As judges, jurors, or arbitrators listen to what you say, they unconsciously scrutinize your physical behavior and assess your credibility. If your demeanor signals nervousness and discomfort, you will be less convincing. But if you act confident and enthusiastic in your role as a zealous advocate, you will be persuasive. To achieve this initial goal – looking dynamically at ease and believable at all times, even when feeling nervous – requires a fail-safe technique for controlling your body.
Plant Your Feet
In most sports, athletes start by planting their feet in the proper stance. The golfer adopts a stance and then swings a club. The baseball player ritualistically plants both feet in the batter’s box and then swings a bat. As an advocate, begin by planting your feet on the courtroom floor.
Stand with your feet a comfortable distance apart. Don’t place your feet so close together that your shoes touch; this stance is too narrow for a solid, comfortable foundation. Do not adopt a stance that is too wide or you will look like a gunslinger in a Western; somewhere between the extremes of too narrow and too wide is a stance that is just right.
Stand up and experiment right now with finding the right stance for you. Better yet, stand in front of a floor-length mirror so you can see how your stance looks. Once you are satisfied, use it every time you stand up in court. Soon it will become second nature, and your body, just like an athlete’s, will do it automatically, without your needing to think about it. Adopt your stance in the moment before you speak. Do not utter a word until you have planted your feet and are standing still. Then, pause for another moment, take a breath, and feel the floor.
Newton’s First Law of Motion also applies to advocacy: A body at rest tends to remain at rest; a body in motion tends to remain in motion. When you plant your feet and stand still, you look calm, comfortable, and in control, and your body will tend to stay at rest. If you start talking while your feet are still moving, your body tends to stay in motion – and may never stop. Random movement will make you appear nervous and ill at ease. Because adrenaline energizes your leg muscles, it is natural – but undesirable – to unconsciously rock, sway, pace, or shuffle your feet. So obey Newton’s Law: plant your feet and stand still at the beginning of a presentation.
Center Your Hips
Center your hips over your feet and knees. This balances the weight of your torso evenly over both legs, allowing each leg to share the load equally. Although it may temporarily feel comfortable to stand with your body weight and hips shifted off to one side, this off-center position puts most of your body’s weight onto a single leg. Eventually, that leg gets tired and your body shifts the weight to your other leg. Soon your body is rocking side to side, as each leg in turn tires and shifts the burden to the other. This rocking motion distracts the listener and makes you look nervous. Note that some looseness and flexibility of your body is desirable, however; you shouldn’t feel as if you’ve been sunk in concrete. So, avoid both repetitive rocking and absolute rigidity.
Move with a Purpose
When you first stand up in court, start by standing still; then, later on, make a conscious decision about when and where to move, assuming the judge allows it. Some judges insist that lawyers remain standing behind a lectern unless they need to approach the witness stand with an exhibit. In some jurisdictions, you must stay at a lectern so a microphone can record the proceedings. If that is what the situation demands, you must be able to comply comfortably. If a judge allows you the freedom to move, do so with a purpose. Move to a new location when you change topics, or on a new line of questioning.
An Important Note about Lecterns
In their excellent book Making Your Case, Justice Antonin Scalia and Bryan Garner pointed out that lecterns are just a large block of wood, and do not have a vote in your case. Don’t stare down at the notes you have placed there! Neither those on the bench, your witness, nor the jury wants to look at the top of your head while you peruse your notes. And as our trial advocacy colleagues say, though it sounds harsh, if you are staring at notes, you are not prepared.
When using a lectern, take at least one back to leave yourself room to stand confidently and gesture naturally. Nervous advocates often grip the lectern and end up slumped over, impeding their ability to gesture, stand confidently, and make eye contact. You may find that you need to make your notes bigger and bolder so you can read them from several feet away. Watch Brian Johnson’s short video Notes are a Visual Aid for the Speaker for more tips on how to prepare helpful notes.
Once you have mastered the ability to plant your feet, center your hips, stand still, and move with a purpose, you will have conscious control of your lower body. You will be in control of your position in the room and become a more confident and convincing advocate.