Holy Guacamole, That Was Persuasive!
Curled up in a candy-apple red, leather, upholstered club chair inherited from my grandmother, I read something the other night that moved me. It moved me to read an academic article with tiny print and findings such as “F (1, 43) |EQUALS| 1.7, ns.” Why would I do this to myself on the very night that Season 4 of The Mindy Project debuted on Hulu? Because I think it’s neat when science backs up what we’re taught in trial advocacy trainings.
Over thirty years ago at Stanford, researchers determined that jurors are more likely to remember arguments about a case when they are described with evocative words. They were building off of past research which indicated, “Words and phrases that are concrete and evoke vivid imagery are better remembered than abstract, pallid words in practically all verbal learning experiments.” Reyes, R.M., Thompson, E.C., & Bower, G.H. (1980) Judgmental biases resulting from differing availabilities of arguments. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39, 2-12.
In the study, cited above, researchers gave participants a list of arguments presented in a mock trial of a man charged with DWI. Half of the participants were given pallid pro-prosecution arguments and vivid pro-defense arguments. The other half were given vivid pro-prosecution arguments and pallid pro-defense arguments. An example of a pallid pro-prosecution argument was that the driver knocked over a bowl as he was leaving a party shortly before his arrest. The vivid version was that he knocked over a bowl of guacamole that splattered across a white shag rug when he was leaving the party. Immediately after reading all the arguments, the participants were asked to list all the arguments, weight them, and finally rate the likelihood they thought the accused was guilty. They were asked to return 48 hours later.
After 48 hours,they were asked the same questions. The vivid arguments were more likely to be remembered than the plain ones. Although the number of arguments recalled after 48 hours didn’t change depending on whether they were“vivid” or “pallid,” which arguments were remembered did change. Moreover, If the juror’s list of pro-defense arguments was vivid, they were more likely to acquit 48 hours later, than if the pro-defense arguments were pallid.
Taking the time to use strong, active verbs, painting word pictures, and filling in evocative details pays off when you're persuading an audience. We should sprinkle these memorable, vivid details in our openings, crosses and directs, not just in our closings.
I first read about this study and many more equally fascinating ones in Blindspot: The Hidden Biases of Good People by Mahzarin Banaji and Anthony Greenwald. It's a terrific book about implicit bias. I highly recommend it. I fear you'll soon forget the title, though you'll remember where I sat while reading it!