Framing Your Story for Maximum Impact

When I was a kid, we didn’t have HBO, Netflix, or Movies-on-Demand. Back then, if you wanted to watch a movie, there were only two choices. You could either go to the theater, or watch whatever was being televised on network TV.

When it came to broadcast TV, you didn’t have any control over which movies would be shown, but at least one movie was guaranteed to be re-broadcast every year. From 1959 to 1991, The Wizard of Oz was an annual television tradition. First shown on the big screen in 1939, The Wizard of Oz is one of the most famous movies ever created, and is adored by legions of fans. Some of the characters in the film, such as Dorothy, The Cowardly Lion and The Tin Man, are among the most beloved characters in movie history. Wicked?  or Misunderstood?But one of the characters in the movie is portrayed as one of the most evil characters ever written. The filmmakers went so far out of their way to label her as being wicked that they actually call her the “Wicked” Witch of the West. They did such an excellent job of selling her “wickedness” that generations of moviegoers have recoiled at the sound of her cackling laugh and promises to “…get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”

But here’s an interesting question: What if she wasn’t really wicked, but merely portrayed that way by a biased storyteller?

Wicked - The Broadway MusicalIn 1995, Gregory Maguire decided to set the story straight in his book, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. In this version, he reveals the Wizard of Oz as a corrupt government leader intent on subjugating his citizens, depicts Glinda the Good Witch as a self-absorbed snob, and tells a much different story about what really happend on the road to Oz. Most importantly, we learn that Elphaba, who will later become known as “The Wicked Witch of the West,” is not an evildoer, but merely a crusading animal rights activist intent on saving defenseless creatures from the Wizard’s maniacal plans. This version of the story was so so powerful that it was adapted into a wildly successful Broadway show, simply entitled Wicked, that became a Broadway hit in 2003 and proceeded to break box office records around the world.

Editor’s note: if you’ve never seen the show, you’ve GOT to get tickets. When the show came to Orlando, my date and I had a great time, and she absolutely loved it! Here’s their site:

Here’s the important lesson for trial lawyers to note. There are always two sides to every story. Although both stories in this case were built around similar characters and similar “facts,” they lead to wildly divergent conclusions. In one story, she’s the most “wicked” person in the kingom. In the other, she’s a kind, caring individual who’s character has been assasinated by a corrupt government.

As John Quincy Adams once said, “Whoever tells the best story wins.” In this case, both storytellers did remarkable jobs of pulling in the audience and constructing plausible, persuasive stories, but in the courtroom, only one storyteller can prevail. As a trial lawyer, it’s your job to tell your client’s story persuasively so that you win.

However, when you’re creating a persuasive storyline in court, you’re going to face a few limitations that most storytellers will never encounter. Most importantly, you’re not permitted to change the facts, re-cast the characters, or make stuff up. (As I’ve said before, “your facts are your facts.” If you try to change them, you’ll lose your license to practice.)

So if you can’t change your facts, how can you tell a persuasive story?

One of the most important things you can do is change how you frame your case. Framing makes a tremendous difference. If I show you a picture framed in a cheap plastic frame, you might think to yourself, “Eh… it’s alright, but nothing special.”

But, if I take that same picture to the frame store, get it matted, framed, placed behind non-glare glass, and framed in an elegant wooden frame, you might think, “Wow! That’s an amazing picture!”

Nothing about the picture changed — only the way it was framed.

How you frame your case makes a huge difference. Your facts are your facts, but the way you frame your story makes a tremendous difference in how the jury will view it. One of the most important lessons you need to keep in mind when framing your case is that your jurors don’t want to fight against inertia. They like to leave things the way they are, and not challenge their views of the world. The more you force them to fight their natural instincts, the more difficult you make your job.

For example, think about a case involving police brutality. Most of your typical jurors think that the police officers in their community are good, honest people doing a difficult, thankless job. If you try to frame your case as a story of “cops are bad,” then you’re swimming upstream, fighting against the jurors’ instinctual beliefs. However, if you reframe your story as “Cops are good, and the best way that we can continue to protect the good cops is to point our fingers at the bad ones,” you can use their instinctive beliefs and attitudes to your benefit. Same facts, different story.

The next time you go to court, your client will be depending upon you to tell (and to sell) his story to the jury. Don’t merely recite a bland story for them — pick through the facts so that you can tell the most persuasive story possible. Don’t accept the common thinking that your client is “wicked” — spend as much time as necessary thinking about how to reframe your facts, and you’ll be able to tell a story that portrays your client in the most positive (and persuasive) light possible.

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6 thoughts on “Framing Your Story for Maximum Impact

  1. Elliot: Wonderful examples which I fully intend to steal so as the price I will give you one in return. Remember the movie American Beauty? A man lusts after the underage girlfriend of his daughter and the film even opens with him masturbating in the shower. Usually child molestors and perverts are treated harshly by the public but by the end of the movie we are rooting for him to suceed with the girl (of course she is pretty hot so that helps). Why is the question I wanted to discover. I think it is because we follow him through the movie by hearing his inner dialogue. Thus we get to know him and emphasize with his miserable life. This gives us an insight to how jurors might see our client if we could just expose him or her in a similiar way. Probably a difficult thing to do, just like the wicked witch of the west, but worth pondering. Thanks again for another thought provoking essay.

  2. I enjoy your website as well as your insight. I took your advice and attended the last showing of Jesus Christ Superstar in Tampa last week. Wow. The production was great and Ted Neeley fabulous. We would not have gone if it had not been at your instigation. When I was a young pilot in the Air Force in 1972 my wife and I used to play the cast record of the musical so often we wore the thing out. And there we were, 36 years later, basking in the warmth of that same music. Thanks BTW: I get your newsletter because I am a student at Barry College of Law in Orlando. I believe that it is never too late to teach an old dog new tricks.

  3. Elliott, as with your other trial tips, this is one of those little gems of trial practice. Keep’em coming. Thanks