Rawhide, Reagan and Storytelling

April 6, 2011 Criminal Defense

Not long ago I met a former client and some friends for lunch at the Bel Air Hotel in Los Angeles. The former client regaled the table about her horrible mistreatment by the LAPD and loudly told everyone within earshot that now she got what I told her about Americans losing fifty percent of their constitutional rights during the Reagan regime. I thought it was humorous until I turned around and saw Nancy Reagan sitting at the next table. My criticisms were quite true of course, but I didn’t want to offend the former first lady. Or as Ronnie would quip: “There you go again.”

So I am not a fan of Ronald Reagan.  Well that is not exactly true.  I am not a fan of his misbegotten programs on criminal justice and civil rights. But as a man you can’t but help to like the guy; he was inspiring with a lot of personal courage.

I just finished “Rawhide Down: The Near Assassination of Ronald Reagan” by Del Quentin Wilber. This is a great read; in fact I was so engrossed, I read it in one night. It tells the story of the Hinckley attempted assassination in delicious detail. It follows the action almost minute by minute. And it is a great story. It reminded me of Manchester’s magnificent book “Death of a President” on the Kennedy assassination. Manchester kept his story to four days:  the day before, the day of and two days after the killing.  Both these books keep the reader engrossed in the story by using concrete details rather than general abstractions, and both authors are wonderful storytellers.

Another part of Reagan I admire was his genius at public speaking. Check out “The Reagan Persuasion” by James Humes to get an insight into Regan’s speaking ability. I learned quite a bit reading how he prepared to give a speech and his speech techniques. He was the great communicator.

And that is why lawyers should read both of them. We are storytellers. The lawyer who tells the best story is the winner. And great stories are told in concrete details. Concrete always persuades better than abstract. Vivid concrete images create memorable scenes. Our brains are wired to retain concrete images.

My favorite example is the fable of the Fox and the Grapes from Aesop’s tales. The fox kept jumping to get the grapes but after failing walked away saying I am sure they are sour. This story is thousands of years old yet today all you have to say is “sour grapes” and everyone gets your meaning. Does that tell the power of concrete detail and storytelling? If Aesop had merely written “don’t be a jerk if you fail” no one would have remembered that abstraction for more than two minutes.

Here is a slide I use in lectures to lawyers as their goal when performing a final argument. This lawyer’s final argument was so memorable it launched six law review articles. The ultimate praise.

Here is our problem: The difference between an expert and a novice is to think abstractly. So as we become better at our profession, we use abstract rules rather than concrete stories. We have books packed full of these rules. We recite these rules in our papers. We argue to judges with these rules. While they work with judges, they don’t with jurors. With jurors we need to turn our message into a concrete story to make it stick. When an engineer wants to understand a motor, he studies its schematic; a layman wants to see the motor.