Law schools don't necessarily teach you how to try a case, or cover all the areas of law you'll need to know in your niche. But by all accounts, they do a very good job of encouraging students to "think like a lawyer." That means thinking systematically, analytically, and logically. So when it comes to categorizing different ideas and actions, lawyers are typically well-steeped in the habit. But a fair amount of the communication advice that trial lawyers receive encourages them to set aside that frame of mind when it comes to oral persuasion. "Don't organize your opening statement like you would organize a brief," the advice goes, "instead, be organic and tell a story." Of course, there is a great deal of merit in that advice. At the same time, there are also some important limitations to it. The ability to reason in categories isn't just useful in fending off summary judgment motions, it is also useful in any kind of teaching. Categories are how we learn. Beyond the advantage in "chunking" information in order to make it more memorable, the ability to convey new information in terms of types and classifications is critical to attending to, comprehending, and retaining new information. 

According to new research in the journal Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics, (Wu, Pruitt, Runkle Scerif & Aslin, 2016), the benefits to thinking in terms of categories are measurable and strong. Covered in Jeremy Dean's Psyblog, the study had subjects view and group objects on a computer screen into categories as researchers measured their brainwaves. Even when the dissimilarity between items outweighed the similarity, the use of categories conveyed significant learning benefits. The brainwave data indicated that the groupings increased the "attentional efficiency" of the research subjects. "Adults can increase their attention skills by grouping objects into categories, and then using these categories to search for objects more efficiently," lead author Rachel Wu explained, "You can think about it this way – by knowing the category of food, it makes it much easier to search for something to eat for lunch, rather than searching for the huge number of individual items that you could eat for lunch." Now that's not earthshaking news: Restaurants, after all, group their food items by type (appetizer, salad, entree, dessert) for a simple and obvious reason. But what might be less obvious is that anyone seeking to teach has a similar need to group information. Thinking about how new information fits in with what we already know boosts attention and helps us remember and use what we've learned. That's a simple but critical reminder for all persuaders: You're not just conveying new information, you're conveying structure. So the categories you chose will be at least as important as the data you use to fill in those categories. 

Why Are Categories Important to My Message? 

Good communicators really internalize one essential fact: Your attention is not the same as their attention. For a lawyer, your role, the work you've brought to the case and the "advocate's filter" you apply when viewing that information, all make some things seem clear and obvious from your side of the lectern. But it is not the same experience for your audience of fact finders, whether that audience is a judge, an arbitrator, or a jury. Structure is your way to assert control over what they are noticing and remembering. Without it, they experience your case as a storm of facts, accumulating like snow flakes, but melting fast if they aren't aggregated into meaningful categories. Instead of thinking about your structure or your outline as something for the speaker (so you know what to say next), you really should think about it as something for the audience. It is a way to say, "I want you to think of this information with this relationship, this emphasis, and in this order." Because your fact finders only learn the new in terms of the known, your structure should help them not only know the right facts, but know the right buckets to put those facts in.  

What Kinds of Categories Are Going to Be Most Useful? 

Which buckets to use? That will depend on a close reading, analysis, and testing of your case. But in general terms, use those categories that speak to your audience's needs, not those that speak to a legal need, or those that just seem to you to offer a neat package. The purpose of structure is not to be orderly, but to move your fact finders through a path that leads to your destination. 

A story is a type of structure that motivates the listener based on a simple interest in what happens next. But other structures, inside and outside of that narrative, will also help you audience-center your message. Say, for example, that you know from a focus group that listeners are likely to hone in on five main questions. Structuring your case as an answer to each of these likely audience questions makes your case easier to follow and much more likely to be engaging and meaningful to the listener.  

How Do I Embed Categories Into My Trial Message? 

Good structure doesn't just mean structure you can see when you look at your speaking notes. It has to mean structure that is evident to your audience. The chunks, chapters, categories and buckets need to be clear not just to you, but understood and used by your fact finders as well. That is why it is so useful to enumerate, to ask and to answer rhetorical questions, to preview and to review throughout your message, and to signpost each new point as you come to it.

Because categorizing means understanding the new in terms of the known, it also helps to make frequent use of phrases that draw upon that connection: 

  • You have already heard...
  • We all know...
  • Everyone here agrees...
  • Here is the missing piece of the puzzle...
  • You are probably asking yourself...

Those phrases and many others like them are effective because they link the new information you are about to provide with something your audience has already heard or thought. That is a key feature of communication and persuasion: It doesn't build anew, it connects.