Who Tells Our Clients Stories?
Successful, client-centered public defenders know that law and facts alone do not persuade judges and juries. The essence of our work is to compellingly tell our client's story in bail hearings, negotiations, motions, trial, or sentencing. The difficulty is that we all know good storytelling when we hear it, but how do we tell a story so powerfully that we move judges and juries to the actions we seek?At the end of the smash hit musical, “Hamilton,” George Washington warns,
“Let me tell you what I'd wish I'd known, when I was young and dreamed of glory.
You have no control:
Who tells your story.”
Until Lin-Manuel Miranda decided to tell Alexander Hamilton's story, few of us knew much about the “ten dollar founding father without a father.” And, frankly, we could have gone about our lives quite happily without knowing Hamilton's story.
But the tremendous power of Miranda's storytelling actually ignited a successful protest to keep the first treasury secretary's image on the ten dollar bill, when the current secretary of the Treasury proposed replacing Hamilton with the face of a historically significant woman. Why were people moved to advocate for a long-dead, founding father's face to remain on their currency?
The facts of Hamilton's life were there for all to read in Ron Chernow's lengthy 2004 biography of Hamilton, upon which Miranda based his Broadway hit. But, to return to Washington's cautionary advice, the question really is, “Who tells your story?” Miranda's telling of Hamilton's story moved people in a way that public defenders hope to move judges and juries.
Successful, client-centered public defenders know that law and facts alone do not persuade judges and juries. The essence of our work is to compellingly tell our client's story in bail hearings, negotiations, motions, trial, or sentencing. The difficulty is that we all know good storytelling when we hear it, but how do we tell a story so powerfully that we move judges and juries to the actions we seek?
Many of our cases are factually outside an individual juror's frame of reference. But the behavior of the people in our cases is motivated by feelings and emotions that most jurors understand. While you won't have the juror who acted in self-defense on your panel, all of your jurors know, and have physically felt, fear. Most people understand the behaviors motivated by jealously, which is often at play in accusations of domestic assault. We seek to distill each case down to basic human behavior that jurors recognize.
Our task is to identify a theory of the case that captures facts, law, and the emotions at play. Once we have our theory, we create a compelling story that will move our jurors. This is where we look to storytelling techniques.
Let's turn to a song from “Hamilton,” called “Burn.”
Hamilton's political rivals confront him with what they believe is evidence of his misuse of public funds. To clear himself of these allegations, Hamilton reveals a letter from the husband of a woman with whom he was having an affair. To keep the affair out of the public eye, the husband demanded money, which Hamilton paid from his private funds.
Hamilton, fearful that the affair will become public, and obsessed with his political legacy, decides to “write my way out…overwhelm them with honesty.” A prolific writer throughout his life, Hamilton publishes a pamphlet, revealing the kind of lurid details about the affair that one expects to see in the National Enquirer.
The song “Burn” is the story of Eliza's reaction to her husband's private betrayal and her public humiliation. In a short few minutes, Miranda captures the trajectory of a marriage - from a woman captivated by her suitor's words during their courtship, to a place where his words have inflicted upon her pain, betrayal, and humiliation. Musically and lyrically we understand Eliza's anguish, even if we have never had this particular experience.
Eliza's voice is soft and wistful as she recalls the feeling when she received Hamilton's first letters. “I saved every letter you wrote me,” she sings. But this is followed by a trilogy in which Eliza's confidence diminishes which each phrase, “From the moment I read them I knew you were mine. You said you were mine. I thought you were mine.”
Eliza points out that her sister, Angelica, foreshadowed what was to come, warning, “Be careful with that one, love. He will do what it takes to survive.”
Eliza's description of Hamilton's words should be the envy of every writer, “You and your words flooded my senses. Your sentences left me defenseless. You built me palaces out of paragraphs, you built cathedrals.”
The lightness in Eliza's voice turns to anguish as she relives the humiliation of having her husband publish the sordid details of the affair to the world. She relates that Angelica, upon learning what Hamilton had done, tells her, “You have married an Icarus. He has flown too close to the sun.”
Eliza's building anger crescendos as she attacks the very thing that Hamilton prizes most – his words. The use of alliteration allows Eliza to belt out with contempt, “You and your words, obsessed with your legacy…Your sentences border on senseless, and you are paranoid in every paragraph how they perceive you…”
In a song lasting only a few minutes, Miranda uses the devices of trilogy, alliteration, and analogy to bring Eliza's story to life. And Eliza uses her voice to display the range of her emotions. All of these tools are available to public defenders who want to tell their client's stories effectively.
We learn from Hamilton that the question of who tells your story is important. As public defenders, we have the privilege of telling our client's stories, so we better do it well.