Persuasion Wisdom of Justice Joseph Story

Persuasion Wisdom of Justice Joseph Story

Joseph Story, who was an Associate Justice in the nineteenth century US Supreme Court, is perhaps known nowadays to one or a few lawyers, but seems largely irrelevant to everyone else. Yet, his persuasion advice may be very relevant to anyone who depends on the ability to influence through cogent arguments. This means all sorts of efforts aimed diffusion of social innovations and social advocacy to highest-level political campaigns.

His persuasion wisdom is encapsulated in his poem titled “Advice to a Young Lawyer.” His advice could be summarized in these words: “spend not your words on trifles, but condense” and “strike but a few blows, but strike them to the heart”.

Indeed, the contemporary research has confirmed his point: you’ll persuade more if you articulate only strong points and leave out the weaker ones.

Here’s the slightly edited original poem, which leaves out a more poetic passage and cuts out some trifles.

Be brief, be pointed; let your matter stand
Lucid in order, solid, and at hand;
Spend not your words on trifles, but condense;
Strike with the mass of thoughts, not drops of sense;

Press to the close with vigor once begun,
And leave, (how hard the task!) leave off when done;
He who would win his cause, with power must frame
Points of support, and look with steady aim:
Attack the weak, defend the strong with art,

Strike but few blows, but strike them to the heart;
All scatter’d fires but end in smoke and noise,
The scorn of men, the idle play of boys.

Keep, then, this first great precept ever near,
Short be your speech, your matter strong and clear,
Earnest your manner, warm and rich your style,
Severe in taste, yet full of grace the while;

So may you reach the loftiest heights of fame,
And leave, when life is past, a deathless name.