September 2, 2014

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Learning from Litigators

Five Tips for Developing Themes for Persuasive Presentations

Dr. Karen Lisko

September 2, 2014

When an effective trial lawyer walks into court, she brings more than the raw facts of the case.  She carries her theme—a concise statement of the most compelling reason that entering a verdict in favor of her client is the right thing to do. Skillful lawyers develop a theme to anchor their case, which they use repeatedly as they strategize and participate at trial. An effective trial theme provides the jury with a lens that brings testimony and evidence favorable to the lawyer’s case into sharp focus, and causes unfavorable facts to fade into the background. Couple a great theme with an even better story and the audience will better remember and better be persuaded than if you simply present the numbers.

During jury selection, trial lawyers “diagnose” both sides of their audience: They learn which jurors are most sympathetic to their case and which ones are skeptical. Seasoned trial lawyers design a case theme not from the perspective of those already on their side, but instead, they develop a theme that addresses the doubter’s point of view. The persuasive elements of a powerful theme aimed at the toughest jurors can go a long way toward winning those jurors over.

Professionals working in fields far from law can use this strategy to their own advantage as they lobby for a variety of issues. When you present your own important ideas, take a tip from experienced trial attorneys to create a powerful, winning theme. 

In a blog ( written by Holland & Hart’s in-house trial consulting group, Persuasive Strategies, they suggest an effective theme isn’t found in a catchy phrase, and it is not chosen by impulse. Rather, it is vetted based on its ability to live up to five standards of an effective T-H-E-M-E.*

Target Your Theme – Like a successful trial theme, your theme should target your toughest audience. Develop a theme that anticipates their objections and addresses the issue’s biggest problem by providing a shield against your opposition’s predictable emphasis on that weakness. Assuming your tougher audience will resist your new idea because of budgetary concerns, your theme might be, “We can choose to stall by focusing on ‘line-item’ concerns, or we can choose to enthrall by focusing the big picture on big dollars.”  Cheesy? Yes. Effective?  You bet—but only if you marry the theme with concrete examples that counter your tougher audience’s intuition.

Develop a Holistic Theme – Your theme should facilitate the presentation of your story in a comprehensive, holistic manner. It should offer a way for your audience to organize its thoughts about the issues, seeing the strengths of your issue in its central, focused vision, and the full issue in its peripheral vision. The theme above, moving away from the fear of bigger expenses in one line item to spending now to gain more later, is intended to acknowledge the tougher audience’s objection—writing a check—while noting that the investment will return far more in the bank than the amount withdrawn on the check.

Create an Economical Theme – A good theme says the most in as few words as possible. One of the biggest mistakes speakers make is to get greedy. Do not cover all themes and do not try to grab all arguments. Narrow the audience’s focus by focusing your wording.

Craft a Memorable Theme – The best themes are concise, but they also include elements that make them memorable. Metaphor, alliteration, familiarity or an unexpected turn of a phrase may work. But remember that subtle simplicity is likely to be accepted better than a phrase you may consider artful, but which your audience may consider too cute. The “stall/enthrall” rhyme in the theme above may draw an eye roll or two. At the same time, it will be memorable. Take the risk of being a little schmaltzy. Trial attorneys spend a great deal of effort and money conducting mock trials to find just the right phrasing for a case theme. (Where do you think the theme, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit,” came from?)

Build an Easy Theme – Your theme should be simple enough to weave effortlessly into your presentation to advance your pitch. If it is too hard to insert several times throughout the presentation, it is not useful as a theme at all. The “line item” our theme above alludes to is the cost associated with giving employees small perks and bonuses to reward them when they execute on the “big idea.” The “return” in the big picture is the fact that employees frequently self-report that they feel motivated to stay at a job where they are spoiled in little ways. When a business has to frequently hire new employees to replace disgruntled ones, the greater costs to hire and train are significant. 

Getting all of what you ask for doesn’t happen every time. But anticipating your tougher audience’s arguments and then applying the five-point T-H-E-M-E to structure your presentation will set you on the right track toward a successful presentation.

Dr. Karen Lisko is a senior litigation consultant with Persuasion Strategies, the in-house trial consulting firm at Holland & Hart. She also works with attorneys at other firms when there is no conflict with Holland & Hart cases.

*Ken Broda-Bahm, Ph.D. “Getting Beyond the Catchy Phrase and Creating a Trial Theme that Truly Works,” Originally posted on, July 1, 2008.  Reprinted with permission.



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