“Long before the first formal business was established . . . the six most powerful words in any language were Let me tell you a story.”1
—MATHEWS & WACKER, What’s Your Story
WHEN JAYSON ZOLLER WAS A COLLEGE STUDENT, one of his favorite professors told the class a story so compelling Jayson is still retelling it two decades later. Apparently the professor’s students from a previous class had an unusual project working for a local district judge. The assignment: Investigate the jury deliberation process and determine how to improve it. As young, idealistic college students, his young team was excited to tackle such a noble mission.
The students interviewed dozens of judges, attorneys, former jurors, and other court officials around the district. They asked all the questions you would think a smart group of would-be consultants should ask. How many men were in the jury versus women? What was the mix of ethnic backgrounds? How many older jurors were there versus younger ones? Were there differences in the instructions given the jurors, or what kind of information they were allowed to have in the jury room? Did the trials last days, weeks, or months? They even asked how late the jurors were made to work into the evening and what kind of food they were fed.
To their surprise, none of those things seemed to matter much. What did matter, it turned out, was the shape of the table in the jury room! In courtrooms where there was a rectangular table, the juror sitting at the head of the table (even if that person wasn’t the jury foreman) tended to dominate the conversation. This kept some jurors from sharing their points of view as openly. But in jury rooms that had a round or oval table, the jurors tended to be more egalitarian and their debate of the facts was more thorough and robust. The team concluded it was those juries with round tables that came to the most accurate and just verdicts.
The students were excited about this finding for two reasons. First, they felt like they had really nailed the key to improving the jury deliberation process. And second, it was such an easy thing to change. Imagine, instead, if their conclusion had been that the jury needed to be seated with more intelligent, open-minded, better-educated jurists. That’s much harder to do.
They were proud of their success as they presented the results to the chief judge. He was just as excited as they were, and for exactly the same two reasons. The judge immediately issued a decree to all the courthouses in his jurisdiction. Effective immediately, “All jury rooms that have round and oval tables are to have the tables removed. Replace them with rectangular tables.”
Read those last two sentences again. That wasn’t a typo. In direct contradiction to their recommendation, the judge removed all the round and oval tables and put in rectangular tables. Why? Because the judge’s objective in improving the jury deliberation process wasn’t to make it more robust, fair, or even accurate. It was to make it faster. He wanted to reduce the backlog of cases clogging up his court docket.
The students were mortified. They thought they were single-handedly fixing the sometimes-brutal consequences of an imperfect judicial system. Instead, they were unwittingly responsible for making it, in their eyes, a little bit less perfect. They may have finished the year with an A on their report card, but they felt completely defeated.
Twenty years later, Jayson is now a professional market researcher. He tells this story to new researchers to teach them the importance of being clear on objectives before they embark on a research project. Instead, he could simply tell them, “Experience suggests it is very important to be clear on your objectives before you start your research project.” But that wouldn’t be nearly as effective, would it? By telling a story, Jayson lets his audience learn a lesson almost firsthand and experience what it would feel like to not be clear on objectives up front—and suffer the consequences.
Experience is the best teacher. A compelling story is a close second.