Speak with Style and Authority

Vol. 29 No. 1


Steven Wisotsky is a tenured professor of law at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He acknowledges the assistance of Aaron Humphrey, of Nova Southeastern University, in the preparation of this article.


In practice, lawyers speak in a wide range of venues outside the courtroom. What follows is a set of guidelines for any lawyer wishing to sharpen his or her speaking skills.

Plan your time. A good speaker is sensitive to fitting his or her talk within the allotted time. The good speaker starts out with a definite length of time in mind and then structures and paces the talk to fit comfortably within it. Allow time for questions. Remember: Keeping your audience engaged is central to your task of pleasing and persuading.

Prepare. Before making a presentation, choose your main thoughts; make an outline or list of bullet points. Sequence them appropriately, adhering to principles of primacy and recency. Add in the sub-points. And ditch the PowerPoint—the progression of static bullet points and charts is not conducive to good storytelling.

Stand. Standing is a sign of respect. Standing also literally elevates you above those you are addressing and adds an element of authoritativeness to your presence—and indirectly to your speaking because it commands the visual attention of the audience.

Stand tall. In the words of Ohio attorney Kathleen B. Havener (“Method Acting for Lawyers,” Litigation, Summer 2005), good posture “helps you to project your voice without strain because your diaphragm has more room to do its work.” Researchers have even found that good posture enhances a speaker’s credibility. The goal is a relaxed but erect posture that conveys an aura of composure and command.

Look good. The goal is to make a good first impression. Look professional. Dress well. For men, the uniform remains the dark suit. Buy the best clothes that you can afford. Make sure they fit your body. The goal is to convey visually the message that you are aware of yourself and your social setting. The subtext is confidence, control, and competence.

Make and keep eye contact. Eye contact is essential to effective communication. Make eye contact with one person to start, then move it slowly to include others. Pay attention to how the audience is receiving you, and adjust your delivery accordingly.

Open strong. Set your facial expression; smile if appropriate. If you have nerves, calm yourself by slow, deep breathing. Wait for the room to go quiet. Begin decisively. Your opening lines should be committed to memory so there will be no stumbling.

Deliver cleanly. Never read a script; use a minimalist outline consisting of single words or short phrases as reminders. You cannot rely on detailed notes and speak naturally and spontaneously.

Use inflection. An inflection is a change in pitch. According to Havener, inflections “are drawn directly from natural speech” and “are not only authoritative, expressive, and persuasive but also real and natural.” The absence of inflection is a boring monotone. Inflection, used judiciously, enhances the expressiveness of the voice.

Gesture sparingly. Gesturing while speaking is natural and probably unavoidable, but you don’t want to “speak with your hands.” The challenge is to bring that nonverbal communication under control through conscious awareness. To the maximum extent possible, gestures should synchronize with the message in their scale, intensity, and frequency. They should be used sparingly and with subtlety.

Speed up (and slow down). Lawyers are often advised to speak slowly. This may not be good advice. Other things being equal, faster delivery is perceived as more persuasive than slower delivery. Variation in speed is especially important when orally “punching out” a fact or a point.

Speak up (or down). Variations in volume are important aspects of communication. They help to avoid monotone pitch. They convey emphasis. Moderate variations are a proper way to hold the listeners’ attention.

Pause for effect. Pauses are an essential aspect of clear, persuasive speaking. The speaker needs the confidence to remain silent while collecting his or her thoughts. It is perfectly natural and tends to hold the attention of the audience, so long as its duration is reasonable. A purposeful, thoughtful silence can be an excellent way to frame and emphasize a word, phrase, or sentence.

Use word pairings. Word pairings are common reinforcing devices; their doubling enhances impact and memorability. A word pairing is also pleasing to the listener because of its balance. For example, “buy and sell” is symmetrical, with one syllable on each side of the “and,” whereas “purchase and sale” is not.

Speak in threes. Triplets are another form of word or phrase grouping. They seem to have some deep primal root in human learning or recall. Stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. Learn your ABCs; easy as 1-2-3; the good, the bad, the ugly; ready, set, go; location, location, location. By contrast, four or more words in a list will usually be less than optimal, too many to understand and remember, according to the teaching of neuroscience.

Speak clearly. Pronunciation specifies the accepted sounds of particular words or syllables according to objective dictionary standards. Articulation focuses on how carefully, clearly, and distinctly we say the correctly pronounced words or syllables within words. Many of us are lazy with our intermediate t’s: “Innernet” for “Internet.” Crisp consonants help project the voice and lend clarity. The goal is to sound educated, knowledgeable, and professional. Sloppy articulation undermines that goal.

Pronounce your words properly. Attention must be paid. “Febuary” will not obscure your meaning but may diminish your credibility. A mispronunciation is an audible stumble that detracts from the speaker’s apparent competence. Choose words that are easy to say—words that will not present challenges when you are speaking.

Avoid “nonwords.” There is an epidemic spreading the growing usage of nonwords such as “orientate,” “interpretative,” or “irregardless.” It’s true that English is a living language, and dictionaries may come to recognize such words, but do you want to be ahead of the curve? In general, shorter words are to be preferred anyway.

Shun these words. Certain words you should almost never say. “Myself” is one of them. You will be safe simply saying “me.” Lawyers frequently stumble on the him/her and I/me distinction. There is no problem: Just ask who is doing the acting and who is being acted upon. Then there are words that, said correctly, will either confuse people or lead them to think you have erred. “Forte” is a leading contender; a French word, it has only one syllable, unless you mean to indicate loud by saying “for-tay,” a two syllable Italian word in musical notation. “Divisive” has no eye sound but sounds like “division.” With words of this ilk, if you say them correctly, some people will want to correct you. Better to choose substitutes.

Reduce regional accents. The issue of regional accents is not without controversy. Perhaps the practical issue is whether you are speaking to people who share your vocal orientation. Because the legal profession is both rule-bound and tradition-bound, the safer course is to follow the leader: the Eastern Standard pronunciations. The same advice holds for foreign accents.

Practice, practice, practice. Practice speaking aloud. Consider video recording yourself, then watch and listen to the recording with a critical eye and ear. Do it for real. There is no substitute for experience.


For More about the Section of Litigation

- This article is an abridged and edited version of one that originally appeared on page 16 of Litigation, Winter 2011 (37:2).

- For more information or to obtain a copy of the periodical in which the full article appears, please call the ABA Service Center at 800/285-2221.

- Website: www.americanbar.org/groups/litigation.html.

- Periodicals: Litigation, quarterly journal; Litigation News, online magazine and print quarterly; committee e-newsletters (all Section members may join any of 40 committees at no additional cost).

- Books and Other Recent Publications: Parallel Proceedings: Navigating Multiple Case Litigation; Managing E-Discovery and ESI; The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law; Litigators on Experts; Winning the Jury’s Attention; The Young Litigator; Pleading Your Case; Complex Insurance Coverage Litigation Handbook; Civil RICO, 3d ed.; A Practitioner’s Guide to Appellate Advocacy; The Woman Advocate, 2d ed.; Employment Litigation Handbook, 2d ed.; Model Witness Examinations, 3d ed.; Effective Depositions, 2d ed.; The Attorney-Client Privilege and the Work-Product Doctrine, 5th ed.



Advertisement: LawPay: The Way ABA Attorneys Get Paid



MyCase. Start your free trial. More billable hours. Everything all in one place.
Thomson Reuters ad. Put accurate law into action. Practical Law helps you move forward with fearless confidence. Request a free trial. (right arrow). Thomson Reuters logo. Thomson Reuters. The answer company.

  • About GPSolo magazine

  • Subscriptions

  • More Information

  • Contact Us