Human persuasion is governed by principles. Here we examine one such principle: organization.

The concept of “organization” is used in many disciplines, from economics to psychotherapy. It is also a fundamental principle of persuasion. Although it is the easiest principle to implement, it is often overlooked and seldom understood.

A. Analysis of organization.

Organizing fundamentally means establishing relationships between elements, especially hierarchical relationships. This process has two components. The first is division into segments, topics, or groups. For example, an opening statement might be divided into three big topics, each of which has a number of subparts. The second component of organization is establishing connections between the segments or topics. For example, the components might be ordered or arranged in a hierarchy. Although there are hundreds of different approaches to organization, in Western culture there appears to be a deep response to organization by numbered list. We see this in contexts as varied as the numbered books and verses of the Bible, Letterman’s Top Ten List, the three-act play, and the outline.

B. Example of organization in persuasion.

When we talk about organization as a principle of persuasion, we do not mean having an organized and well-thought out approach to a trial. Rather, organization becomes an explicit part of our presentation to the jury, including witness examinations and opening and closing presentations. For example, in a case involving the breach of a contract for the sale of a business, we began the opening statement with a short introduction and then presented the following slide:

This slide identifies the three big topics of the opening statement:

After introducing the three topics, we circle the first topic and then begin the description of evidence that will be presented on that subject. As we conclude each topic, we bring this slide back and use it to both end the prior topic and begin the next.

In this example, as we end the first topic and return to the organizational slide, we might say:

“To summarize, the evidence will prove that both parties had a strong motive to have a binding contract when they signed the letter of intent. It will also show that neither party had a motive to delay entering a binding contract. As a result, that evidence will prove that the parties did intend their letter of intent to be binding. Now I want to turn to the second topic: did the parties agree to the essential terms of the contract. Let me explain what I mean by ‘essential terms,’ and then we will discuss what the evidence will show on that subject.”

In creating and presenting an organizational slide, there is a fair amount of persuasion built into selecting the topics and choosing the wording that describes each topic. But the question before us now is how is it that simply making your organization explicit will advance persuasion?

C. Why does organization persuade?

As with each of the fundamental principles of persuasion, organization accomplishes a number of goals by removing doubts at several levels. Here we show five benefits to persuasion that flow from properly using the principle of explicit organization.

1. Organization is a heuristic cue for validity.

The presence of organization in a presentation serves as a mental shortcut (what social scientists call a “heuristic cue”) that suggests validity, thereby enhancing believability. At a subconscious level, we believe that if all of the puzzle pieces appear to fit together in a presentation, it must be presenting a true, correct, and complete picture. By contrast, lack of organization is a marker of deception. We say that someone is, “putting up a smokescreen.” We say that he is just throwing up everything against the wall to see if something sticks. People that have it figured out are organized. People that are just guessing are not organized.

The simple act of organization enhances both the credibility of the presenter and the believability of her arguments.

2. The break gives a presenter a fresh audience.

Organization creates breaks that allow the presenter to renew the attention of the audience.

When we explicitly organize segments that begin and end, we also create an opportunity for space between each segment that allows a juror to pause, take a breath, and clear the mind. This phenomenon is analogous to sipping water between tastes of wine. The water, a non-taste, refreshes the palette and reduces sensory exhaustion. Similarly, in popular songs, we hear the verse and chorus once, verse and chorus twice, then a musical break, before we conclude with the third rendition of verse and chorus. The break in the song typically consists of eight bars of relatively uninteresting music with a dull melody and simplistic lyrics. The break cleanses the aural palette and makes the final verse and chorus seem fresh again.

To appreciate the phenomenon of the break, recall your experience in viewing presentations that do not have organizational breaks. Our favorite example is a political speech, such as the President’s annual State of the Union speech. It just goes on and on like a never-ending stream. We struggle to make mental connections and with every passing moment it becomes more difficult to focus on what is being said.

But when you organize, you insert breaks and, with each new section, let the audience know that they can begin anew with a clean slate. They are given permission to let go of what went before. Whether they were confused by, disagreed with, or were uncomfortable with the point you just finished, they can set that aside and judge the next segment for what it is.

In addition, for many people, the insertion of a new beginning invokes a positive psychological response. We begin a new job with high hopes. We begin a new semester at school with high hopes. “This year I am going to do it right.” For lawyers, we begin every case mistake free, with no problems. A new segment can invoke such a “new beginning” response.

Organization creates a break that allows us to let go of what went before and look forward to what will come next.

3. Organization provides an opportunity to establish a viewpoint.

When we insert organizational elements, we can preview each segment, briefly telling the audience the subject of what is coming next.

