May/June 2003  Volume 29, Issue 4
April 2003 Issue
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Polishing Your Presentations: 10 Rules
by Rob Sherman
Why is it that some speakers have the ability to hold an audience in the palm of their hand, while for others public speaking is a painful experience-for them and for their listeners? What makes one person a gifted speaker and the other a dreaded bore?

Why should you be concerned about polishing your speaking abilities? Because to succeed-inside the courtroom or outside of the courtroom-you must have the ability to move others to action and to inspire change. Think about the people at the top of the legal profession and you'll no doubt find excellent presenters. Their success is tied to their ability to persuade-and so is yours. Follow these 10 rules and learn to make presentations with ease and confidence.

1. Recognize that Speaking Is an Acquired Skill
Were your law skills perfected after your first day in practice? Of course not. You continued to gain experience with each case. The more you practiced law, the more you learned. Why then do so many believe that speaking before groups is easy and does not take any additional training or skill development? Just like any other learned skill, becoming an effective presenter takes practice. Effective speakers learn how to present in the same way they learn the skills needed to practice law-they study and practice to perfect their craft. Speaking effectively, whether formally or informally, requires a commitment to learning and the dedication to practice.

2. Adequately Prepare for Each Presentation
Before you begin any presentation, you must know your ultimate goal. Do you want to inform people? Change their attitude? Motivate or inspire them? Whatever your objective, you need to fine-tune it before you say your first word. A good way to do this is to write a clear, short purpose statement that details your objective. Your purpose statement can be as simple as, "As a result of my address, I want audience members to x." Though you may never use those exact words in your speech, they will be the magnets that pull every thought, concept, quote, anecdote or visual illustration into focus. As you organize your presentation, look at every point and subpoint. If it doesn't support your goal, delete it or revise it.

3. Start with a Bang
In any presentation, the first 30 seconds are the make-it or break-it time. Unfortunately, many lawyers begin with a polite, "Thank you very much for your time." Weak beginnings are missed opportunities to capture your listeners' attention and demonstrate that your information will bring them real value. Instead of starting slowly, consider beginning with a provocative statement, a rhetorical question, a surprising fact, an interesting quote, a news headline or a story related to your topic. Humor is also an excellent way to enhance a presentation if it is relevant to your message. Make sure you open with a powerful statement that demands the audience's full attention.

4. Use Your Own Stories
While quotes from great leaders may show that you are well read, they do little to help your audience relate to you.The key to connecting with an audience is to relate to the members personally. Tell stories punctuated by your own experiences. The most powerful stories reveal your human frailties and weaknesses. A personal story helps you connect with an audience and illustrates facts better than any other presentation tool.

5. Use Your Natural Speaking Style
One of the most widely accepted myths of public speaking is that a speaker must take on a different persona while on the platform. When you think of the speakers you most admire, however, you'll find that many of them speak naturally and conversationally. You cannot connect with an audience without authenticity. Adapt your own style to the platform or you will lose the audience.

6. Practice and Practice Again
The more familiar you become with your material, the easier it will flow. The more comfortable you feel with your words, the more naturally you will make your presentation. That's why good presenters practice regularly. Rehearse in front of a mirror and gauge your performance. Practice in front of colleagues and ask for honest feedback. If your presentation involves using visual displays, practice with the equipment you plan to use. All these elements will give you an accurate feel for how the real presentation will go and for how you can improve your overall rating.

7. Use Silence Instead of Filler
We've all sat through a presentation counting the times a presenter has used extraneous filler words, such as "um" or "you know." Eliminate these distracting fillers from your presentations. First, tape yourself giving a presentation. As you review the tape, take note of the number of times you use filler words. At your next practice session, tape yourself and make an effort to eliminate those words from your speech. Do this again and again until you have totally eliminated these annoyances. Strive to replace the filler words with silence. Your audience will appreciate the time to think about what you have to say.

8. Use an Outline, Not a Script
What glues so many lawyers to the written text? Fear. They write out every word of a speech and then cling to it like children clutching a mother's skirt. They are nervous about losing their train of thought or freezing on the platform. Great presenters use keywords to jog their memory. After they write a speech, they make an outline based on the finished product. Finally, they create a keyword outline, choosing the right words that will remind them of the content at each point. These keywords prompt complete thoughts as they speak. When you know your material, a keyword outline is all you need. It only takes a second to glance down, look at the word, and then deliver the material from your heart.

9. Speak with Passion
Powerful, memorable addresses are the result of the speaker's deep passion for the subject. It is virtually impossible to inspire others if you are not personally committed to your topic. Always speak on a subject that excites you. Otherwise, it will be difficult to inspire your audience. An added benefit is that your fears dissipate when you are truly excited about your topic.

10. End as Memorably as You Begin
Most lawyers end presentations with words like "in conclusion" or "finally." These words trigger the off switch in your listeners' minds. Instead, tell your audience a story that relates to your main theme, summarize the points made during the presentation or conclude with a call to action. Make it memorable, just like the beginning.

The best lawyers know that their presentation skills are directly related to their success. Whether you're a seasoned lawyer or fresh out of law school, you'll advance your career faster if you can present your ideas to others effectively.

Rob Sherman ( is an attorney, speaker and the author of Sherman's 21 Laws of Speaking: How to Inspire Others to Action. Rob founded the Sherman Leadership Group based in Columbus. You can receive free presentation and negotiation tips twice a month by subscribing to Sherman's Executive Communicator at

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