Updated: May 10
Dhawal Tank and Heidi Turner
“Once upon a time…” Just hearing these four words takes us back to our childhood where we were transported away to different worlds of castles, dragons, outer space and other realms.
Those words reveal a common factor we share: we crave stories. For thousands of years, humans have used stories to inform, educate, share, entertain, and connect. Great stories do even more. They inspire, they compel action, and they last across generations.
Our yearning for stories is ingrained. Unfortunately, far too few of us use great stories to make our thought leadership pieces stand out.
While you might spend weeks or even months writing your content, the painful truth is that most people’s writing rarely gets read and acted upon.
Why? Often because it’s too dry or formal or complicated. People don’t remember what they’ve read, or they don’t feel compelled to act on it.
There’s no connection to the words. They don’t see how what you’ve written relates to them, so they scan it and move on to the next article.
That’s where storytelling can help you more effectively engage your audience, and establish your authority.
Why Tell Stories
Stories however have the power to be compelling while also sharing complex ideas in a digestible way. They’re easier to read, remember, and act upon than statistics and data. They also tend to be less formal in their language and engage readers more than dry information.
Consider the average reader you might be writing for. Let’s call her Emily.
Emily is constantly pulled in a million directions. She has a family and a full-time job, both of which are demanding. She receives dozens of emails a day. She has a working lunch sitting at her desk almost every day.
She stumbles across an article about something that she knows is important.
There goes the email notification. So she takes a look at her email.
Then she gets pulled into multiple “quick meetings.” Before she knows it, her workday is over and she still hasn’t read that article.
She sighs. She’ll just have to finish up later on tonight after the kids go to bed. Her evening is busy with family time, exercise and dinner. When she finally has quiet she has a choice between reading the article or enjoying her favorite tv show.
Exhausted from the day, she picks her favorite tv show and falls asleep.
People might have every intention of reading an article, but when they finally have a spare moment, they need something that grabs their attention. An academic, stat-filled article isn’t their first choice, or even their second choice. But something they can relate to is something they’ll read, remember and return to.
Storytelling as Marketing
Lawyers often feel that the more formal, stiff, and complex their writing is, the more likely it will be taken seriously. While you might get the satisfaction of writing a serious-sounding piece, you’re making it difficult for people like Emily to want to read your work. Academic writing absolutely has its place in some forums, but storytelling can work wonders for your marketing content.
Storytelling pulls people in. They become engaged your content and they want to read more. They want to know how it ends.
Storytelling also helps brand your legal practice as different from those around you. The application of the law is very similar in cases that are alike, and almost every lawyer in your practice area can make the same or very comparable claims to you. It’s difficult to stand out.
What makes you different from the others? You, the people who work at your law firm and the clients who come to you. You all have a story, and by telling your story you engage potential clients. When you share a story you enable your clients to see themselves in your content—and better understand how you can help them.
Sharing stories also allows you to humanize your practice. Often, people are uncomfortable contacting lawyers because they have no idea what to expect when they work with you. They don’t understand the next steps and aren’t sure how you’ll help them. You want clients to feel comfortable enough to reach out to you, not scared of you. Storytelling helps them feel more at ease with working with you. They feel as though they know you.
How to Write Compelling Stories
1. Write About People
Because the law is very logical, it can be easy to forget that there’s an emotional aspect to the legal industry. But law is a professional services industry. It’s built on trusted relationships. At its core, the law relies on people, even when lawyers represent corporations. Those corporations are run by people, and the results their actions—say, of a corporate merger, for example—affect the people who work there.
Storytelling hits people on a human, emotional level. It allows you to appeal to their emotional side while still showcasing the important work you do.
You can make your writing about people simply by focusing more on why you do what you do rather than what you do. When you focus on what you do, you tend to get caught writing the same phrases every other lawyer says about themselves. When you focus on your why, you show your human side—and you give your potential clients reasons to trust you.
When you write your “About Us” page focus on the people in your law firm. Why do they do what they do? Why did they choose that practice area? Why are the clients important to them? What makes them different from other lawyers?
Furthermore, often the answer to why you do it is about people—you do it to help people, to give people peace of mind, to fight for justice for people. This helps your potential clients see themselves reflected in your content. They see themselves as people who need help, or need peace of mind or need justice.
The same is true about awards and accolades. Instead of listing every award or honor you’ve received, share a story about one that was meaningful to you and what it meant. Readers won’t see themselves in a list of awards you’ve won and shortlists you’ve been named to but they will see themselves in a story about an award you won for going the extra mile for a client.
2. Write Simply
Shorter sentences are easier to read, understand and remember.
Unfortunately, most writing in law does not adhere to this. Most writing is long, complicated, and cumbersome. Why not use simpler words instead that people use more commonly?
There is an easy way of judging the general readability of your writing. The Flesch Kincaid Reading Ease score evaluates how complex your sentences and words are and grades your document on a 1-100 scale. The higher the number, the easier it is to read it.
Popular novels and even non-fiction tends to be at 70+. This roughly translates to a Grade 8 reading level. Legal writing tends to score less than 20. That translates to a Grade 15 and over level. In other words it is extremely dense and difficult to read and understand.
