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Expert Advice

Using the Right Language

Research shows that how you speak can be more important than what you say.

By Robert L. Teel and Michael M. Miller  |  March 15, 2017
Art: Using the Right Language

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Words are more powerful than you think. And even though words alone won’t magically result in a million dollar verdict, the fact remains: language counts. Although words are a lawyer’s stock in trade, many attorneys often overlook how much their pattern of speech, choice of words, and overall manner of speaking impacts their ability to persuade an audience.

Most attorneys do not have Don Juan’s charm or Cicero’s oratory skill.  When it comes time to persuade a stranger (think:  juror)  lawyers instinctively rely almost entirely on their own experience to develop a persuasive theme. However, in addition to their experience, lawyers would be wise to carefully consider the multitude of research that explore the scientific basis of how wording influences peoples’ decisions and, more importantly, their actions.

Research Proves the Point

Scientific research by social psychologists at Yale University has shown just how effective wording can be in persuading others.  See Bargh and  Pietromonaco  Automatic Information Processing and Social Perception” 43 J. of Personality and Social Psych. 437-449 (1982).

A psycholinguistic approach to communication can be used in any transactional, law and motion, or trial advocacy communication, written or verbal. Indeed, the effective use of the proven persuasive technique “priming” with directional language commands will enhance the persuasive quality of any legal presentation.

Priming

Back in the early 1980’s, scientists began to study a psychological effect of priming, which in simple terms is a technique used to set up a person’s subconscious to connect certain words and objects to a desired thought or state of mind. For example, many of us are already primed to think of a banana when they read or hear the word “yellow.”  This happens naturally because “yellow” and banana are closely associated in our memories.

In the 1982 Yale study cited above, people were shown words that rapidly flashed up on a computer screen.  One group saw neutral words, while others saw hostile words. Later, both groups read a description of a character with ambiguous behavior.  Those primed with hostile words interpreted the behavior as being more objectionable.

As the studies showed, priming the audience to a desired emotional state such as hostility (or sympathy) influences their decision making.   Persons who are primed to be hostile think and act differently than individuals who are feeling sympathetic.

Trial of the Century

The legal field is full of these examples, and the one that leaps to mind was at the core of the most celebrated criminal case of our lifetime. In the O.J. Simpson criminal trial the jury was constantly being primed on a thematic scale to be hostile to law enforcement and the prosecution.  As Alan Dershowitz reportedly commented to Abby Jackson of the online news publication Business Insider in a Feb. 7, 2016 article, “There were two defendants on trial in the case: O.J. Simpson and the LA police.”  This set up the jury for the defense’s theme that if the messenger (Detectives Vannatter and Fuhrman)  lies to you, you can’t trust the message.

The Simpson trial also demonstrated the effectiveness of priming in specific situations.  One of the most dramatic moments in the case was when Simpson struggled to put on the bloody, ill-fitting gloves, leading defense lawyer Johnnie Cochran to command the jury with those now famous words: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.”

The potential power of priming, when embedded in legal advocacy, is obvious.  Once the audience’s subconscious is primed to associate certain words or objects with a particular desired state of mind, directional language can be used to shape their decision-making.

Directional Language

One form of directional language is an instruction or command embedded in a sentence.  This sort of commanding phraseology uses language patterns within a larger statement to subconsciously direct a person’s thought processes towards a certain decision.  It’s a way of taking charge of the decision-making process without the awareness of the conscious mind.

In the Simpson trial, the defense team primed the jury to associate powerful and compelling evidence (“if the glove doesn’t fit”) with doing the right thing (“you must acquit”).   The embedded command “you must acquit” was expertly connected to the previously observed memory of Simpson struggling to put the glove on.

Juries, like most of us, do not like being told to do anything.  What they really want to do is the right thing.  In the Simpson case, the jurors were not even aware their conscious minds had been deftly commanded to acquit.   When the correct words flow elegantly and seamlessly, the listener has no idea that his or her subconscious mind has been influenced at all.

We all know successful legal outcomes are not created solely by a turn of phrase.  Experience teaches us the simple truth that life is not that simple.  But know this also: effective linking of potent evidence to a directive or “commanding” language pattern—when stated with conviction—is a mighty persuasive technique.


Robert L. Teel handles a variety of civil rights and consumer protection matters at the Law Office of Robert L. Teel. Michael M. Miller is an interpersonal communication author and consultant trained in neurolinguistics.

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