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What Communicators and Lawyers Share: The Power to Persuade

What do the great trial lawyers and the most effective communicators have in common? The power to persuade.

The 19th century British parliamentarian Thomas Macaulay, who played a significant role in abolishing the British slave trade in the West Indies, once said: “The object of oratory alone is not truth, but persuasion.”  Today, truth – more commonly referred to as “transparency” or “authenticity” – remains table stakes. And though “conversation” rather than one-way “oratory” has become the model for engaging stakeholders, the art of persuasion still reigns supreme.

As a print and television news correspondent for a dozen years, followed by even more years of helping companies manage difficult issues in the public eye, I’ve frequently worked with and otherwise observed lawyers. What has struck me time and again is not how our roles differ, but what we have in common – the need to persuade target audiences to take action.

And while lawyers can learn a thing or two from PR pros about public communications, we most certainly can learn from their approach to building compelling, persuasive cases. Trial lawyers understand it is not enough merely to tell discerning judges and juries what they should conclude. Instead, they focus on building cases so persuasive that those judges and juries will have no choice but to find in favor of their clients.

Those of you who have given depositions, and others who merely have seen the process dramatized on TV, know what lawyers typically counsel clients to say. “Just answer ‘Yes’ or ‘No,’ and then shut up or you’ll get us into trouble,” they declare. Media training actually prepares spokespeople to do the opposite – to address reporters’ questions succinctly and “bridge,” or segue, to important messages that protect and enhance an organization’s reputation.

But like lawyers, we as communicators need to support our key messages with evidentiary detail – an arsenal of proof points that substantiate otherwise hollow claims. I’m talking about those critical, yet often overlooked, facts, research, third-party testimonials, examples and personal anecdotes that distinguish our organizations and make our stories compelling, memorable and persuasive.

Just as top trial lawyers study and appeal to the sensitivities of judges and juries, our messages must directly address the interests and concerns of our target audiences to win their support. And most important of all, we must be able to communicate precisely how our words are backed by actions.

We know from experience that those who don’t, or can’t, substantiate their claims with evidence run the risk of undermining their credibility with audiences who matter most. So, the next time a reporter or analyst asserts, “Prove it to me,” challenge your own claims with a wickedly cynical approach and do exactly that – prove out your premise!