YourABA April 2012 Masthead

Tips on public speaking in and out of court

Good lawyers are often also good public speakers. Panelists during a recent free ABA webinar, “Powerful Public Speaking In and Out of Court,” offered three basic tips to improve communication skills.

Know your audience

Whether in or out of the courtroom, understanding your audience is the first step toward developing a proper speech, said panelist Rick Levin of Levin Riback Law Group in Chicago.  One of the biggest pitfalls when writing a speech, he said, is neglecting to take steps to find out what information the audience needs to learn.

In court, understanding the audience of jurors means finding out their biases and removing those whose prejudices can affect the case. During voir dire, a lawyer should find out as much as possible about potential jurors’ personalities and history. Among good questions, ask what publications potential jurors read to get their news, Levin suggested.

When speaking outside of the courtroom, determining one’s audience can become more complicated. If possible, obtain bios of audience members or send a few questions about the audience to the event organizer for answers.

Organize your message

The organization of an argument is key to ensuring the audience understands it, said panelist Faith Pincus, founder of Pincus Professional Education in Los Angeles.  

“Stay focused,” she advised, sharing that lawyers must first have a purpose and should write it down. They should next develop three main points to support the argument. “If something doesn’t fit in three main points, cut it out.”

After developing the main points, gather the support materials, which can include interviews, quotes and anything else that needs to be mentioned in the speech. The next step is to create an outline—instead of drafting every word.

Pincus recommends that lawyers avoid writing out their speeches or oral arguments verbatim. “People believe people who look them in the eye,” Levin explained.

To break the habit, Pincus advised taking the draft speech and developing an outline from it. Practice the speech using only the outline. “You have to prepare and you have to practice. Like tennis, golf, dance—you can’t get better unless you do it.”

Good introductions are a large part of establishing a speaker’s credibility. Whether speaking in our out of court, it is imperative that lawyers memorize their introduction and conclusion, Pincus said.

Practicing in front of people who “don’t depend on you for food,” advised Levin, is the best way to get an unbiased opinion of how the speech is going to turn out.

Good introductions are a large part of establishing a speaker’s credibility. Whether speaking in our out of court, it is imperative that lawyers memorize their introduction and conclusion, Pincus said, emphasizing the importance of adequate eye contact and a confident voice in delivery.

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Improve your presence

Emanating confidence, along with having a sound knowledge of the audience and organized message, will allow lawyers to succeed in any speech they give, Pincus said.

To help improve one’s demeanor, she suggested taking acting classes or joining Toastmasters.

Among other advice, Pincus shared several vocal techniques that can be used to keep the audience’s attention: Make sure to pause for impact.  Vary speech patterns to hold the audience. This goes beyond just not being monotone.  Talk faster, slower, be louder and softer, and so on, she said.

Because a speaker’s diaphragm is suppressed when she sits, it is important to stand up and walk around with a purpose, Levin said. A supported diaphragm produces a louder, more confident voice, he added, while cautioning lawyers against putting hands in their pockets or crossing their arms.

Beyond vocal techniques: “Wear a conservative-colored suit and keep jewelry at a minimum when in court,” Pincus said. The same rules apply outside of the court in most cases, because speakers do not want their audience to focus more on what they are wearing than what they’re saying.

“Powerful Public Speaking In and Out of Court” was a program of the CLE Premier Speaker Series, a monthly program where ABA members can earn free continuing legal education credits. CART services are available for the deaf and hard of hearing.

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