An easy way to check your readability is to turn on the Flesch Kincaid is to turn on the score in Microsoft Word so you can review it periodically. Here is a quick link where you can learn how to do that. Alternatively, you can use free tools on the Internet by doing a quick search and finding resources to do it.
3. Follow a Format
Your legal thought leadership pieces are about complex topics. However, this framework below will give you an idea on how you can fit it in the framework of a story.
Every story has an opening, a protagonist (the leading character), and a central conflict that the protagonist must face. In facing this conflict, the story reaches a resolution. The final part is closing where the protagonist absorbs the lessons/new life circumstances and moves on.
Adding these elements into your thought leadership writing will make your pieces more memorable and shareable.
What’s the setting or context of your piece? Who is affected by the conflict? What is their background? Who is the protagonist? Keep in mind, the protagonist generally shouldn’t be you. The protagonist in your writing should be your client, since they are the one who faces the conflict and challenge. You are simply there to guide them on their journey.
What incited the situation that you’re writing about? Was there a new law passed? Is there a customer or change in the political, economic, social climate that compelled change? If so, what is it?
Take us into the heart of the conflict. What does this new situation mean for our protagonist? How is impacting their life/business/firm? What options exist for our protagonist to resolve this conflict? Why did they turn to you
Share your ideas on what can bring about a resolution here. Show your expertise and authority to give us a sense of what’s possible. Tell us what this resolution looks like for the protagonist, and what it took to get here.
What are the personal, financial, emotional, social, economic, political implications of our protagonist going through this conflict?
While this structure seems simple, if you start putting your ideas through it, you will find more readers engage with your writing more deeply.
You will notice many popular movies and novels often start the story from the middle and then take us to the opening of the story. Remember, the above is just a framework to put structure to your core ideas. How you present them is up to you entirely.
4. Use Stories Across Your Law Firm Website
Many people avoid sharing stories on their website for a variety of reasons. They worry that the stories are too long, or have too much information to keep people’s attention. They also worry that in sharing the story they give away too much personal detail and violate privacy or confidentiality.
There are ways to share stories without violating privacy. You can ask your clients if they are okay with their story being shared. You can also share the general details without getting specific. Instead of writing that your client owned a small clothing boutique that focuses on vintage clothing in the south side of your city, you can simply write that your client was a local small business owner.
Stories don’t have to be long. You can share a 1,500 word story on your blog, but you can also tell an effective story that’s only two or three sentences long. You can share stories on your blog that dramatize a court case to highlight a recent court decision. Or share a story about how you helped a client during a particularly complex or stressful time.
Use stories to lead into a more fact-oriented page, such as an FAQ page. Instead of writing, “Here is a list of our most frequently asked questions” consider opening with:
“If you’ve been injured in a car accident, you likely have many questions running through your head. You might be concerned about whether you’ll be able to work, if you’ll have to deal with the insurance company, and whether you’ll need intensive medical care. While we can’t tell you what medical care you’ll need, we can help you by taking care of paperwork, phone calls, and discussions with insurance companies so you can focus on the most important thing, your recovery. Here are some other questions we can answer for you. Contact us today to find out how one of our experienced personal injury attorneys can help you during this incredibly stressful time.”
That opening paragraph still allows your prospective clients to see themselves in your content. It also gives you a chance to write about what you do, but in a less formal way. And it shows that you understand them and what they’re going through.
5. Show, Don’t Tell
It’s important in your storytelling to let your prospective clients come to their own conclusions about you—and they will if you’ve told a good story. Don’t tell them you’re a dedicated lawyer who goes the extra mile for clients. Show them by sharing a story where you went above and beyond. In reading the story, your ideal clients are more likely to relate to your other clients and decide for themselves that you are the best lawyer to work with—without you having to tell them so.
It means nothing if you tell them you do something, but if you show through examples they have proof that you do what you say you’ll do.
6. Use Client Testimonials
A great way to include stories on your website and in your marketing is to use client testimonials. Many client testimonials take the form of a very short story. They start with their problem, how you handled it, and what they love about how you helped them. This form of testimonial works on many levels because it’s engaging for readers, it provides proof that your clients like your work, and it acts as a review of your services for other people.
By following the above tips and using storytelling in your marketing content, you can authentically set your practice apart from the rest, engage with your ideal clients and grow your business.
About the Authors
Dhawal Tank is the co-founder of Build Your Book, a training consultancy that advises leaders at law and accounting firms across North America. He has spent a decade working in branding, business development, and marketing to grow tech businesses from $0-$1 million and beyond. He now focuses on coaching lawyers and law firms with best practices from other industries. He lives with his wife in Dallas, TX.
Heidi Turner is an award-winning legal writer and editor. Since 2006, she has helped her clients in the legal industry—including lawyers and law firms, legal technology companies, and legal SaaS organizations—connect with their target audience and establish their authority. She helps her clients find authentic ways to engage their audience and build a reputation, with a focus on client-centric communications.
In addition to her writing and editing work, Heidi is an instructor in Simon Fraser University's editing program.