The principle benefit of preview is that it allows us to set the stage and define what is material. We identify the issue from our point of view, which then allows the audience to focus their attention on discovering the connections between that point of view and the information that follows. The audience becomes predisposed to recognize and remember the facts that are relevant to the issue we have defined. By contrast, if the audience is not given a point of view, the audience will not simply hear what follows with a blank slate. Each member of the audience will adopt an issue (which may be different than your issue or the same issue viewed in a different light) and will then, during your presentation, spend their time discovering the connections between that issue and the information you present.

To understand the importance of this component, think about those times when a friend wants to get your advice about a legal problem and begins by telling you a bit about a case, without telling you the issue. As you listen to the narrative, you find yourself straining to determine which nuances in this story are important. Your friend begins by telling you about someone who was an independent contractor for a company and then became an employee. You think that this might be a wrongful termination case and start to listen for facts relevant to those issues. Then you start to hear about the employee’s discovery of a new process, and you think that perhaps this is a patent case. Only near the end of the narrative are you told what the issue is and discover that the gravamen is theft of trade secrets by a former employee. If you had known the issue from the beginning, you would have known what to listen for.

4. Organization creates an opportunity for review allowing
repetition and new insights.

Explicit organization allows a presenter at the conclusion of each segment to review what has gone before. We can summarize not only the argument we just heard, but also place that argument in context of the other arguments that have gone before.

As a general rule, audiences despise repetition. Indeed, one of the most common juror complaints in post-trial interviews is boredom from needless repetition of points. Jurors (and audiences generally) find repetition boring because it provides insufficient stimulation in a given amount of time. But review allows repetition without boredom because it is (i) quick and (ii) can actually provide new information.

When you do a brief review at the conclusion of a segment, you provide new insights for the audience in two ways.

First, you can collect the two to five key facts or points from the segment and present them in a few seconds. This allows the audience to see these points all at once and provides an opportunity for what we call “Zap” – a powerful persuasive moment created by presenting a complete argument, including premises and logic, in 3-5 seconds. Even if you cannot create a Zap moment, the audience will experience the quick recitation of two or three powerful points as something new, not as repetition. By analogy, when you hike up a mountain trail, you do not find it boring to take a break and sweep your eyes back over the ground already covered. Indeed, these may be the most breathtaking moments of the day.

Second, during review, you can take a moment to explain the connection between the segment just completed and some earlier segment, or to foreshadow its relationship to a point that will be covered later. Putting points or groups of points in context is new information and creates new insights.

Review allows repetition of points in a manner that the audience will find acceptable rather than boring.

5. Organization enhances lawyer credibility by creating an
opportunity for bonding through shared experience.

When we conclude a segment, the presenter and audience have traveled a journey together. By stopping to review the segment, we pause and look back and reflect on our shared experience. When people share an experience together — travel together, go to war together, watch a play together – they have a bond.

The experience of the segment taps into this bonding experience.

D. How to use organization.

Stripped to its bare essence, organization consists of ending a segment, followed by a break, followed by the beginning of a new segment. The craft comes in determining how to end, how to break, and how to begin.

Here is an example of review at the conclusion of one segment from a closing argument for a case involving software copyright infringement. Annotations are in brackets:

“So, you saw all of the internal e-mails from IBM that called the software ‘Browning’s interface.’ You saw the testimony of IBM’s chief technical officer admitting that Mr. Browning wrote all of the code for the software. And you saw the copyright notice listing Mr. Browning as the author. The evidence proves Browning was the author. [The key facts are quickly reviewed, allowing the audience to see them all at once, enhancing their persuasive power.] You will want to keep this evidence in mind when we consider, a little later, whether IBM knew Mr. Browning was the author of the interface when IBM was busy interfering with Browning’s attempts to sell the software. [Putting this point in context by foreshadowing how it will link into another point.]”

Then, to accomplish the break, make it a break. When using an organizational slide in a presentation, you maximize the power of the break with a minimalist slide. It should have only a few simple components, use few or no colors; and consist of simple words in simple fonts with no interesting graphic details. Also take a break during your delivery of the organizational slide. Slow down. Change positions. Include a long pause or two. Show your audience by your behavior that it is o.k. to take a mental break for one or two seconds. Then introduce the next topic.

Here is an example of preview in a defense argument for claims involving defamation and interference with contract:

“The next issue is causation. Did Dr. Goldring’s remarks cause any injury to Plaintiff? Words that do not cause any harm do not cause any harm. With no harm there is no liability. There are two reasons why the Plaintiff can’t prove causation. First, the allegedly defamatory remarks to Concord Company by Dr. Goldring took place after Concord had already decided not to go forward with the project. They could not have caused any harm. Second, Concord did not care what Dr. Goldring had to say and would have made the same decision regardless of Dr. Goldring’s opinion. Let’s start with the first reason.”

E. Conclusion.

The peculiar attraction of organization as a principle of persuasion lies in its simplicity. It is not difficult to use. It does not require a great deal of preparation to use. It does not take a great deal of trial time to implement. And yet, it accomplishes a great deal.