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Law Practice Today

April 2024

How to Excel at In-Person and Video-Conference Presentations

Shannon S Broome


  • Attorneys present themselves to a variety of other people in a variety of contexts. It is critical that they present themselves in the best possible way.
  • A key part of being a good presenter is being a skilled communicator.
  • A successful presenter figures how what the audiences want and need to hear and avoids straying to other topics.
How to Excel at In-Person and Video-Conference Presentations

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Even if we aren’t speaking in court all the time, as attorneys we are constantly “presenting” to audiences, be they clients, judges, potential clients, colleagues at our law firms, or companies or bar associations and be they formal in-person presentations, video-conference presentations, or simply explaining a legal conclusion to a client on a conference call. Let’s face it: Most attorneys are giving presentations of some sort every day. So how do we ensure that, no matter the context, we deliver great presentations?

A key part of how I developed my practice was by doing well in presentations. I learned over time that even if I was top notch in legal skills, I had to hone and consistently implement strategies to be an effective communicator for my clients and for my organization. My dedication to this improvement process has really paid off in terms of developing a significant practice, with the accolades that come with it, but it is most important that I have gained the trust and reliance of sophisticated clients, based at least in part on how I can communicate complex legal topics.

Getting through that journey did not come easily. I’d have been grateful if someone had shared these hints back when I started.  

Why is being a great presenter important? Well, beyond the fact that it’s human nature to want to do well, both good and bad presentation skills are guaranteed to affect your career, even if the word “presenter” isn’t part of your job description. It’s about communication. And today, all lawyers, even those who never step in a courtroom, need the skill of being an effective presenter. We’ve all met that person who is a great communicator—we like that person, we follow that person, and we see that person succeed in business and life.

To start, I want to share my own experience that tells me that no matter where we start, we all can be great presenters. I’ll take you back in a time machine to two years into my practice as a lawyer. It was a big break for me. As a young professional, three years out of school, a major client had invited me to present to a major trade association on the government's development of new regulations that would deeply affect the industry. I was to update the audience, which was comprised of people knowledgeable about their industry and government regulation generally but not well-versed in this particular regulation. I was determined to show them all that I knew and to impress. Let's just say that it did not go as I thought it would. Here’s what went well:

  • I dressed in a nice, very professional dress. Check.
  • I studied up on the issues, and I'd been working on them for two years, so I really did know what I was talking about. Check.
  • I showed up early, so as not to miss my presentation slot. Check.
  • The room was full of 500 potential clients. Great opportunity. Check.

And I blew it. What went wrong? 

Well, the first problem was that I let myself get rattled from the get-go. I walked in and found the client who had invited me to present, a vice-president at a major manufacturing company. She liked my work, and (I think) she liked me. She seemed to see potential in me and wanted to give me an opportunity. After all, she could have invited one of the partners to speak, but she asked me. So seeing her, let's call her Sylvia, I approached her at the coffee bar outside the ballroom where I’d be presenting. Sylvia was speaking to another attorney, a partner at a major law firm, “Bill,” who was well-established in the field. I knew him because my husband worked at his firm, and he knew me. Yet when I walked up, he continued his conversation with Sylvia, completely ignoring me, as if I did not even exist. This threw me. If I just walked away, that would have been quite awkward. Sylvia seemed uncomfortable that Bill was not pausing or acknowledging my presence, but she apparently wasn’t prepared to interrupt him.

All kinds of thoughts raced through my head, but the effect on me was “extreme nerves.” Fast forward 15 minutes to the time for my presentation. I cannot even remember how I was introduced or how I got up on the stage. Instead, all I recall is that it was obvious to the audience that I was nervous. I started running through my points, but I just wasn’t the poised person I wanted to be in front of what was already an intimidating group. Not a good look.

On top of that, I failed to read the room. I thought it was my job to school these smart folks on the details of a narrow subsection of the law. I expounded on how we had analyzed the issues, decided that what the government was doing was wrong, and presented “in the weeds” detail on our recommended strategy for “fixing” the problem. I loved this topic! In retrospect, I realize that if I had been in the audience, even I would have fallen asleep or, worse, left!

