By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
We've written frequently on themes: those little nuggets of language and meaning that distill a case to its persuasive essence. As consultants, we create themes even more frequently, trying to find the right message to leverage a case's greatest strengths while minimizing or reframing its most important weaknesses. By definition, a theme is a simple message that helps an audience see your case in its most favorable terms. But based on some recent research, there is also a mirror image of that: an 'anti-theme' in the form of the condensed message that would turn off your audience and turn them away from your case. Considering these anti-themes when working on the contours of your message can help you know what to avoid and what to preempt in your trial strategy.
The study (Gromet, Kunreuther & Larrick, 2013) focuses on consumer choices in lightbulbs and found that buying behavior could be substantially reduced in some audiences just by adding a single, apparently positive message to the packaging. While the question of "What sells an audience?" naturally garners much academic and practical attention, the parallel question of "What kills the sale?" should merit equal attention. And this focus fits well with a goal I've written about before: the need to use those forces that attract an audience toward your message (alpha strategies), as well as the need to address the forces that potentially repel an audience from your message (omega strategies). This post applies this approach-avoidance perspective to the question of themes. In addition to looking at the research on the words that can wound your cause, I'll also share some of my own thoughts on common anti-themes that could play a role in a jury's or judge's response to your case.