Diane Wyzga Q and A

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My introduction to Diane Wyzga was several years ago through Stephanie West Allen, who had published an insightful interview with Diane on her blog. Diane asked not long ago to participate in my Q&A series, and I was delighted to welcome her to the fold.

DianeAtHelmInControl03-28-10.jpg Bio: [from Diane’s blog]: Diane F. Wyzga, RN, JD, and professionally trained storyteller has become nationally known as an experienced litigation consultant for her work using the principles and techniques of storytelling to persuade, inspire, and guide as a key trial strategy. Skillful use of narrative creates meaning for the decision-maker to relate a stranger’s case to their own experience.

Diane’s clients effectively employ storytelling principles to identify and develop the legal case story that will guide them through discovery, help strategize the trial presentation from voir dire through closing arguments, and influence decision-makers far beyond the reach of any PowerPoint presentation. How does this work? Using language with power, passion and precision any skillful lawyer can translate case images into compelling themes and desired verdict action.

Lightning Rod Communications is affiliated with other nationally recognized litigation and jury consultants to provide a broad spectrum of litigation consulting services for our clients. Diane’s specialties are legal communications, focus group research, and precisely identifying the trial story that needs to be told for verdict or ADR success.

Diane has authored many articles on storytelling and legal storytelling for such diverse publications as The Warrior, The Jury Expert, Diving in the Moon, TRIAL, The American Association for Justice, and Trial Talk (for Colorado Lawyers), as well as having contributed to number of professional texts for lawyers.

All of that seems easy enough. At least in hindsight. This current effort to join the blogosphere is driven by a desire to identify the larger, more universally themed stories we tell. Humans are ‘homo narrans’ grounded in stories and the telling of stories to relate and understand each other. I want to know: What are the stories we are telling? For what purpose and uses? And what are the words we use to express the emotional meaning of those stories?

When not helping lawyers identify, shape and effectively deliver the stories they need to tell for their clients, Diane is actively engaged as a Lady Beewrangler managing her own apiary, paddleboarding and kayaking.

Q&A with Diane Wyzga:

Q: Your specific niche of legal storytelling is unique. This field seems to be fairly well established and growing; for example, a Google search reveals conferences, publications, and consulting practices. Can you talk about the evolution of the profession from the time you entered it to today? Were you a pioneer, or was it already well established when you entered? What changes have you seen?