I quickly departed after my talk, embarrassed by my nerve-filled experience and performance, feeling small, invisible, and way off my normal game. After all, I was a top associate at my firm who’d been impressing clients so much that this client had even invited me to speak to 500 people! But I felt so much less than that in the moment. It took a few years for me to unpack what went wrong there (and even more years of practice to get to a point where I can now present like a champ).

What happened? I presented a detailed analysis of a complex issue, but I did not tell the audience members what they wanted to know. They cared about why this particular regulation would impact their companies and how they could mitigate potentially bad outcomes. In fact, I never even asked myself what, in their position at their companies, this audience wanted or needed to know. What would be valuable to the audience? I was too focused on showing them how much I knew. Now, I realize, not a single person to whom we present actually cares what we know. They care if we can help them or add actionable value to their day. That is different.

You all are my audience, and my aim is to help you excel at presenting and perhaps save you the heartache, nerves, and embarrassment that I went through with a few simple tips for presenting to audiences large and small.

Tip #1 Figure out what the audience actually wants and needs to hear.

If we’ve been invited to speak at a conference or you are speaking internally at your company, law firm, or consulting firm, that’s a great opportunity to help and to show our value. We will assume that even if we know the topic backward and forward, there are lots of ways to convey the information. We need to ask ourselves, what is the reason we were invited to speak to this group? What is important for people at this level to understand? What do they want to understand? Is it a training session where we are teaching people a specific skill so that they need every possible detail? Or is the goal to familiarize people with an upcoming challenge they might face so that they have basic knowledge? Is the purpose to identify a decision point and persuade the decisionmaker or to present the data that could support a decision one way or the other? These are all very different presentations, dictating different content. That is why it is important to identify the audience needs to dictate what is presented and how it is conveyed.

Tip #2 Figure out the one big idea we want people to remember.

Let’s face it. We have a lot of incoming information all day long, and we can only retain or absorb so much. We should assume that in a 20–30-minute presentation, your audience can only really retain and internalize one or two main points. If we try to convey more, we’ll lose them, and the next day they will hardly remember our talk. A sometimes helpful technique to use is to say to our audience, “If you remember one thing from our discussion today, it is [fill in the blank].” This approach is useful for a couple of reasons. First, it tells the listener what is important. Second, it forces us as speakers to identify the “big idea.” Once we know that, in many ways the presentation can write itself.

Tip #3 Visualize what we want our audience members to be saying to themselves (or their colleagues/family) afterward.

One way to help shape what we say during our presentations is to ask ourselves what we want the person leaving our presentation to say to themselves at the end. It could be:

  • “I’ll hire that firm for this project.”
  • “We should go in the direction she recommends for our legal strategy.”
  • “We should invest in a training program for [fill in the blank].”
  • “I understand now why the Supreme Court decided that decision in the way it did (even if I disagree).”

By visualizing what we want them saying to themselves, we better focus on what words we should use in our presentation and how we present them. Here’s an example. If we are pitching for new work for the firm, we would identify what is most important to the company in choosing a firm to represent it. That might be, for a large litigation, that there are the right attorneys at the right levels of experience. Or for a matter that requires in-depth knowledge of a particular law, it might be that the firm has the experience working on those matters and has been successful in doing so for other clients. If the project involves an appeal of an adverse decision, it might be that the firm has great appellate advocates. It could be something as general as, “We feel confident that this firm understands our business objective and has the consultants/attorneys to carry the project through.” It serves us to be as specific as we can be in this analysis because that will shape how we convey information, and it will help us to eliminate aspects of the presentation that do not directly support the identified objective. It can be so tempting to “throw in” information that the audience “might” be interested in hearing or that we think they “should know.” If we return to our objective of what we want the audience to say to themselves on the way out the door, this helps us eliminate information that distracts from and actually ends up undermining our point.

Tip #4 Walk and talk . . . if possible.

