April 20, 2021

Like all of you, I watched the closing arguments in the Derek Chauvin trial with intensity and searched for any “moments” that might drive a jury decision. Two things stuck out to me from a writing and presentation perspective.

I was surprised that the defense showed so much of the arrest and “use of force” video. But it occurred to me that using that video over and over has the potential of hardening the jurors from the shock of what they were seeing. Not showing it might have made it seem the defense was running from the video, but showing it again and again normalizes it.

It makes me think about how news coverage of shocking events has that same hardening effect when we show shocking images again and again.

My learned colleague Roy Peter Clark taught us a couple of decades ago that one way to write stronger sentences is to place the most powerful words at the end of the sentence.

Some of the lines that lawyers delivered in the closing arguments in the Chauvin trial resonate for the very reasons Roy explained. I will offer some of those lines after I explain Roy’s word order technique — a technique that everyone from Morgan Freeman to the Beatles has used. Just examine the copy from the famous Visa commercial and imagine it in Freeman’s voice:

Hours before his race in 88, Dan Jansen’s sister Jane passed away.

He’d promised her he would win gold; he didn’t.

Until six years later; then, he skated a victory lap with his daughter … Jane.

The sentences end with power words: “passed away,” “didn’t,” “Jane.” Roy says that makes the word and the thought behind it hang in your ear.

“To write a more memorable sentence, put the power word at the end” is stronger than “Put the power word at the end to write a more memorable sentence.”

I have long argued that the phrase “In God we trust” would be stronger if we followed Roy’s rule and wrote, “We trust in God.” It is interesting how that sentence becomes so overtly religious when you change the word order.

After Roy taught me that lesson, I began examining movie scripts and song lyrics.

The most well-known sentence in “Gone With the Wind” follows Roy’s power word framework. Rhett Butler says, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” That “damn” was coarse and abrupt at the time. It would have been less so if he had said “I don’t give a damn my dear, frankly,” or “I don’t, frankly, give a damn, my dear.” Word order matters.

Consider these lines that the attorneys in the Chauvin trial used to hang in the juror’s mind:

“You were told that Mr. Floyd died because his heart was too big, but the truth of the matter is the reason George Floyd is dead is because Mr. Chauvin’s heart was too small.”

“The fact that is so simple that a child can understand it. In fact, the child did understand it when the 9-year-old girl said, ‘Get off of him.’”

“The court’s final instructions will guide you to try to recognize your biases, recognize what we bring to the table and analyze the evidence from the perspective of the evidence itself.”

“Remember, we don’t look at this incident from the perspective of a bystander. We do not look at this incident from the perspective of the people who are upset by it. We look at it from the perspective of a reasonable police officer.”

“You’re not required to accept nonsense.”

“Make no mistake: This is not a prosecution of the police. It is a prosecution of the defendant.”

“This was not policing. It was unnecessary. It was gratuitous. It was disproportionate. And he did it on purpose. He did not trip and fall and find himself upon George Floyd’s … neck.”

“This case is exactly what you thought when you saw it first.” “It’s exactly what you saw with your eyes … It’s what you felt with your gut. It’s what you now know in your heart. This wasn’t policing. This was murder.”

Writers know that you remember what you feel longer than what you know. But when you can deeply impress facts into a reader’s (or viewer’s or listener’s) memory with vivid emotions, then the facts become unforgettable.

This article originally appeared in Covering COVID-19, a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus and other timely topics for journalists. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
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