A: I believe I was a pioneer bringing storytelling skills, techniques and principles to the legal profession. Prior to my coming on the scene, actors like Katherine James and Alan Blumenfeld of Act of Communication were teaching lawyers “platform” skills to engage the listener in the theater of the courtroom.
With Lightning Rod Communications I set out to go where I was needed but not wanted and leave when I was wanted but not needed. As an experienced trial attorney shared with me, “We need stories and we need to know how to persuade with stories. Yet, we ‘diss’ storytelling at the same time we secretly crave it.” I thought this was a pretty vulnerable statement to make.
Lawyers who helped show me the way to be of use to lawyers are those who call themselves “Warriors” after graduating from Jerry Spence’s Trial Lawyers College. They “get” the purpose and value of storytelling more than many of their peers. Why? As one of them told me, “The college is all about doing an archeological dig on yourself to clear away all the debris and artifice that stands between you and an open, authentic conversation with another human being.”
Has story work expanded in the legal field? Yes and no. Yes, there are articles on bringing your case to life with storytelling; however, they tend to be a rehash of Robert McKee’s work [Story: Substance, Structure, Style and Principles of Screenwriting] telling the lawyer what to do not how to do it. I believe that you have to stand and deliver your work, not just read about it.
My own work evolved from teaching storytelling skills to the larger world of story techniques and principles. For example, now I teach and speak nationally on applying storytelling to the whole of legal discourse from writing briefs to alternative dispute resolution to witness preparation to courtroom trials. One of my workshops is “Trial Blueprints.” I show the lawyers what a case looked like before and after the use of storytelling principles to identify, shape and deliver the trial story. Then we apply the same techniques to their trial stories by emphasizing two things: (1) critical listening, and (2) the story equation: “content + context + value = emotionally meaningful story” so they can tell their client’s story with power, passion and precision.
My experience has shown me that story and litigation are still at an uneasy fit. Granted, this is a complex time for litigators. They are under siege on many fronts not the least of which is the “Googling-Tweeting-Texting Juror”. But to gain traction in the human arena that hears cases, we still have a very long way to go to push back what has become a reversion to the familiar terrain of fact-based structure. Following a current model, lawyers are using reactive brain to frighten, not reflective mind to enlighten. By staying tied to a rehash of a familiar model lawyers are short-changing themselves and decision-makers.
More so than in any other profession it seems that some judges and lawyers still believe that the storytelling concept, while crucial, is so far outside their frame of reference, skill set, comfort zone, and experience that it seems little more than a luxury with little value. If we do not learn the effects of story and practice its uses when we speak to decision-makers, we have lost the singular opportunity to get the action we desire.
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Many lawyers still want to talk about the facts of what happened but not why or how an event happened. Facts are necessary. Facts get the case evidence-proofed; but only a heartfelt story artfully told will get it decision-maker proofed.
I am encouraged by efforts such as those at Sturm College of Law inviting practitioners to explore the role of narrative in both law practice and law teaching to develop uses for narrative as a tool of persuasion. Another example of the growing use of story in the legal profession is Gordon Johnson and TBI Voices to educate the public about the many mysteries of traumatic brain injury. Finally, there are many legal voices in alternative dispute resolution — such as J. Kim Wright, author of bestseller, Lawyers as Peacemakers, Practicing Holistic, Problem-Solving Law (ABA, 2010) — who are relying on storytelling principles to find successful solutions to human problems.
Q: To what extent and in what ways has your background as an RN contributed to your story work? rn_nurses_and_medical_symbol_poster-p228316462882106859t5wm_400.jpg
A: What a great question! Critical listening began at the bedside, in the emergency room, in the out patient clinic. Nurses hold the space for patients and families to tell their stories. I worked as a pediatric nurse, so I had to learn to employ a lot more whole-body listening to understand what was said between the lines. A child could tell you they were not hurting — so they could appear brave — but one look at the clenched face told another story.
For many years I had to listen stories out of patients, parents, siblings, and families. Some spoke English, others did not. Some were in this country legally, others were not. There were cultures and customs to learn. I recall taking care of a child who was a high-ranking member of a gypsy family. The family and its king camped out on the grounds of the hospital. Try understanding that story.
With this nursing background, I was primed to learn from someone like Doug Lipman who taught me that the teller knows the story they need to tell provided someone can listen it out of them. With my experience I am in a better place to help my clients identify, shape and effectively deliver the story they need to tell.
Indeed, listening carries over to focus group research, mock trials, and jury selection. Lawyers want to attend to the literal words someone uses to respond to a question. In truth, the real answer is revealed in metaphors, intention, tone of voice, comparisons, experiences and the like. The more adept we are at listening to how they said what they said, the better we can hear what is being said and why.
Q: In what ways is legal storytelling different from other forms of applied storytelling? For example, on your web site, you mention analytical thinking. To what extent do you think legal storytelling takes a more analytical approach than other forms of applied storytelling?
A: Generally speaking, here’s the paradox: lawyers need to be able to prove the case and tell the client’s story but lawyers generally are given the least training to do the story part well. So often what I hear is: fire + marshmallow + water + soup, now give me a conclusion.
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In law school students are required to brief cases with a formula called “IRAC” for Issue, Rule, Application, and Conclusion. A briefed case may sound like this. Issue: whether a man hit by the contents of a chamber pot being emptied out a window is entitled to damages. Rule: do not empty your chamber pot out the window. Application (of the rule to the issue): In an effort to clean up its image, the town of X passed a law stating that residents must not empty chamber pots out the window but dispose of the contents in the new “sewer system.” Jack did not want to walk 9 flights down to the sewer system so he chose to do what he always did: empty his chamber pot out the window where the contents fell on Tom who was walking under the window. Conclusion: Jack should be hung out and dried for breaking the new law. Tom should be compensated.
Compound law school’s IRAC training with the type person that typically goes into the practice of law: logical, sequential, analytical, data driven, and practical. These are all good and wonderful left-brain traits. Storytelling relies more on right-brain traits: imagination, creativity, intuition, non-linear visualization, and big picture concepts.
I’ve heard that “People who invent stories intimidate people who do not.” Lawyers are suspicious of stories that do not come packaged in structures. Can you see where the battle lines are drawn?
In no other area do I find this conundrum: on the one hand, law requires analytical, logical, left-brained, content-based thinking to strategize and prove a case. On the other hand, jurors and others are required to render decisions and verdicts. The collective conscience of the community does not make reasoned, fact-based decisions. Science has shown and continues to show that we make moral decisions on an unconscious basis that we support with facts we gather to fit the decision. We believe what we understand. We understand what comes to us in a story that mimics our life experiences.
The justice system is designed to address only the legal elements. But everybody knows that the legal elements came about because of the personal situation of the client. A story focuses attention and judgment on certain key ideas or behaviors, and on understanding the significance of the behavior.
What do you do to develop a forensic fact pattern into a real life drama? Begin with your right-brain traits to prepare the outline of the story you need to tell. Most likely it will be your client’s story. Then creatively visualize what that story could sound like no matter how disorganized it may first appear to you. Get that story down. Then bring in the left-brain traits to shape the story with the data and evidence necessary to prove the story.

