By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
Without a theme, your case is just information: facts, claims, exhibits, instructions, and witnesses. It may be legally sufficient, but without a simple and central message to tie it all together, it is not persuasively sufficient. Experienced trial lawyers may be of one mind when it comes to the importance of a theme, but in my experience, there is quite a bit of variety in approaches for coming up with one. For some, it is a matter of creativity, inspiration, and "You'll know it when you hear it" recognition. For me, though, the right theme is a matter of working it out. A good theme probably won't be a bolt from the blue, it will instead be something that you've developed and crafted with a lot of different criteria in mind. After all, your theme needs to be something that doesn't just speak to you, or to your favorable audience, or to one aspect of the case. Instead it needs to communicate your case holistically and it needs to resonate.
That goal, finding language that resonates, can be an elusive one. A team of academics researching the characteristics of moral values, however, offers some practical help. A few days ago, while researching another post, I stumbled on something called the "Moral Foundations Dictionary." Calling it a "dictionary" is probably an oversell: It is just a list of words with primitive formatting, allowing the list to be easily incorporated into content analysis software. Those words, however, have been demonstrated to track with the five universal moral values of care, fairness, in-group affinity, authority, and purity. The authors (Graham, Haidt, & Nozek, 2009) made the list available so it could be a resource for social scientists who are analyzing speech or text in order to determine its moral emphasis. But the list can also serve as a useful heuristic device for anyone who is looking for the right word to convey a particular moral idea. It is also a handy reminder to think about the moral values that are conveyed in language. In this post, I'll share a few steps for working toward a theme using the Moral Foundations Dictionary as inspiration.