Final Argument: Storytelling

August 9, 2011 Anna Deavere Smith

We are story tellers. It is our job to effectively communicate our client’s story. Nothing has the same impact as a story. It persuades and remains in the mind. Audiences are drawn to stories. I am always searching for models and inspiration to learn how to better tell a story.

Last Wednesday night I watched Anna Deavere Smith perform Let Me Down Easy at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica, California. I have followed her career for years, but this is the first time I watched her live. It makes all the difference. She was on stage armed with only a couch, a table and a couple of chairs for two hours and kept the audience in thrall. The theme of her show is to describe the state of our healthcare system through the eyes of participants, doctors, patients etc. I am not so interested in the merits, but rather it how she portrays people.

What does an entertainer like Anna Deavere Smith have to do with giving a final argument? Well, quite a lot. My mantra is: human attention is our most important product. You may have brilliant ideas, but if no one is listening, then they fall unheard like the tree in the proverbial forest. No one ever persuaded a jury by boring them to death.

Anna interviewed 320 people to create this show, but performed only twenty of them. She takes their words verbatim and acts them out in a series of monologues and allows the themes to be exposed through them. She plays celebrities like supermodel Lauren Hutton, Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong, and Vagina Monologues creator Eve Ensler. But most of them are regular people: a rodeo bull rider named Brent Williams, a dialysis patient named Hazel Merritt, and a doctor named Kiersta Kurtz-Burke, who worked at Charity Hospital in New Orleans in the days following Hurricane Katrina.

She has  keen eye for detail. As part of her performance she adopts their mannerisms, to the point of using their actual stutters, hem and haws, flailing arms to animate a point, or “umm” as a punctuation mark.  She uses these speech ticks and gestures to make the person come alive and be more vibrant, and interesting. She doesn’t merely impersonate them, but adopts their cadence, mimics their movements, and inhabits their body. She gets under their skin and brings them to life. With an exacting eye, she focuses on people and figures them out by cataloguing their facial, speech and body movements.

There is a lot to learn from Smith’s uncanny knack for observation, analysis, and ability to infer who people are through keen observation. It is the difference between looking and seeing. She sees who people are so she can tell their stories. Some profound, some silly like the model Lauren Hutton. There was no significance of her story except perhaps just the use of her name. It is the ordinary people who fascinate and have stories we want to experience. The celebrities seem artificial.

She gets to the core of each person. She strips away the surface and reveals the inner person. The best example of this is when she played Joel Siegel the ABC TV movie critic who compares cancer to “a snowflake,” in that “everyone’s cancer is different.” She becomes him by lying on a couch and projecting her face onto a video screen. He started with jokes and his TV shtick but then his voice changed, it got deeper and slower, and he told us about his disease and what it was doing to him. He was a different person. She got to his “truth,” not just the facts of his disease, but to the truth of who he was and what the disease was doing to him.

Isn’t that our job? To intensely interview witnesses and clients and get to their truth? Then be able to effectively portray that truth to the jury? We have to communicate to the jury the truth of a client’s story.  When we argue the evidence, we don’t just repeat witnesses’ words, but rather, what they are really saying. We have to get to their point of view, how it affected them, seek out the bias, get to the core of who they are, and be able to present it in a way the jury gets it.

Smith specializes in illustrating social injustice. Her two most famous performances are Fires in the Mirror, which dealt with a race riot between neighboring African American and Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, which examined the racial unrest in Los Angeles after the Rodney King verdict.

Dr. Kiersta Kurtz-Burke treated poor people in a New Orleans charity hospital during Katrina. She rhetorically asks, “Are we really going to treat poor people so differently than everybody else?”  We know the answer. They remained, abandoned in the hospital, without electricity, air-conditioning and flooded for six days. Rich people left in helicopters while FEMA and the government didn’t come for these people. It destroyed her faith in the government. She says that the black nurses and patients all knew that on the first day. The nurses, said, “We’re going to be stuck here. They’re not coming to get us.”  She thought that was a ridiculous idea and to see that play out shocked her.

She could just have the doctor pontificate that poor black people are mistreated, second class citizens. But it would have no impact. Instead she imparts the sense of shock. The doctor is shocked out of her assumption everyone is treated equally. The myth is exploded. She tells the story and we make the connection. She doesn’t hit us in the face with a speech. We do it ourselves.

One of the most heart-rendering monologues is an old tired black woman who runs a South African orphanage for children dying of AIDS; children who have lost everything and now are slowly losing their lives. They ask her whether after their death they can return to visit her. She tells them: “You will always be in my heart, even if you have passed away. You’re always in my heart and you’re always with me.”  There was not a dry eye in the house.

Smith is a storyteller, which makes her different than an entertainer. Entertainers entertain, while she imparts wisdom in a dramatic, entertaining way. It is not just an entertainment. Last night I went to a Chelsea Handler concert. It was pure entertainment packed full of short pithy jokes and stories. A far different type of show. We are storytellers not entertainers.

Smith communicates her arguments through the personal stories of these people. She could get up on stage and give a speech about the state of health care today, but it would be eminently forgettable. The stories are unforgettable. Everyday people, telling everyday stories, which turn out to be extraordinary.

The story about the children with AIDS stays with you long after you leave the theater. It stays in our minds. Human stories are unforgettable. Speeches can’t approach them.

What is extraordinary about her performance is that her themes are expressed through their words. Not hers. Not a script. But real people telling their stories. Their experiences. Their lives. One thing I have learned, it takes a long time to learn how to express yourself. One gift from John Farrell’s biography of Clarence Darrow was to see how Darrow learned to express himself in such brilliant and striking ways.

In an interview for Salon magazine Smith quoted a doctor: “We can see inside cells, we can see inside genes, we can do all kinds of things that we never could do before, but it doesn’t mean that we have the capacity to look at the whole person and understand that a disease shatters a whole person’s life.”  If only I could find a way to tell a jury how the same has happened with my client’s life.

The Broad Stage is a wonderful performance space. Eli Broad, an LA billionaire, funded the hall and many other public buildings. We sat in the second row right in the middle and it turned out to be a propitious location. While she was performing the rodeo star, she walked off the stage and walked across the first row. When she got to where I was sitting she looked me right in the eye while talking and gave me one of two bottles of beer she had in hand. Then clinked them as a toast. Needless to say that got my attention. The same happens with a juror when you look them in the eye while talking to them. I don’t suggest you give them a bottle of beer however. I did once use each of their jobs as an analogy during a very long argument. I could just see their eyes light up when I got to them. My favorite was a juror who worked for Federal Express. I used the famous Fedex commercial when arguing reasonable doubt: “It absolutely, positively has to be there.”

Too often trial lawyers fail to make the connection from their presentation to the jury. Smith made the connection between herself and the audience. She told stories which the audience could relate to. Stories which transcended the present moment. They removed the audience from their comfortable chairs in a beautiful auditorium and transported them into other lives and other places. When they returned, they shared a connection with these people, people they never would have met or even heard of. Now those people are part of them.

So tell a story.  Connect with the audience and give them a reason to care. Interact with the audience, develop relationships, and most importantly, help them understand. Presentations are two-way streets. Give and take. Don’t end up talking AT them. Ultimately this results in a disengaged jury whose attention span drops off dramatically. Interacting with your audience will keep them engaged, attentive, and make them feel appreciated because you honestly care about their thoughts, concerns, and needs.