Too Many Speakers Are Tongue-Tied
Unfortunately, closing arguments and appellate arguments often are forgettable, if not painful, for the audience and the speaker. This is not really different from many speeches we hear from family, friends, and colleagues at work; at civic clubs; or on special family occasions. In the courtroom, however, the client pays the price for counsel’s poorly conceived and delivered presentation.
As the “audience” in a courtroom setting, judges and juries all too often are tortured by poorly conceived arguments that are neither captivating nor persuasive. It matters little if the lawyer understands the law and the facts if he cannot communicate his theory of the case effectively.
Practical Advice on Organization, Themes, and Presentation
Sayler and Shadel explain, in a simple and straightforward manner, the classical theory and fundamental principles of rhetoric. Perhaps more important, they provide practical advice on how to gather and organize your thoughts, and get them down on paper (first as an outline and then in simple words and short sentences).
They stress the importance of choosing words and themes that will help the audience understand and feel the points you want to convey. They suggest techniques for effective delivery of your words, such as breaking them into logical segments or “beats,” maintaining eye contact with the audience, and suggestions for what to do with your hands and feet.
The book includes tips on learning to control your voice and breath, how to use visual aids, and cautionary advice on how to avoid common pitfalls based on the gender of the speaker. They also discuss strategies for tailoring your speech to the audience. Of particular moment is a section on the age of the audience, because different types of themes will appeal to Baby Boomers than will appeal to Generation Xers or the Millennial Generation.
Commentary on Historical Speeches
The authors also provide interesting insights into the effect of rhetoric in presidential campaigns. They provide examples of 12 great speeches, reprinted in whole or substantial part, with commentary on how and why the speeches were particularly effective.
Just reading these speeches—such as Mary Fisher’s stirring plea to overcome bias against persons with AIDS at the 1992 GOP convention, Barbara Jordan’s persuasive address as a member of the House Judiciary Committee considering the impeachment of Richard Nixon, Winston Churchill’s inspirational “we will fight” speech to the British people in the dark days of World War II, and Ronald Reagan’s speech at the fourtieth anniversary of the Normandy invasion—should inspire the reader to think more carefully about how to structure and convey your thoughts in a way that is appropriate in light of the purpose and goals of your speech as well as the circumstances and setting in which you will deliver them.
The authors do not just reprint the speeches. There is a companion website that makes available audio and/or video of a dozen of these speeches.
Areas for Improvement
It is interesting, however, that Sayler and Shadel have not devoted much space to some of the most persuasive and pervasive rhetoric of everyday life in America—fundamentalist preachers and ministers—whose fiery messages have great impact on their congregations each week. Though they touch the subject with their examination of Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech, the rich history of church-based oratory, and its spillover effect on civil rights leaders following in King’s footsteps, such as Ambassador Andrew Young and Representative John Lewis, may provide enough material for a second volume.
If the authors consider a second volume, they also might teach through examples of flawed speeches. Although there appear to be two “flawed” speeches (Howard Dean and John Kerry) on the website, there is little discussion of specific problems in the book.
We all learn from mistakes—our own or those of others. Providing some examples and explaining how and where they went wrong, together with a prescription for how the speakers could have been more effective, would be an interesting approach worth exploring.
Although as litigators (Sayler is a past chair of the Section of Litigation) and professors at the University of Virginia School of Law, the authors address parts of the book specifically to the situations in which litigators find themselves—opening statements, direct examination, cross-examination, closing argument, and oral argument to a judge or a panel of judges—the fact is that the lessons in this book will be useful in any public speaking scenario, from client pitches and partner meetings to CLE presentations and civic club speeches. It just might help you win an argument with your spouse, your partner, or (at the risk of setting your expectations way too high) even with your kids . . . at least every once in awhile.
Robert L. Rothman is a contributing editor for Litigation News.