The Most Powerful Tool to Persuade (No, It’s Not the Data)

The older I get the more I recognise the power of story and storytelling.

Take a look at the world in the last few years and the stories that were successfully told:

  • The story Trump told the blue collar workers in the ‘rustbelt’ states in the US during the 2016 presidential election
  • The story Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and colleagues told to the public in the United Kingdom during the Brexit referendum

Perhaps you have told a compelling story yourself in the last few years. Maybe you have been telling one all your life.

We tell stories to persuade and influence. Stories are powerful and the human mind is particularly receptive to story.

The story we tell ourselves, our family, our friends and colleagues, the Workplace Relations Commission, the Labour Court, Civil Court, Criminal Court, our boss, our schoolteachers, the voter is a powerful tool in whether we will succeed or not.

And when it comes to a dispute, regardless of the venue in which it will be held, the dispute can be boiled down to at least two competing versions of events-two stories.

Whose story will prevail? Whose story is the most compelling? Whose story will the adjudicator ‘prefer’?

I was at an excellent event recently UCD. It was a competition for PhD students to explain in plain language, to a lay audience, the research they were carrying out.

This is not an easy task given the level of complexity of much of the research, and the associated language and science vocabulary.

After each presentation the expert panel of judges asked a few questions of each of the PhD students. One young man presented his interesting research on feeding cocaine to rats as part of a project to look into cures for addiction.

One of the questions from a judge was how the student would persuade industry/business get involved and finance further research into an apparently exciting area. The reply of the student, who would have had no forewarning of the questions, replied, “I would show them the data”.

However, I fear that was the wrong answer because data alone won’t sell anything; story, combined with data, will do the trick, however.

Story is one of the most powerful, and underutilised or badly applied, tools we have at our disposal. We need to use it wisely.

And the first story we need to concern ourselves is the story we tell ourselves.

P.S. Proud to write that my daughter, Rebecca, won that competition.

Feeding the Birds-a 5 Minute Story Out of the Ordinary

Using story is one of the most effective ways of communicating and persuading.

A story can be as short as 3 seconds, or as long as a lifetime.

The video below is a 5-minute story and you will probably recognise the 3 “acts” or “stages” in it. Making this video is the product of a challenge I set myself on a Saturday morning in April: make a story out of something ordinary around my home on an average Saturday.

If you need to influence or persuade, and let’s face it-who doesn’t, you will probably benefit greatly by thinking about how you can use story in your aid.

You can check out my YouTube channel here. It deals with all aspects of Irish law, particularly

  • Employment law
  • Small business
  • Property
  • Personal injuries
  • Probate
  • Litigation

Lawyers Persuading with Effective Word Pictures (and What You Can Learn)

If I was accused of murder I would hate to see Michael Bowman SC prosecuting me. Although if I had Bernard Condon SC defending my chances of acquittal would be greatly enhanced.

My attention has been arrested by the word pictures these two men have been painting for the jury this week in the Patrick Quirke murder trial-that is, the trial involving a so called ‘love triangle’ in Tipperary involving Patrick Quirke, Bobby Ryan, and Mary Lowry.

Leaving aside a close examination of the evidence what I have found fascinating and educational is the ability of these two senior counsels to communicate with the jury in a way that is easily understood.

By painting word pictures.

Let me explain.

Circumstantial evidence

Much, or all, of the evidence against Patrick Quirke is circumstantial.

Anyone who has watched a tv programme involving law/crime knows that circumstantial evidence is not the best evidence you can have. In fact, it can be hugely problematic.

You may have heard the phrase that the evidence was ‘only circumstantial evidence’ and therefore a conviction could not be safely arrived at.

Michael Bowman SC appeared, to this lay observer’s eye, to address this problem when addressing the jury this week. He met the problem head on and dealt with it up front by telling the jury “The human condition can only tolerate so much coincidence before we shake our head and say that is not coincidence – that is planned”.

In other words, he seemed to feel their pain but gave them a perfectly reasonable out: a reason for conviction. He told them it wasn’t their fault, that the human condition could only accept so much as coincidence.

In fact, he planted the image, in my mind anyway, of someone shaking their head and saying ‘enough is enough, this evidence might be circumstantial but this cannot just be explained as a coincidence’.

He then went further and addressed what they the jury had seen during the course of the trial: Patrick Quirke, the accused, appearing as a loving husband and father.

And even then, using their critical faculties, they would be justified in bringing in a guilty verdict.

Mr. Bowman then painted the picture of the victim, Bobby Ryan, as a man “living a quiet and peaceful and content life in a small village, a man who lived his job, a man who loved music, a man who loved to dance, who loved his girlfriend and who very dearly loved his two children.”

He said “Who would want to take the life of such a man? To strip him naked of his worldly possessions and his dignity and leave his body to decompose in a sealed chamber on a farm in Fawnagowan?”

The defence and the train

Then later Mr. Bernard Condon SC for the defence addressed the jury. He, too, painted vivid word pictures for the jury. He told them about a train and train stations. Everyone understands what a train is; nobody will be left behind by being asked to imagine a train station.

But first, he told the jury that much was being made of circumstantial evidence, but he warned that “circumstantial evidence is not a shortcut to convict”.

And then he turned to the train images. He told the jury that when they looked at the evidence, they were taking a journey in the “forensic equivalent to a train”.

He said, “You are being invited by the prosecution to go to the last station on the line, it will be uphill and will twist and curve”. And he said the prosecution should be able to bring them to the very last station on the journey with evidence as the fuel.