Q: In your interview with Stephanie West Allen, you tell an absolutely fascinating story of how you discovered storytelling, of being “in a book and coffee shop in Pacific Grove, CA, [when] a book fell off a shelf. I picked it up. The year was 1994. The book was a 20th anniversary edition of best-loved stories told at the Jonesborough, TN, story festival. I read a story. I said: I can do this.” One little piece seems to be missing from this story, though — what do you think drew you into that story and that book? What was powerful enough in that book or story to motivate you to want to “do this?”

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A: We are going back a long time — time out of mind on this one. Even so I can recall the entire episode as if it was yesterday. The story was “The Wish-Ring” as retold by Martha Holloway, a retired bacteriologist at Scripps Institute who began a second career at age 62.
I remember thinking one is never too old to give voice to the values that reflect who you are and your vison for being of use in the world. I still have notes on the flyleaf of the book with names and telephone numbers of local storytellers and guilds I contacts as soon as I returned home. One of them, Linda King Pruitt [pictured], remains a close friend and storyteller.

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What called me? A knowing. That’s the best I can say. Remember when you had the experience of knowing that someone or something was right for you? It’s like that. A friend calls it the “Wilson Factor” She found her dog in a shelter, knew when she saw him he was “the One” and called him Wilson. It’s like that.
My experience is also aligned with a belief system of paying attention to the whisperings or beckonings of truth. I blogged on this recently. There are many things in life that will catch our eye, but only a few will catch our heart — those are the ones we are destined to follow if we are paying attention.
Looking back I believe that what I found was a way of being I could relate to, that came naturally: thinking like a storyteller. I was looking for a tribe of people who were having fun while making a life built on life-affirming work that helps others.
It took a book falling on my head to launch me into a world where grown-ups shared stories for a living. Some of those tellers have passed on; other young ones are now the grey-haired elders. The message is the same one I heard then: We are “homo narrans” — storytelling people.

Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?

A: To name one runs the risk of forgetting others. As a way of honoring all who matter to me, I’d like to remember a few.

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Doug Lipman and his coaching work taught me to listen with appreciation, always lifting up the best in the teller.Later I would learn he was reframing St. Benedict’s words, “Listen with the ear of the heart.”At a time when I was shaky on my storyteller feet he told me that I have an innate ability to translate universal concepts into sound bytes that resonate with the listener.This I have taken to heart in my work.

