I was watching an episode of Harry’s Law, a new legal drama staring Kathy Bates, that started me thinking about the power of persuasion. In this particular episode she was trying to free a man who was convicted of a murder he had always maintained that he did not commit. True to form for these type shows in the final fifteen minutes she represented the inmate before the parole board, facing her last opportunity to gain his freedom. He had been before the board before and let’s just say they were less than impressed with his attitude, prompting one of the board members to proclaim that the law does not entitle Prisoner X to fairness just due process. With the clock approaching 9:50, Harry (Bates’ character) gave a speech on how the parole board should just do the right thing and show fairness whether the law required it or not. Throw in a mea culpa from the defendant and surprise, surprise the parole board caves and grants Prisoner X his parole.
Wouldn’t it be nice if real life worked this way? In our times of need and when our courage is about to fail and our last chance at victory is about to me snatched away, if we could just have David E. Kelly (former lawyer and creator of Harry’s Law, the Practice and Ally McBeal) or Dick Wolf (creator of the Law & Order franchise) step in an write the words we need to make everything okay. If they could give us the words to persuade our boss to give us that promotion or convince our co-workers to band together to demand our long overdue raises. What would your rallying cry be? What words would you use to persuade? Or even just to give yourself a pep talk?
We’ve seen it everywhere from Remember the Titans (Denzel Washington’s coach must rally his racially integrated football team to win the state championship and defy prejudice) to Clash of the Titans (Perseus must rally his few surviving men to enter Medusa’s lair so they can take her head and ultimately defy the gods). Mel Gibson’s William Wallace in Braveheart, Bill Pullman’s president in Independence Day, Morgan Freeman’s principal in Lean on Me and a host of coaches in everything from Hoosiers to Miracle all remind us of the power of words. And on today, Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday and Superbowl Sunday, who can forget “win just one for the Gipper“?
As a writer, I would love to create a memorable scene that hits the reader right in the gut. That moment where taken out of context the words may seem a little cheesy, but in the scene the words work because the reader is so emotionally involved in the story. They want the underdog to win, the unloved to be loved, the innocent to be freed and the bully to get what’s coming.
I’ve been there in real life too. Facing a jury of twelve strangers, I have often pondered what can I possibly say to get them to acquit? Unlike in Harry’s Law, things aren’t always so easily resolved. I’ve given brilliant closing arguments, had jury shaking their head in agreement with my words only to have them come back and convict on all counts. Not because David E. Kelly and Dick Wolf are better writers than me ( at least I like to think so), but because not only do they get to write the “call to arms” they also get to write the outcome, a power which I sadly do not possess.
What works in tvland and on the silver screen can work for us too. In the words of Winston Churchill, “never surrender.” When you face an obstacle or feel a dream fading, don’t climb that mountain, speak to it. Persuade it to move. But if persuasion fails and you must fight the mountaineers, write your own rallying cry that propels you or your team to act because sometimes the victory is not in winning the battle, but in just fighting the good fight.