“If it isn’t the sort of evidence that you yourself would be happy to be convicted on, if it is not grade-A fuel, you will not get to the station at the top marked guilty,” he said.

Mr Condon said Mr Quirke was “parked in the train station marked innocence” and it was up to the prosecution to move him out of it and they had to do that with evidence.

But he said there was a problem here because “the evidence is thin”. He said, “You will have to pass through several stops, you may go past suspicion station, likelihood station and even probability station, but if you get out there you are in the wrong place for conviction”.

Word pictures and persuasion

I don’t know what the jury will do and, quite frankly, I don’t envy their task.

But the value of images and story in the science and art of persuasion has again been brought forcefully home to me by the powerful use of words and images of these two lawyers at the peak of their powers.

I have written many times before about the value of story:

We can all learn from what these two lawyers are doing, no matter who we seek to persuade or influence.

My Origin Story

I found the photographs this week, worried I had lost one in particular. Turns out I had put it away so safely I could not find it.

Anyway, here it is. On the back it says “Feb ‘87, started trading in December, ‘86, sold in February ‘89, bought Navan July ‘89

This is where my business story starts, at the age of 23, on 6th December, 1986.

It was a failed, locked up shop unit with a 2 bed apartment overhead. My brother Pat and I worked like mules to build it up from ground zero, from zero turnover to a healthy one within 12 months.

We traded from 7 am to 12 pm, not very common in 1986, built the turnover up well, and sold it on at a nice profit in early 1989.

Then I went to Navan in July 1989 and bought this property on Flower Hill.

Flower Hill, Navan, 1989

Did quite well there, too, but my dad wanted to retire from his petrol station business in Enfield, Co. Meath.

So I sold Navan and bought the filling station business in Enfield in 1996 and spent a lot of money developing it: new convenience store, new branding, new deal with the oil company, new tanks, equipment, pumps, car wash, etc.

Enfield, Co. Meath 1996

I had a young family and the hours of work and commitment in retail are savage. Retail, if you are running the show yourself and the buck stops with you, is relentless and genuinely 24/7.

I had also bought a small shop and building at Seapoint avenue, Blackrock, Co. Dublin and was trying to develop and run this at the same time.

So I eventually sold it in 2006 and went into property development. I bought a site in Edgeworthstown in Longford and built a block of 8 apartments.

Edgeworthstown, Longford, 2006

Down through the years I had been buying and selling property, flipping shops, houses, a little bit of renovation and improvement but this was the first time I was building from scratch.

So I managed the build myself, hired a teleporter and learned how to drive it, engaged the services of sub contractors and was involved in a race against the clock.

Just as I was coming to the end of the build and getting ready to launch the apartments the signs in the economy were bad, even though there was some hopelessly misguided talk of a ‘soft landing’.

We all know what happened next: the economy crashed and nowhere was the effect more pronounced than in the property game.

I lost everything. Wipeout.

When the tide goes out there is no fighting it. You are stranded. Just ask Sean Quinn or Tony O’Reilly or any of the other wealthy individuals who ended up being wiped out by the property crash.

When I say I lost everything I mean everything material or financial. I was healthy and had a great family and even though I hadn’t a cent to my name and massive debts I had two things going for me:

  1. A good attitude
  2. A willingness to work hard

So I went back to college to study law. I went to Griffith college and studied full time for about 4-6 months.

I spent the days in my garage at home and the nights in Griffith attending lectures.

The garage at home where I commenced my legal studies!

I sat the 8 FE1s-the entrance exams to the Law Society-and scraped a pass.

In all 8 subjects.

So then I became an apprentice solicitor and qualified after the usual period of apprenticeship and professional practice courses in the Law Society.

Now I have my own solicitor’s practice here in Enfield, Co. Meath.

Enfield (again) 2011

And the funny thing is my office is only about 200 yards from the filling station. I even buy my milk for the tea there, sometimes.

It’s funny walking across the forecourt on a morning to buy a litre of milk for the office and getting a flashback to 20 years previous-for example walking across the tanks I can remember vividly getting down on my knees at least twice a week to dip the tanks.

Or the little office in the shop in which I spent a lot of time dealing with the problems of a growing business. Or the flower beds around the place-they were my doing.

And the property I refer to above at Blackrock , Co. Dublin? I sold it to my younger brother who in turn sold it to my older brother and I am now acting in the conveyance of this property, some 20 years later.

Talking about going full circle.

What you have read is most of my origin story; I have actually left out parts. For legal reasons.

Building your brand

If you are starting or growing your business it is a good idea to use your origin story-your back story. Everyone has one.

And it helps grow and build your brand. Some brands appear to have something intangible that makes them more attractive to would be customers or clients.  

One of these hidden characteristics is an origin story.

Think Ray Kroc, the milkshake salesman, building McDonalds and his origin story as a seller of milk shake machines and what he noticed on his travels, particularly the success of the McDonald brothers restaurant.

Think about Phil Knight starting Nike. Or Richard Branson and his beginnings in business.

Or Howard Schultz who was instrumental in growing a small coffee shop in Seattle, Washington called Starbucks into a global corporation. Or the college students who started Google.

And ask yourself this: when did you last, or ever, see an ad for Starbucks or Google? Starbucks and Google are just two brands who have grown without huge or any advertising spend because of their origin story and the ability to attract true believers.

What’s your origin story?

P.S. Some of what I have learned is to be found on my YouTube channel and SmallBusinessLawIreland.com.

If you have an interest in employment law in Ireland EmploymentRightsIreland.com contains a good deal of free information which you may find useful, and my solicitor’s practice website is BusinessAndLegal.ie