From where are you delivering your presentation? I’m a short, petite person. 5’2” tall on my tallest day. On top of that, I’m not particularly good in heels, so I have limited ability to elevate myself, without risking a fall that will surely lose the confidence of my audience. It was for this reason that I initially sought to avoid the podium at all costs. But there are additional reasons to stand directly in front of your audience without the comfort of a podium (and notes). First, research shows that audiences absorb information better when they can see the speaker. Standing behind a podium obscures most your body language, which is typically part of how we communicate as human beings. Communication is far more than words. Also, people tend to “grip” the podium when they speak, which means that, even if your hands can be seen, they won’t be moving, and you become a static image. Second, standing behind a lectern focuses the speaker in one direction—at the microphone—hindering your eye contact with the audience. Third, speakers who step from behind the lectern are perceived as more approachable. Fourth, if you move around, it conveys an air of confidence with the subject matter, and if the point of a presentation is to persuade, projecting confidence is a key element of doing so. There are exceptions to this rule—for example, as Denise Graveline pointed out in her blog on the pros and cons of lecterns, Michelle Obama’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in 2009. I will note that her lectern came only up to her waist (so it was smaller) and she is tall, which allowed the audience to really see her gestures, as if she was walking and talking. Fifth, you stay engaged and energetic when you move around. This energy transmits directly into the audience. Sixth, you will make eye contact with members of the audience and potentially be able to “see” confusion or questions, allowing you to engage immediately (if you choose). If not convinced by the above, I encourage readers to watch several Ted or TedX Talks, where the Ted organization seems to prohibit the use of podiums. There’s a reason that these talks are so successful.

If notes are absolutely necessary for part of your talk, try to limit them to what is absolutely needed and consider putting them on index cards or on a paper on the table. If reading the material is necessary, it may be a sign that the speaker is not sufficiently prepared for the presentation, and this will impact the effectiveness of the communication. Remember that the goal of any presentation is to communicate ideas, usually one main idea and perhaps a few sub-ideas.

Tip #5 Speak slowly and use voice variations.

We know our topic really well. We have so much valuable information to share, be it how well our team could serve the client in a pitch or what a particular new development could mean for our team’s work or how a recent court decision affects our strategy for a case or project! When we are excited, and when we have a lot to cover, there is a natural tendency to speak quickly to convey the excitement or to “fit it all in” during the (sometimes woefully) inadequate time we have been provided to convey the information. The famous psychologist Hermann Ebbinghaus established in the 1880s in his “forgetting curve” that within 20 minutes of leaving a presentation, an audience forgets more than 50% of what was said. After 24 hours, this can increase to 70%, and after a week, retention drops below 25%. Our job as speakers is to combat the Forgetting Curve in how we present our material. If we want to make a lasting impression, we can both hone our message (as discussed below) and use vocal techniques to allow the audience to hear us when we first deliver. If we are speaking quickly, we won’t even hit the 50% mark.  If we think we haven’t been given enough time to get through our presentation, we can ask for more time, of course. But the first step should be to consider whether we are trying to present too much information. We should assess what can be presented by speaking at a normal (slow) pace to ensure the information can be absorbed and see if we can retool our presentation to still hit our big idea. This is one situation where backup slides or supplemental materials can be provided to the audience so that they can access the information if interested, but the remainder of the audience will stay focused on the “big idea” we are presenting.

Tip #6 Prepare for the unexpected to avoid getting rattled.

Even with the best preparation, things go wrong. If we set our expectations that something might be imperfect, we won’t be thrown off when something goes awry. Early on in my career, I thought I could prepare my way to a smooth outcome on every project. Well, I have learned (somewhat painfully) that “stuff happens.” It’s important to show we can roll with the punches. If the speaker is unnerved, the audience will be too, and that will impact the ability to communicate the key messages. If ability to show the slides is interrupted, we need to be able to revert to our main points without having to rely on slides. If the sound is not working in a video-conference, we need to have the dial-in number at our fingertips so we can call in. If someone asks a question we cannot answer, we can acknowledge the question, and say “That’s a great question.” If we feel comfortable offering an initial reaction, we can do that without committing completely, e.g., “My off the cuff reaction is . . . .” Then we offer to follow up. If we feel uncomfortable answering at all, we can simply say, “Good question. I’d like to give that more thought and follow up with you.”

Tip #7 Slides should be simply designed and convey concepts, not details.

