Storytelling : When Making A Case Tell A Story

For many, making a case and storytelling sit at two ends of the credibility spectrum.


A common belief is that one is fact based and the other is made-up. This perception, reinforced by corporate communication experts couldn’t be further from the truth.

In case making, credibility plays a vital role. Credibility in a court is the degree to which the Judge or jurors believe a witness. For a testifying officer to be effective, she/he must be found credible.

Storytelling in a great way of building credibility. Details we use in storytelling boost credibility.

In their book Made to Stick the Heath Brothers relate an experiment conducted by Jonathan Shedler and Melvin Manis in which they simulated two trials. Here is what happened during the experiment

Credibility and the Darth Vader Toothbrush Experiment 

Two groups of subjects playing the role of jurors were given transcripts of a (fictitious) trial to read. Jurors were tasked with assessing the fitness ( not physical fitness but fitness in context to being able to look after the child ) of a mother, Mrs. Johnson, and deciding whether she should keep custody of her 7-year-old son.

The transcripts were designed to be closely balanced – each had 8 arguments for and 8 arguments against Mrs. Johnson. All the jurors heard the same arguments. The only difference in the two trials was the level of detail in the arguments.

In one trial, all the arguments that supported Mrs. Johnson had some vivid detail and the arguments against her were just the relevant facts with no descriptive detail.

The other trial contained the opposite combination – vivid details in the arguments against Mrs. Johnson and none in the arguments for her.

For example, one argument in the mother’s favor said:

Mrs. Johnson sees to it that her child washes and brushes his teeth before bedtime.

The vivid form of this argument added the detail:

He uses a Star Wars toothbrush that looks like Darth Vader. 

An argument against the mother was:

The child went to school with a badly scraped arm which Mrs. Johnson had not cleaned or attended to. The school nurse had to clean the scrape.

The vivid form of the arguments against Mrs. Johnson added the detail:

As the nurse was cleaning the scrape she spilled Mercurochrome on her uniform, staining it red.

The details were designed to be irrelevant to the judgment of Mrs. Johnson’s fitness. It mattered whether she attended her son’s scrape or ensured his hygiene. It didn’t matter that the nurse’s uniform was stained or what action figure the boy’s toothbrush was modeled after.

The result? Jurors who heard the favorable arguments with vivid details judged Mrs. Johnson to be a more suitable parent than jurors who heard the unfavorable arguments with vivid details. The details had a significant impact.

Why did the details make a difference? They boosted the credibility of the argument. If I can see the Darth Vader toothbrush, I can see the boy brushing his teeth in the bathroom which, in turn, let’s me see and remember  Mrs. Johnson being a good mother.

Such activation of visualisation by narrating details is an important component of storytelling. You can also boost the credibility of victims and witnesses you interview. Ask them to picture the incident and story-tell it to you in detail.Bring out in detail what they saw, heard, smelt, tasted and touched.

Similarly in a corporate setting when making a case to get funding, additional headcount or anything else , story-tell with details and you are far more likely to get the outcome you desire.


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