How to Present Your Case in Trial Just Like Pixar Creates Movies
Remember Toy Story? Released all the way back in 1995, it revolutionized hollywood and brought the awe-inspiring combination of art and technology of entirely computer animated films to the forefront. Since that time, Pixar has continued to produce blockbuster after blockbuster with movies like Cars, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and Up, just to name a few. The company’s success is staggering.
While it would be easy to attribute the initial success of the company to the bold, new approach to computer animation, the key to Pixar’s sustained success isn’t the technology that they put into their films, nor is it the animation that they project on screen. What sets Pixar apart is that they tell stories. Imaginative, funny, captivating stories.
Effective storytelling is a key ingredient to the success of any idea or proposition. Without stories, simple statements of fact and evidence would be relatively meaningless. Stories provide context, they help to frame intent, to provide significance to facts and evidence. Storytelling happens every day in litigation.
Witnesses try to explain their answer rather than giving a simple Yes or No response. That’s their way of putting their testimony into a story.
How about the testimony that your client provides as compared to the testimony of the opposing party? Those are two, different versions of the same story.
In your opening statement and your closing argument, what are you presenting to the judge and jury? Your client’s story.
Weaving facts, figures and evidence into compelling, cohesive stories is what separates good trial lawyers from great trial lawyers. So let’s take a look at how to develop those stories the Pixar way:
Define Your Case’s Primary Theme
This should be a simple, one sentence statement of your case that encompasses the main points you want your audience to walk away with. Pixar calls it the controlling idea. It’s an elevator pitch of sorts.
It might go something like this:
- A young lady with a strong work ethic and religious convictions is terminated from her job because she exercised her right to follow those religious convictions in a small, unobtrusive way and now she is confused, hurt and unemployed.
- A buyer took advantage of tax benefits that belonged to the seller and then hid those tax benefits even though they were clearly defined in the purchase agreement as belonging to the seller.
- A waste truck driver, operating his vehicle properly should not be blamed for the injuries that the plaintiff sustained as a result of her distracted driving.
These controlling ideas come from cases that my clients have litigated successfully. There are dozens of other examples, on both the plaintiff’s and the defense’ side.
With all of the discovery and data available when working up a case, it can be difficult to condense it down into one, single cohesive thought. But this is of paramount importance. You and your firm may get to live with a case for years. You have the opportunity to absorb and synthesize every little detail so that the case makes perfect sense in your head. But your audience of jurors doesn’t have that opportunity. Where you have years, they may only have weeks, days, or even hours.
That’s why developing a strong, central, controlling idea is crucial to the success of your case. This controlling idea should be present in virtually every aspect of your presentation of evidence, from your opening statement and slide deck, through the selection and presentation of testimony, evidence and deposition video, all the way through to your closing argument and jury instructions.
Give Structure To Your Primary Theme
When developing stories, the classical story structure looks like this – exposition, inciting incident, complications, crisis, climax, and resolution. You set the stage, upset the balance, make the journey difficult, force a decision, the main character succeeds or fails, then the situation is resolved.
That seems like a lot of steps, but this is the way in which our minds connect with controlling ideas. What if we wrote out the structure like this:
- Once upon a time…
- And every day…
- Until one day…
- And because of that…
- And because of that…
- Until finally…
It should be starting to make more sense and begin falling into the typical structure of a case.
Let’s connect this with two of our controlling ideas above and then you should be able to see exactly how the case themes begin to form.
- Once upon a time there was a young girl who had landed her first job.
- Every day she went to work and wore her headscarf.
- Until one day, she was terminated because her headscarf did not fit in with company policy.
- And because of that, she was confused about company policies and procedures.
- And because of that, she was embarrassed and hurt because she thought the law protected her and she was free to practice her religious beliefs.
- And because of that, she was no longer employed.
- Until a lawsuit was filed, her case was heard, and she was validated.
Here’s another one:
- Once upon a time there was a waste truck driver who was performing his job safely and in accordance with traffic laws.
- Every day he performed his job without incident.
- Until one day a woman who was distracted while driving ran into the back of the waste truck while it was stopped with its hazard lights on.
- And because of that, the woman was injured.
- And because of that, the waste truck driver must defend himself.
- Until finally the jury renders a verdict clearing the waste truck driver of wrongdoing.
In a few simple sentences, you have an outline of the entirety of each of those cases. Our controlling ideas now have structure and we can begin to develop the rest of our case to focus on these themes.
Develop Sequences to Support Your Structure
Movies are broken up into sequences. These sequences are designed to further one specific story point and support the overall theme. In litigation, you can have sequences within larger sequences.
Every witness can be categorized as their own sequence. A group of witnesses testifying about the same topic, for example: damages or causation, can be considered a sequence. The Plaintiff’s case in chief could be considered a sequence and so could the entire evidence presentation portion of the trial.
These sequences should focus on supporting your structure and moving the story forward. Don’t get caught up on extraneous details or following rabbit trails. Pixar said it like this: “Simplify. Focus. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.”
You might be thinking to yourself, “But I need that detail to support the law of my case!” And that is absolutely fine, just don’t make a production out of that detail. Get it into evidence and move on.
Every other detail should be presented to support the controlling idea and your story’s structure. This is what the jury will connect with and start to internalize as a story that they understand and can relate to.
We’ve seen it happen in cases at trial and during Jury Research. The actual details of the facts – what speed they were going; how much money was in the contract, etc. – get lost. What sticks with jurors is how well those facts line up with the case overall and how they fit in context – were they going too fast; the more money to conceal, the less it seems like a mistake.
Storytelling is central to our human nature. Without it, we wouldn’t be able to communicate knowledge and have it survive long term. For facts and figures to remain, they must be relevant.
In litigation, the time allotted for the presentation of stories is compressed. Therefore it is vitally important to define one, specific theme or controlling idea that your audience can connect with and internalize. Once that is done, you can begin to outline the elements of the story that help define that primary theme. Then, you simply have to fill in the blanks with the evidence and testimony that propel your story forward and not let yourself or your audience get distracted with extraneous information.
Litigation and animation aren’t so different. The successful projects in each field are greatly impacted by how well their respective stories are presented.