The best presentations I have attended involved someone speaking without slides or using figurative slides that complemented what was being stated. For example, a slide that has a simple picture on it can better convey an idea than ten bulleted lines of text. If people are reading our slides, we are failing as presenters. We want to connect with the audience and convey a big idea. Leave the details to a follow-up communication or to handouts that people can review after (or even before) the presentation. A good rule of thumb is that there should be no more than 15 words on a slide. This means that we are not writing complete sentences, of course. If we have more than that, we can ask ourselves if an image could convey the point or if there is more than one point on the slide (e.g., if it should be separated into two slides). A potentially useful technique is to practice presenting by assuming that the speaker before us has exceeded her allotted time and we will have to cover the slide in just a minute. How would we complete the sentence: “The point of this slide is ___________.” The end of that sentence usually helps me figure out what is needed on the slide, how I might switch out words for an image, or whether the slide or point could actually be deleted from the presentation.

Tip #8 Consider involving the audience.

Nothing gets an audience’s attention more than asking them questions. It makes them say, oh wait, I better listen here. She’s asking me a question. Asking a question gets people involved and invested in your talk. It also makes them feel smart. And after all, everyone wants to feel smart. This can be a little tricky because if a speaker asks the audience a question, it is important to use the information they give. So a little planning is needed. One approach we use is to ask for audience feedback on what they want to hear the most about the subjects in our presentation (this only works for a longer presentation) and then to use that feedback to emphasize or de-emphasize the portions of the presentation according to the results. If asking a specific question where an audience member is raising their hand and volunteering an answer, it is very important to thank the volunteer (sincerely) for their information, with a warm “Thank you.” If nervous about getting answers to your question (nothing worse than asking a question to which no one offers to respond), one tip I read about was to ask everyone to raise their hand at the beginning and then have them drop their hands based on the question you ask (“Now drop your hand if you’ve never heard of the Clean Power Plan”).

Tip #9 Smooth out potential logistical problems in advance.

When we present on Zoom, Teams, WebEx, or another platform, there is little that is more distracting and that risks losing your audience from the outset than logistical difficulties in displaying your presentation or your own image. We like to take just a little time an hour ahead to confirm that the camera is working properly and that it is positioned well. For example, if we have more than one screen, and we are presenting on Screen 1, but the camera is on top of Screen 2, we might appear to be looking away from the audience, even though we are looking directly at the slides. We generally like to have the camera positioned directly in front of the screen we are using for the presentation. Also, we like to ensure that we are focused on the screen that is in “presentation mode.” When screens present slides in presentation mode and we have two screens, the presentation will often shift to the other screen. This is where a quick dry run can be quite useful.

Tip #10 End the talk well. 

There is almost nothing worse than a fantastic presentation that ends with a thud. We’ve all been to them. The speaker conveys the key information, tells a joke or two, reaches the last slide, and then just stands there for a second. Finally, the speaker might say, “Um, well, that’s all I have,” and then sit down. The poor audience doesn’t know what to do because they were surprised that the talk was over. Here are some ideas.

Plant a question. If the last slide says “Questions?” make sure there is one. Consider asking a friend in the audience if they’ll ask a question, but also think about making it easy for them by suggesting a question that you think audience might have. And when you ask if people have questions, a tip I learned from a trusted colleague is to say, “Who has a question?” rather than “Are there any questions?”

Plan a closing sentence. After that question (or others), you still need a closing. Something short and simple can do the trick. Consider, “In closing, remember . . . ” or “I really want to thank everyone for taking the time to listen today. I’d love to answer any [additional] questions and feel free to contact me with those.” “We need to wrap up now, so please feel free to reach out with any questions and I promise I’ll respond.” “I’ve appreciated the opportunity to share the results of this project and I’d be happy to answer any follow up questions afterward.” Essentially, you are conveying the equivalent of the comedian’s “That’s my time. Thank you very much.” But there might not be someone following you to say, “Give it up for Shannon, what a great presentation!” That means you need to create an ending that makes the audience feel that they received a complete presentation.

Offer more. Another way to close is to end with your contact information or, if the audience already has it, to say that we’d love to talk about related topics afterward. It gives a chance for the audience to think about us in an additional context that is related to but different from the precise topic of the conversation. An example from my life is that when I give a presentation about environmental regulations, I often mention that if someone would like to discuss the potential implications of the upcoming election on the regulatory environment, or some other topical matter, I’d love to connect to do so.

Do you have any great tips for presenting as a lawyer? I’d love to hear them! Please feel free to email me at [email protected].