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The Death of a Storyteller

During the summer of 1986, I attended a seminar in Chicago that was hosted by the Illinois Trial Lawyers Association. At the time, I was 29 years old.

The seminar had been promoted as featuring the top “Superstar Trial Lawyers” in the country. The speakers included Gerry Spence, Philip Corboy, Joseph Jamail, and Richard “Racehorse” Haynes.

I was familiar with all four of those lawyers. Jamail and Haynes were considered the top two trial lawyers in the state of Texas. Corboy was a superstar in the Midwest, and Spence was a national hero.

My memories of that seminar came flooding back when I read about the recent death of Haynes. He was 90 when he died.

To this day, I remember parts of Haynes’ presentation. He was funny, dramatic, and engaging. His nickname, “Racehorse,” had been given to him by a high school football coach who said that he ran “like a racehorse.”

Haynes became famous when he successfully defended the well-known Fort Worth businessman, T. Cullen Davis, who was charged with murdering his former wife’s boyfriend and her 12-year-old daughter from a previous marriage.

The following year, Haynes obtained another acquittal for Davis after Davis was charged with hiring a hit man to murder the judge who had presided over his divorce.

After the Davis trials, Haynes went on to successfully represent several high-profile individuals who had been charged with murder.

Haynes continued to practice law well into his 80s. At one point, he told a Dallas Observer reporter the way he wanted his life to end: “I’m standing in front of a jury, see, giving one heck of a closing argument when I have this heart attack and fall to the floor. Barely able to speak, I whisper a request that the judge allow the jurors to leave the box and gather around me so I might complete my argument before I die.”

After the Superstar Trial Lawyers seminar, it occurred to me that all of the superstars had one thing in common. Can you guess what it was?

They were all masters of the art of storytelling. Each of them had a unique ability to pull jurors into a world they created, and then tap into the jurors’ emotions so they would come over to their way of thinking.

Some people are born with the gift of storytelling, but most people have to develop it as a skill. For those of us who want to be successful at our craft, we should do everything in our power to become master storytellers.

Storytelling is an essential component of persuasion and leadership. During my lifetime, there have been three U.S. presidents who, because of their masterful storytelling skills, were able to get almost everything they wanted — Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama.

There is a book that is full of stories and holds the record for long-term popularity and quantity sold. Do you know which book I’m referring to? The Bible. Storytelling was one of the primary tools that Jesus Christ used to persuade his followers to see things His way.

The continued popularity of Reality TV has been fueled by live-action human interest stories. The networks love Reality TV because they don’t have to pay high-priced celebrities to act in their shows. They can get by with “normal people” going about their lives, doing interesting things, and telling stories.

Most people focus on facts, but in any given case, each person’s facts contradict the facts of their opponents. Facts are automatically suspect. They are usually doubted and are frequently challenged.

But a compelling story bypasses doubt and skepticism and communicates with the part of the brain that laughs, cries, feels, and imagines. A compelling story can motivate, inspire, and challenge the mind of the listener to think and behave in a certain way.

If I could invite one of my juries to the park to sit around a campfire with me, would their subconscious desire be “Tell us some facts,” or would it be “Tell us some stories”?

At a recent family get-together, my four-year-old granddaughter’s face lit up when she saw a Mickey Mouse medallion on my daughter’s keychain. I teased my granddaughter by telling her that it wasn’t Mickey Mouse, it was Donald Duck. She became irritated with me and insisted that I was wrong. Then she recruited other family members to confirm that the character on the medallion was, in fact, Mickey Mouse.

How did a four-year-old child know who Mickey Mouse was? She had to have seen him in a story. If I had asked, I’m sure she would have been able to tell me the story. Walt Disney began telling stories about Mickey Mouse 89 years ago (1928).

Earlier this month, Georgette purchased a gift for one of our grandsons who was celebrating his first communion and his seventh birthday. The gift was a Catholic story book — New Catholic Picture Bible — a perfect gift for a seven-year-old child. Here’s the description that was on the website where the book was sold:

Glorious full-color illustrations by great masters of religious art enhance these well-known Bible stories. More than 100 stories are represented and are written in a simple style that will delight younger readers.

The book that Georgette gave to our grandson was the same book that my mom purchased for my younger brothers and sisters more than 40 years ago. The best way to teach children (and adults) about our faith is through stories.

Do you want to be a great advocate for the Catholic faith? If you do, one of the things you need to do is become a master at the art of storytelling.

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One Response to “The Death of a Storyteller”

  1. Sister Roberta Houlihan, CSJ Says:

    Dear Georgette and Harry –
    What a delightful description of the “power” of Story-telling!
    Jesus called them “Parables”. We’ve learned over the years that the entire Bible is told in “Story Form”, from Adam and Eve into the Life of Jesus as He traversed Earth. One of our recent discussions among our Sisters, as we look into our Future made a distinction between words preceded by “the” – when it is appropriate and when it isn’t. An example: we should say “THE United States”,”Earth” (not “THE Earth”)because Earth lives. Earth is “home for trees, bushes, ants, all animals…even air and water – all created by God.
    When we consider Creation and our Creator, this becomes more clear.
    I love it! We have many delightful discussions within Community!…
    Love to you and blessings on Memorial Day. Sister Roberta

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