“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

 

This is rated as one of the top 10 most memorable lines in movie history. Why do we remember this line?

More importantly, how can you get jurors to remember your case theme?

 

A group of Cornell researchers* took on the task of deciphering the common linguistic elements of the 100 most remembered movie lines using human subjects and computers. They then applied their findings to popular advertising slogans to see if the results stood up in that field, too. What do you think happened? Yes. The linguistic elements that were common to the memorable movie lines were the same elements that appeared in popular ads. 

So, what are those elements and how can you use them in your opening?

  1. Use interesting words.  More than any other factor, these phrases used interesting, distinctive words. For instance, a famous line in The Matrix is “Never send a human to do a machine’s job.” Now, change “human” to “person” and the phrase falls flat. Interesting words are not necessarily scholarly words or legal terms, but they might be common words that just don’t get used as much. Steve Jobs always made a list of the verbs he was going to use in a presentation, then asked if each one was “zippy.” If not, he found its equivalent and subbed it in.
  2. Use boring syntax.  The researchers concluded that “memorable quotes appear to follow the syntactic pattern of common language more closely than non-memorable quotes.” If Dorothy had said, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore, I’ve a feeling” we might not remember it.
  3. Keep it short. This one is too obvious.
  4. Don’t make it about “him” or “her.”  Personal pronouns [I, him, her] tend to exclude others, making it seem like outsiders don’t need to remember this. Dorothy used “we”, which included Toto and every person watching the movie.
  5. Live in the present.  People hate the past.  Keep your theme phrase in the present. In another memorable line, Dorothy said, “There is no place like home.” She didn’t say, “There was no place like home.” “Was” in that sentence makes it sound like we’re about to get some sad story about a tragic past. When she says “is”, it sounds like there is hope, that “home” is still there, and that she’ll make it. The line could go either way and say the same thing, but the present tense makes it worth remembering.
  6. Use lots of “front sounds.”  Memorable quotes, weirdly, begin with “labials”—sounds made with the lips at the front of the mouth with teeth and lips, not “back” sounds. The letters f, m, n, p, v, b, and t are examples of front sounds. There must be a strength or pop to these words that launches them into memory.

Where in your opening does this catchphrase belong? If you strictly follow the story-telling model we teach, then it comes twice in your opening. The first time, it appears on the title slide right after you introduce yourself. The second time is on the last slide of your presentation. Jurors hear it first and they hear it last. Here are some examples of themes we have used in the past:

  • Mass conspiracies are only as good as their weakest link
  • Bully, boycott, and bungle
  • Pay a citizen for the land you seized
  • Pilfer ideas and pocket the profits
  • Nobody sees anything falling

Themes burn in juror minds. Themes dictate how jurors remember, process, discuss, and decide.

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