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Jay O’Callahan appreciates language so much he told me to use less of it, not more. Jay hounded me to “choose — choose — choose” the right word. I hear him in my ear like the ocean: “If you have five words, make it three. If you have three words, make it one.” I am in awe of the grandeur of the epic-scale stories he creates like “The Auk” and “Pouring the Sun” that derive from his own humanity. This gifted world-renowned teller has himself sailed rough seas finding the beating heart of his story or telling to noisy or unappreciative audiences.

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Elizabeth Ellis (whose voice, Jay O’Callahan says, sounds like chocolate) made certain I did my homework before stepping in front of a crowd of 5 or 500. She often admonished me to “be a gift to them;” do not expect your listeners to reach out and catch you because you are not prepared. Even with the most difficult personal stories you tell, be in control of the story so your emotions do not run all over the place. Remember the role of a virtual journey is to take the listener with us and return them safely to where we began.

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Loren Niemi didn’t let me get away with anything when crafting stories or stage presence. Loren’s topics are edgy, his presentation style sly. Ellis says his material is out there where the tall grass grows in empty lots with broken beer bottles glittering in the sun. The Niemi/Ellis book, Inviting the Wolf In, taught me that there is no human trait too dark that you can’t tell something about it that will relate to the listener’s experience. I learned that all of human experience qualifies for story subject matter; the knife-blade decision is knowing what your listener needs to hear and what you are prepared to tell.[Editor’s note: Loren Niemi has been part of this Q&A series].

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Ed Stivender mimicked all the ways we grew up as Catholic kids. His stories are side-splitting hilarious and strangely respectful, much like Sister’s Catechism theater. I have to believe one day she heard Ed Stivender & then had an “AhHa!” moment. He gave me permission to poke fun at authority.

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As the new millennium approached I served with Gail Rosen, Allison Cox, and others as a member of the board of the Healing Story Alliance (a special interest group of the National Storytelling Network). Together we created Diving in the Moon journal. Gail and Allison were visionaries who believed that story facilitated healing. Our paths diverged and have met up again. We are older, but the power of story to heal continues more strongly than ever.
StoryWerx: My local tribe of performing tellers who bring to life the music of the spoken word. I began teaching storytelling to them; in time they taught me more about myself than I could ever learn in school — or therapy.

GarrisonKeillor.jpg Garrison Keillor and stories from Lake Woebegone on NPR: who else can keep you locked in your car glued to the radio in a state of extraordinary listening while the grocery story parking lot fills and then empties out on a Saturday night?

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Finally, Holly Near opened another listening door for me with her music, in particular: The Souls Are Coming Back!

Can you call on your imagination
As if telling a myth to a child
Put in the fantastical, wonderful, magical
Add the romantic, the brave and the wild

Q: What future aspirations do you personally have for your own story work? What would you like to do in the story world that you haven’t yet done?

A: I am approaching what I call “Middle Earth Age.” My siblings’ children have children. I am now a great aunt. My values have shifted as I’ve gained in years. I’ve arrived at a place in life where I can say I have experiences, stories, wisdom, and failings to share. I see this as well in my women friends and associates, too. We are becoming the elders. We have vital roles to play in all aspects of human discourse.

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I have in mind creating a space along the model of The Center for Whole Communities at Knoll Farms, whose work I’ve taken part in. I would like to focus on women collectively. Women are natural storytellers and listeners. I’m sure you’ve witnessed this: women teach as they learn. As women teach and learn they move closer to becoming who they are individually and collectively: leaders, change agents, visionaries, organizers, healers, educators, peace-makers, farmers, beekeepers, story-sharers, and the like.
I recall telling stories in domestic-abuse shelters and watching the years and anxiety fall away from their faces. We need delight as well as motivation, humor as well as transformation, inspiration as well as education. I believe the fertile ground of my farm will offer this and more. I am returning to my storyteller and sustainable-living roots. In the words of Elizabeth Ellis, “Be a gift to them — take them on a journey and bring them safely home.”

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Dr. Kathy Hansen

Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...

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