Human rights lawyer Bryan Stevenson received the longest standing ovation in the history of the globally famous TED conference. In his March 2012 speech titled, “We Need To Talk About An Injustice,” the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative shared his concerns about the racial imbalance in America’s justice system. It was such a remarkable event that Stephen Colbert’s first question to Stevenson on The Colbert Report was, “What were you talking about that got those ‘brainy types’ all excited?”
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Stevenson knows a few things about persuasion. He argues cases in front of the U.S. Supreme Court—and wins. His 18-minute TED talk also won big. In addition to giving Stevenson a standing ovation, the audience assembled in the auditorium that day donated $1 million to Stevenson’s non-profit organization, the equivalent of $55,000 per minute that he spoke.
What can you learn from Stevenson’s power of persuasion? If there’s one thing you can take away from his presentation, it’s this simple fact: null The single best way to make a heartfelt connection with your listener is through storytelling.
Stevenson spoke for five minutes before he introduced his first statistics about how many people are incarcerated in U.S. prisons and the percentage of those who are poor and/or African-American. Those first five minutes included a personal story about Stevenson’s grandmother who taught him to believe that he could accomplish anything he wanted to do. Stevenson purposely chose to tell a story that made it easy for his audience to connect with him on a personal and emotional level.
“You have to get folks to trust you,” Stevenson said when I asked him about his TED talk. “If you start with something too esoteric and disconnected from the lives of everyday people, it’s harder for people to engage. I often talk about family members because most of us have family members that we have a relationship to. I talk about kids and people who are vulnerable or struggling. All of those narratives are designed to help understand the issues.”
Stevenson says he tells stories to engage judges, jurors, and other decision makers who are inclined to disagree with his perspective. Stevenson has discovered that null . Stevenson’s TED talk is a brilliant example of storytelling because he connects each of three personal stories to the central theme of “identity.”
For example, Stevenson’s last story involved a janitor whom he’d met briefly on his way to a court appointment. Once inside court, the conversation between Stevenson and the judge got especially heated.
Out of the corner of my eye, I could see this janitor pacing back and forth. This older black man with this very worried look on his face came into the courtroom and sat down behind me, almost at counsel table. About ten minutes later the judge said we would take a break. And during the break there was a deputy sheriff who was offended that the janitor had come into court. And this deputy jumped up and he ran over to this older black man. He said, “Jimmy, what are you doing in this courtroom?” And this older black man stood up and he looked at that deputy and he looked at me and he said, “I came into this courtroom to tell this young man, keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.”
Stevenson concluded the presentation by telling the TED audience that they cannot be fully evolved human beings until they care about human rights and basic dignity.
“I’ve simply come to tell you to keep your eyes on the prize, hold on.” Stevenson’s audience rose to their feet because his stories had connected with them. He had touched their souls.
Stevenson has what Aristotle called “pathos.” Aristotle is one of the founding fathers of communication theory. He believed that persuasion occurs when three components are represented: ethos, logos, and pathos. Ethos is credibility. We tend to agree with people whom we respect for their achievements, title, experience, etc. Logos is the means of persuasion through logic, data, and statistics. Pathos is the act of appealing to emotions.
Bryan Stevenson’s presentation contained 4,057 words. I analyzed those words and assigned them into each of the three categories. If Stevenson talked about his work in prisons, I placed that sentence or paragraph in the category Ethos. When Stevenson delivered statistics, I added those sentences to the category Logos. If Stevenson told a story, I placed the content under Pathos.
Ethos made up 10 percent of Stevenson’s content and Logos only 25 percent. Pathos made up a full 65 percent of Stevenson’s talk. Remarkably, Stevenson’s talk has been voted one of the most “persuasive” on TED.com. To “persuade” is defined as influencing someone to act by appealing to reason. Emotion doesn’t appear in the definition, yet without the emotional impact of his stories, Stevenson’s talk would have failed to have the influence it’s had. You simply cannot persuade through data and facts alone. Storytellers inspire. null
Carmine Gallo is a popular keynote speaker, internationally recognized communication coach, and author of the new book, Talk Like TED: The 9-Public Speaking Secrets of the World’s Top Minds. Learn more at talkliketed.com. Follow Carmine on Twitter or join his list at carminegallo.com.