. Stories


To keep a story simple find the core of the theory. A great compact theory can be summed up in one statement and is profound. The most profound of theories are those that a person can spend an entire lifetime learning. An example of a great profound statement is: “Don’t do unto others what you don’t want others to do unto you.”


For ideas to endure they must generate curiosity and interest. We engage curiosity by opening gaps in the audience’s knowledge and closing them. “Gaps cause pain”. Therefore, we should shift our thinking from: “what information do I need to convey” to “what questions do I want my audience to ask?” We set up interest by revealing the gaps in knowledge and we keep it by slowly filling them.


Wherever possible make ideas concrete. Move from the abstract to the concrete. Ideas are made clear through referencing discrete activities. An example of making an idea concrete is the saying “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.

By making ideas concrete, we reduce opportunities for multiple interpretations and make it easier for a novice audience to understand. For example, a juror compared to a judge is a novice in the courtroom. As a novice audience member, their ability to think abstractly is reduced. In fact, it is our ability to think abstractly that separates the beginner (like a juror) from the expert (like a judge).


Appeal to external sources of credibility, like credentials, and internal sources of credibility, like emotional associations that already exist. For example, a politician enticing voters to ask may appeal to a person’s internal credibility by asking: “before you vote, ask yourself if you are better off today than four years ago?” The voter imagines this and bases a decision on how he internally feels about something.


Stories that evoke emotions are far more powerful.


Paint a picture of events. Allow the audience to visualize the plot.

An example of a narrative that has all 6 elements is the subway commercial of Jared.

  • It’s simple – He eats sub sandwiches and loses weight
  • It’s unexpected – He lost a lot of weight eating fast food
  • It’s concrete – He is shown holding oversized pants
  • It’s credible- The guy that wore those pants lost the weight.
  • It’s emotional – We care more about a person’s story than some statistic about eating subway sandwiches and losing weight.
  • It’s a story – Our protagonist overcomes big odds to triumph and inspires us to do the same.

So when developing a theory of the case, lawyers should check to see if it has all 6 elements. A theory that has all elements will have a better chance of becoming the dominant story in the courtroom. And once a story becomes entrenched in the courtroom, it is difficult for the deviating narrative to gain traction.

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