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Litigation News

Spring 2024 Vol. 49, No. 3

Your Enemy in the Courtroom: Step Away from the Podium

Mark Drummond


  • It is not your friend because it interferes with effective communication.
  • The problem is that standing behind a 500-pound block of wood separates us from those we seek to persuade. 
  • So what is the solution? 
Your Enemy in the Courtroom: Step Away from the Podium
Patrick Herrera; plherrera via Getty Images

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There is an enemy in every courtroom. No, it is not opposing counsel or a witness on the other side. No, it is not a temperamental judge. This enemy is deceptive. At first blush, the enemy appears to be your friend. The enemy looks like it wants to help you. The enemy is silent. The enemy comes in various shapes and sizes, and is usually made of wood, sometimes metal, and, on occasion, see-through plexiglass (the worst).

The enemy is the podium.

At first, the podium seems helpful. It’s a place to put your notes. It’s an anchor showing you where to stand. Perhaps it even has a small shelf for a glass of water. But make no mistake. It is not your friend. It is not your friend because it interferes with effective communication.

I have been training attorneys on effective persuasion since 1986. By rough estimate, I have trained more than 5,000 advocates. Not a training session goes by in which I don’t say multiple times to multiple attorneys, “Don’t lean on the podium,” “Don’t hide behind the podium,” and “Don’t grip the podium.”

I have seen young advocates hold on to the podium with what can only be described as a “death grip.” Their knuckles turned white as they desperately sought to burn off the adrenaline coursing through their bodies. I have heard advocates read great closing arguments delivered— not to the judge or jury—but to their own notes, which they read word for word from their legal pad perched on the podium in front of them.

What is the problem with using the podium, and what is the solution? The problem is that standing behind a 500-pound block of wood separates us from those we seek to persuade. In a training exercise I conducted just a couple of months ago, the podium was so massive that unless the advocates were tall, you could only see a portion of their shoulders and their head.

If the podium is plexiglass or simply a stand that allows you to see the advocate’s lower torso, another problem is revealed—the odd stances when lawyers lean on something for support. You’ll see crossed legs, one foot in front of the other, shaking knees, and sometimes poses that one might only see in pictures of a ballet class at the barre. These stances do not convey the solid, “feet shoulder-width apart” stance that communicates that the advocate and, by extension, the advocate’s case is on solid footing.

The mantra I was first taught was that in state court you did not have to remain at the podium, but in federal court you had to be at the podium … or at least within arm’s length of the podium. I have not researched this legal legend, where it came from, if it is even true in all courts, but this is what most attorneys are told to this day.

The first problem with being anchored behind the podium is that it separates you from the judge or jury. It is like a piece of insulation between you and those you wish to persuade. The second problem arises from those (usually most) who grip the side of the podium while speaking. This defeats one key element of persuasion. It kills the use of gestures matching your points.

Studies of nonverbal communication tell us that natural, broad, open gestures that match the message promote understanding and boost the credibility of the speaker. The subliminal message is this: “I’m going to lay it all out for you; we have nothing to hide.” If you don’t use gestures that match your message, you leave a valuable persuasion tool behind.

What is the solution? “I tell them first to go right up to the podium with their feet in a solid stance, shoulder-width apart,” advises Carol Sowers, a communications consultant based in New York City who trains advocates all over the world. “I then tell them to take a half a step back. This distance alone prevents them from being able to easily lean on the podium.”

“Next, I tell them to put any brief, bullet-point outlines, or exhibits they want to use toward the side of the podium where they prefer to stand,” continues Sowers. “This way the judge or the jury can see them and their gestures instead of the podium blocking everything.”

“Once they get the hang of it, I have seen attorneys actually use the podium as a tool even when they are confined to it, as in federal court,” adds Sowers. “If they outline their argument by numbers or chapters, they then move seamlessly to each side of the podium as they are saying a transition phrase such as, ‘Now, let’s turn to the events of that evening.’ Their physical shift corresponds with their verbal shift, and it makes for a very compelling presentation.”

When gesturing, the visual must match the verbal. Everyone gestures naturally. Babies and toddlers gesture to let us know what they need. But for some reason, when the inexperienced advocate enters the courtroom, the adrenaline kicks in, and the advocate’s gestures disappear or are muted.

I have told many attorneys to take their hands out of their pockets or not to lock their hands behind their back as if they are under arrest. Some want to hold on to something, the most popular prop being a pen or a marker, which they then never use. As listeners watch the pen or marker go up and down, they wonder, “Are they ever going to write something?”

For those of you who are still doing remote advocacy, gestures are still important. “When you set up your space, make sure your computer screen is set high enough that you can look directly into the eye of the camera— which is your audience,” advises Sowers. “Then you must sit back far enough so they can see your hands on the screen when you gesture to make your points.”

Finally, gestures not only help those you are seeking to persuade; they help you. There is a mind-body connection. Gestures that match your message help you remember what to say as you are saying it. According to theatre lore, the great Shakespearean actor Sir John Gielgud would not commit one line of dialogue to memory until he knew the blocking of the play. He wanted to know where he would be standing and what he would be doing when he delivered the lines.

If, as Shakespeare wrote, “All the world’s a stage,” just make sure that on your stage—the courtroom— you are not hiding behind a podium.