Tell Better Stories

Podcasting has become something of a recurring joke around my office this year.

One of my colleagues has recently become intrigued by the medium, and is eager to find suitable client or in-house projects where our agency can work in this arena. I’ve been helpfully proposing that every project we discuss is a nail for which this newfangled podcasting hammer would be the perfect tool and teasing her about the cutting edge nature of this technology, which has had native support within iTunes since 2005, and is really but a short technological hop from old-fashioned radio serials that have been extant for almost a century.

Hot on the heels of my genial mockery (fret not for my colleague, I get as good as I give) I quickly found myself hoist with my own petard when I noticed the nespresso-machine buzz in our small studio was increasingly focused on a new legally themed podcast called SERIAL. Upon giving it a try, I too quickly became hooked (to the podcast, I’ve been a caffeine addict for decades already).

For the uninitiated, SERIAL is podcasting’s breakout hit, debuting at #1 on iTunes and garnering more downloads than any other podcast in history (over 20 million and counting as of Dec. 2014). The series was explicitly designed by the show’s creators to be the audio equivalent of a great HBO or Netflix series – “like House of Cards or Game of Thrones but you can enjoy it while you’re driving”. SERIAL is a 12-episode non-fiction investigative reporting series that explores a 15-year old teenage murder case in Baltimore, and questions whether or not the jilted boyfriend convicted in the case and now serving a life sentence was in fact wrongfully convicted. Essentially the show asks listeners to step into the role of armchair jurors, while the show’s narrator carefully unspools the evidence in seesaw fashion that will have you switching camps between “he did it” and “he didn’t do it” constantly throughout the duration of the series.

As I binge-listened to the show over a period of two weeks or so I pondered what exactly it was that made the program so compelling. After all, at the heart of the series is a legal case that, despite the gravity of the crime involved, looks harrowingly “normal” in its details. A 15-year old murder case, in which the teenage victim’s body was quickly located, the recently spurned pot-smoking boyfriend was questioned and promptly arrested and then convicted. It is the kind of case many seasoned criminal defence lawyers have probably been involved with several times over the course of a career. The fact that a glorified long-form radio program about a relatively ordinary criminal case from a decade-plus ago could generate 20 million downloads meant I couldn’t shake the feeling there was a lesson in here somewhere about how to make the work lawyers do and the material we produce to try and generate that work more accessible and compelling.

“Aah!” I hear you say. “But this – this ‘podcast’ of which you speak – it is clearly some form of entertainment, not the stern-minded and somber practice of law, of which I am a grim-faced practitioner. Entertainment has no business in my business.” And you are correct in that assessment. Up to a point.

The show is entertainment, but it is also serious journalism. The show’s narrator Sarah Koenig is a veteran reporter with stints at the New York Times, ABC News and The Baltimore Sun under her belt, and the show’s reporting spurred the University of Virginia School of Law’s Innocence Project to file a motion for further forensic and DNA testing after the school’s Innocence Project Director was interviewed for the show and became intrigued by the case. So, yes the show is a pop culture phenomenon, but not the utterly trifling kind. And the fact that it’s “entertainment” doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the incredible interest in a relatively low-tech exploration and serious discourse involving the same kind of source material law firms all over the country work with every day.

Ultimately, my two take-aways from the show were this:

First, we need to tell better stories. I can easily think of a dozen great litigators I’ve known personally, and every one of them had the seemingly innate ability to spin a great yarn and tell stories from the trenches of practice that leave you on the edge of your seat as they speak. Recognizing the boundaries of client confidentiality that must always be respected, I can’t help but feel that there is more that can and should be done to harness that talent and bring to the forefront some of the compelling individual stories and successes that lawyers, law firms and their clients so frequently encounter, and to let prospective clients see their own issues and thought processes reflected in the discussions and materials about the law that we produce. In practical terms, this translates into law firm websites with more client case studies and rich content (audio files, video, transcripts, etc.) and fewer bulleted lists of generic practice descriptions and unreadable homages to the noble history of the firm.

Second, superlative production values make a world of difference. Every aspect of the SERIAL podcast crackles with exquisite and compelling design elements intended to catch your attention, from the high-end narration to the original score to the deliberately-used mispronunciation of the show’s primary sponsor that became a meme unto itself, to the typography used in the show’s title. All of those meticulously crafted details build incrementally upon each other to create the auditory equivalent of an experience that just “feels right” – like driving a high-performance car on a twisty deserted highway or skiing a perfect run through fresh powder.

So, to sum up, we need to put more emphasis on using story-telling techniques in the content we produce, and then we need a continued push on sweating the details as far as we can because every last one of them counts. It all sounds so straightforward really. Maybe I should make a podcast about it. . .


  1. I really enjoyed your post. Great storytelling is an asset for both lawyers and judges. A great book on how to tell better stories is Made to Stick. I wrote about it in my blog “Why Binnie’s Judgments are So Prolific”

  2. Thanks Doug… there’s something familiar about this podcast stuff!