New Partners: Hone This Skill To Build Your Brand and Business

February 13, 2024

The most precious commodity in marketing has always been attention. But in our world of endless digital distractions, it’s more elusive than ever. How do you get an audience’s attention, and how do you get them to remember you?

For newly minted law firm partners entering an increasingly crowded and competitive legal marketplace, those questions are not just theoretical. They are essential to building a brand and developing business.

There is no shortage of business development advice. Do great work, become active on social media, jump on speaking opportunities, get quoted in the press, appear on a podcast and network, network, network!

Those are all good suggestions. But they only get you in the game. They don’t help you win the game.

The Power of Story

Decision makers, like the rest of us, are drowning in information, pitches and promotions. Every day, the average American consumes more than seven hours of media and checks their phone 144 times.

Absorbing this point is crucial for young professionals. Today, the internet is flooded with content, even in niche areas. Producing original content has never been harder.

But whether pitching for new business, appearing on a panel or podcast, posting on LinkedIn, or dining out with clients, there is one sure way to be original and be remembered: tell a story.

Okay, that may sound simplistic. Just tell a story? Really?

Well, yes. But because we have unlimited access to content, we must tell really good stories

that can only come from our experiences, not from a large language model. That’s why there has never been a better time to get more training in the architecture and alchemy of stories.

The primacy of stories is not new, of course. Those who tell stories shape society, argued Plato in The Republic over 2,400 years ago. I would add that they also know how to win business.

The good news is that we are all born storytellers. We tell ourselves stories every day. As Will Storr argues in his book, “The Science of Storytelling,” storytelling, underpinned by cause-and-effect thinking, is how we make sense of the world. The mission of our brains is to control our surroundings so that we can survive and reproduce. To gain control, we’re constantly on alert for change—which can present danger or opportunity.

But while we’ve long intuitively understood storytelling’s importance, neuroscience has begun to further our grasp of narrative’s power. Some research, for instance, suggests that the brains of listeners sync with storytellers. That’s powerful stuff.

Among the three pillars of persuasion that Plato identified—logic, credibility and emotion—it’s the last one that often matters most. Our brains are built to forget the mundane and remember the emotional. And yet, as lawyers and law firms seek to sell themselves, they often default to the first two, speaking about their experience, skills and powers of analysis. But by doing so, they risk becoming forgettable, lost in a sea of similar-sounding competitors.

What does this all mean? We need to get better at telling authentic, emotionally engaging stories and tell them more frequently. Like any skill, storytelling requires practice, practice, practice.

And, But, Therefore

Stories at their core are about change. Something happens. We’re all familiar with a story about the boy who wins a girl, loses her, and wins her back, or the down-on-his-luck character who makes it big.

The point is that stories follow a pattern. Same with business stories, which generally involve a challenge that needs to be overcome. For example:

A once-thriving iconic energy company was facing fierce competition and financial distress. Anxiety permeated the company. But the CEO embarked on a courageous journey to restructure the company, investing in R&D, retraining, and rebranding. Challenges arose, and internal resistance tested her resolve. However, her steadfast leadership and heartfelt communication efforts helped the team adapt, easing their worries. 

Getting into storytelling mode requires a shift in thinking for many lawyers trained to be comprehensive and recite every procedural twist and turn and piece of evidence.

Randy Olson, a marine biologist-turned-filmmaker, helped popularize a story framework that can help. It’s called “And, But, Therefore.” The structure is super simple, but it’s a helpful way to think about the key elements in a story.

Olson has spent a lot of time around scientists who have so much to share with the world but who often get bogged down in details. The A-B-T method can help.

And (or the setup). A typical narrative starts with facts and context. The fundamental tool for connecting these setup facts is often the conjunction “and.” It shouldn’t be just any facts, however. You want to start with facts and context that make people care.

But (or the conflict). The middle of the story is the most important because it introduces conflict, challenge or tension, often through the word “but.” If we don’t introduce that conflict, we haven’t got a story. And that tension needs to be believable. If the business leader doesn’t face challenges or doubts, we’re bored.

Therefore (or the resolution). In the culmination of a story, we need to learn how the tension or conflict is resolved. The word “therefore” signals a resolution. A crucial element is what the protagonist has learned. Stories often show how characters move from ignorance to enlightenment. “Therefore” sets up what they’ve learned or what the point is.

The actual words “and,” “but” and “therefore” don’t need to be in your story. But the concepts they represent should.

Revealing Values

In the fall of 2009, I approached a red-bearded American in an Irish pub in St. Petersburg, Russia, who I believed could unlock the material for a best-seller.

The man had been a cooperating witness in a trial I covered for “The American Lawyer” magazine. He had moved to Russia in the late 1990s and later began working for an oligarch who prosecutors alleged bilked investors out of millions of dollars on a scheme for the privatization of an Azerbaijani oil company.

He ultimately pled guilty to a bribery scheme, but his cooperation agreement let him continue operating a pub in St. Petersburg. I thought if I could win his confidence, he would regale me with stories of private jets, models, corruption, Chechen fighters and lawlessness in the post-Cold War Eastern bloc. But my emails to him went unanswered. If I wanted the story, I was going to have to get it from him in person.

I had never been to Russia, didn’t speak the language and was not entirely sure I could even find my man.

I was reticent. Maybe it’s my Midwestern upbringing, but I’ve also never been comfortable approaching strangers for information. As a reporter, I got more practice, but it never came naturally. It pained me to be rejected for annoying people.

Ultimately, I overcame my fear, booked the trip and found my guy. The stories for a best-seller?

Unfortunately, they did not come. After I worked up the courage to approach him, he politely explained that he couldn’t talk.

Even though I didn’t get what I wanted, I learned the importance of taking action. You can’t get what you don’t ask for.

Over their careers, partners will have the opportunity to tell lots of kinds of stories. One of the most common will likely be stories that demonstrate how they or their clients overcame challenges or how they approached problems.

But there is value in telling all kinds of stories, even about failures. These stories can often do more to reveal our character and values. They are also the ones people remember.

 

Reprinted with permission from the February 2024 edition of the New York Law Journal © 2024 ALM Global Properties, LLC. All rights reserved. Further duplication without permission is prohibited, contact 877-256-2472 or asset-and-logo-licensing@alm.com.

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