- Effective communication is not something that can be taught in a classroom. It has to be practiced and refined over and over again. Before you can fine-tune your persuasive speaking style, you have to know what yours is.
As lawyers, the ability to deliver a persuasive oral argument is critical to our success. Whether we are trying to convince a client that one strategy is best, convince the court to side with our position or convince a partner that we are ready to take that contentious deposition, we use our voice to captivate, persuade, and command attention every day.
Oral advocacy and effective communication, in general, cannot be taught in a classroom. It has to be practiced and refined over and over again. And before you can fine-tune your persuasive speaking style, you must know what yours is.
It seems as though nearly every trial lawyer inevitably gives the same variation of the following advice when asked how young lawyers can be successful in court: Great trial lawyers are the best versions of themselves in front of a judge or jury. Your speaking style should reflect your personality, not just at trial but any time you’re attempting to use your oral advocacy skills to persuade. If you watched 100 of the best oral advocates, you would find 100 different speaking styles. Some are formal, some are casual, some gesture with their hands, and some use regional language.
I was once told the best way to learn your personal style is to think of how you would explain a case to a friend over drinks at happy hour. (When you’re one drink in, not five.) Whether it’s expressive and boisterous or calm and collected, the way you speak with your friends and family is your genuine speaking style. And when lawyers try to use a style that doesn’t fit their personality, it shows. The truth is that people can tell when you aren’t being genuine, and the same style that works for one lawyer could be a disaster for another.
I watched a prominent Houston defense attorney give a closing statement in law school. His argument was calm, articulate, and logical. He used informal Southern colloquialisms like “folks” and “y’all,” and his tone was soft but serious. By the time he was finished, I was ready to find in favor of his client, and you can bet that’s exactly what every jury member found, too. But if I got up to give the same closing statement, calling everyone “folks” and trying to mimic his style, it wouldn’t work. Not because I’m not a gray-haired, seasoned vet but because the jury would see right through me. My style is much more animated and aggressive, and I’m not naturally soft-spoken.
Part of perfecting your personal speaking style is knowing yourself. If you think it sounds strange coming out of your mouth, the person you’re trying to persuade probably will, too.
Once you know your speaking style, you can tailor each argument to your specific situation. In doing so, you must know who you are trying to persuade. Knowing your audience is often the first rule in persuasive writing, but it applies equally to persuasive speaking.
Your audience influences your natural speaking style and focuses on what parts of the argument are important. Being mindful of who you are trying to persuade will keep the emphasis on the material points you want to advance.
Once you know who you are trying to persuade, you must be cognizant of your end goal. Sometimes, your goal can be completely different from what a process originally intended. For example, throughout law school, I was always under the impression that negotiation had one goal—to compromise in a way that makes everyone happy. (I later learned such a feat rarely occurs.) Within the first few months at my firm, a partner let me know that negotiations can occur for various reasons, and he generally has a different goal each time. His argument adjusts based on what he wants to accomplish from the process. So, as you go into each experience, whether it’s a client meeting, hearing, or negotiation, be mindful of your ideal end result and consider how that should shape your argument.
Once you know your style, intended audience, and goal, you can get into the nuts and bolts of putting together a persuasive argument.
Blaise Pascal once said, “I would have written a shorter letter, but I did not have the time.” So is true with argument. It is much easier to give a twenty-minute argument than a five-minute one. Yet the best and most persuasive lawyers can distill their arguments down to concise and clear points, making their message shorter and more powerful. When arguments are long, people lose attention and interest. After all, when you see a Facebook status that’s a few paragraphs long, how likely are you to scroll past that mess?
When students were gearing up for moot court tournaments at my law school, we had a professor who would make every single one of us “soundbite” our arguments. His theory was that for each case we intended to cite, we needed a 30-second phrase that we could use to describe the case. It was the perfect method because it forced advocates to wade through all the facts, procedural background, and holdings and pare our main point down to two sentences. We could then immediately identify what a case stood for and how it bolstered our position.
Soundbiting your arguments works equally well for negotiations, mediations, and client-strategy meetings. As with cases, you are forced to think about the nuances of your argument and distill all your facts and legal analysis down to a clear concept. And, of course, it also plays into the general rule that a well-thought-out argument is a more persuasive argument.
Soundbiting, similar to the often-referenced “elevator pitch,” has the same appeal as a Twitter message. The idea is that carefully chosen words can make a difference. And you can use your soundbite more than you may think: It could be a stroll to the parking garage after work, a chat while getting coffee in the break room, or a few minutes of small talk right before a meeting begins when you suddenly have a chance to show your stuff.
But the actual elevator pitch has been put to good use for me. When I step into an elevator at work with another associate or partner, inevitably, the first question asked is, “How is everything going? Working on anything interesting?” I have to be ready with a short one-liner that explains what I’m working on and does so in an interesting way that makes the person remember my cases and, hopefully, want to know more. Usually, my one-liner is followed up with the question, “Well, do we have a good case?” And again, it’s my job to effectively and quickly state our position in a positive light. Doing so forces me to constantly review my cases and consider the most persuasive way to explain the facts and legal analysis.
If you want someone to side with you, they have to understand your argument. You can’t just throw darts at the wall and hope some arguments stick. You'll sound like a bumbling nut if you meander through your argument without structure. Organization is key.
Recently, I was in a very complex hearing that involved an array of different legal issues. The senior associate I was working for had meticulously thought out the best way to organize the argument, and it paid off. At the end, our judge remarked on how impressive the senior associate’s speaking style was and how well-organized the arguments were. The judge said it helped him get to the meat of the issue and gave him a clear idea of how the statutes at play worked together.
Certainty is compelling. If you wilt like a flower in the middle of your argument, no one will buy what you are selling. And if you don’t believe in your own argument, no one else will either.
Confidence often comes from preparation because preparation can keep your nerves in check. You should be so comfortable with the ins and outs of your talking points that nothing can throw a wrench in your argument. The more comfortable you are with your words, the smoother your delivery.
Overall, finding your persuasive voice takes time and diligence. Be yourself, prepare a well-thought-out analysis, and take the time to tailor your argument to specific circumstances. Ultimately, a smooth and confident delivery will win out every time. Taking the time to edit and craft your personal persuasive style early in your career will pay dividends in the future.