Wade Smith's 10 Commandments of Storytelling
Lawyers are natural storytellers, and few are better at it than Wade Smith.
As an attorney, he is no slouch either. For almost half a century he has been one of the state’s most acclaimed counselors. His cases – including the Jeffrey MacDonald murder trial and the Duke lacrosse saga – have been the subject of books and movies.
He’s been honored as a Renaissance Lawyer for his “trustworthiness, respectful and courteous treatment of all people, enthusiasm for intellectual achievement and commitment to excellence in work and service to the profession and community.” The NCBA even created the Wade M. Smith Award to recognize lawyers who exemplify “the highest ideals of the profession.”
The Story Within Every Case
The common thread running through all his many professional accomplishments is the ability to tell a great story. His bio on the Tharrington Smith website – the third sentence, in fact – acknowledges as much:
“A renowned story teller, Wade insists that within each case there is a compelling story waiting to be told.”
So naturally I was excited when I ran across his article – “How to Tell a Story” – in the latest State Bar Journal.
In it he shares some of his favorite stories and offers tips on how to spin a compelling narrative. He also recounts an early courtroom experience where a client told a story that “lit the landscape like a bolt of lightning.” That is what storytelling is all about.
10 Commandments of Storytelling
Here – as it appeared in the Bar Journal – are Wade Smith’s commandments for telling a compelling and effective story.
The story must be appropriate in tone and appropriate for the context within which it is shared. Nothing is worse than telling a story and having an immediate feeling that it was inappropriate. It contained a word that did not fit the occasion. It hurt feelings. It was insensitive. Some storytellers go around with the faint taste of shoe leather in their mouths. Stories can hurt ethnic groups. They can hurt someone who has recently sustained a loss. Utmost care must be used in choosing a story.
If possible the story should relate to the conversation. Stories don’t fall out of the sky. Usually something triggers them.
If you have a story ready and the appropriate moment passes, let it go. Another moment will come.
Be especially careful of loaded words. Racial words or words related to sex or sexual orientation are dangerous. Insensitive stories about politics are usually inappropriate.
Let your stories be a treat. Tell only a few. Leave your audience asking for more.
Don’t tell a story until you have it perfect. Tell it the same way every time. Never find yourself groping for the punchline.
Avoid stories that go on and on. If the audience becomes restless, the story is doomed.
There is nothing funny about the bathroom.
Profanity in stories is dangerous and it should be used only when there is no doubt that it is appropriate.
Wherever you go, always have one good story ready, just in case you are called upon. You are a storyteller and this is expected.
- NC State Bar Journal http://www.ncbar.com/journal/archive/journal_19,2.pdf
- Tharrington Smith http://www.tharringtonsmith.com/page/wade-m-smith
Jay Reeves a/k/a The Risk Man is an attorney licensed in North Carolina and South Carolina. Formerly he was Legal Editor at Lawyers Weekly and Risk Manager at Lawyers Mutual. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.