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The VLW High Five: 5 tips for speaking up

You don’t need a silver tongue to make a point

VLW High5_FINAL_colorBlame the Socratic method. The biggest hang-up lawyers have about public speaking is fear, said University of Virginia School of Law professor Molly Bishop Shadel, who teaches oral advocacy. Coupled with potentially high stakes – a jury trial or a dispositive motion being argued before a judge – some attorneys struggle with oral presentations or avoid it as much as possible. But “it doesn’t have to be that way,” Shadel said. She offers her basic tips for speaking up, speaking out and making your point.

1. Breathe

“Relax a little bit,” Shadel advised. “Take a deep breath and realize – you do know what you are talking about.” Putting the speech in context also helps. “Your job isn’t to put on a perfect show but to communicate information to people who need to know it,” she explained. By adjusting expectations and focusing on the goal – delivery of needed information – the terror level will decrease.

2. What’s your point?

The next step: take all the information and distill it into a central message or key points. “Don’t start with the unimportant stuff and don’t get distracted by a digression,” Shadel said. Simplifying the message will make it easier for the audience to understand and provide the basis for a structured presentation. An attorney who jumps into an oral argument will not be as persuasive as one who begins a presentation by laying out the message with a statement that “Your Honor, there are three important points to discuss today.”

3. Speaking is not the same as writing

The language that should be used when speaking out loud is very different than language used when writing, particularly legal writing like a brief or a memo, Shadel said. Short sentences are in order while legal jargon and acronyms – ADA or EEOC, for example – should be avoided. And to ensure that the central point is conveyed, “come at it a few different ways,” she suggested. State why your position is correct, then walk through the fact pattern that demonstrates why that position is correct; maybe use an analogy as well. “This gives the audience multiple bites at the apple and more opportunities to absorb what you are saying.”

4. Human interest 

Even judges listening to a summary judgment argument want to hear a story, Shadel said. “Put a bit of humanity into what you are doing.” When possible, use the names of the plaintiff or defendant and explain why what you are talking about will have an effect on real people or the real world. “People only pay attention for two to three minutes at a pop so your job is to keep getting their attention back.”

5. Practice   

A presentation needs to be practiced in its entirety and in the actual format. Stand up and speak out loud – sitting in front of a computer, silently reading the words, is not the same, Shadel said. Gestures and visual aids should also be practiced to ensure that gestures are natural and help convey the point without appearing forced. If visual aids are used, Shadel said attorneys should ensure they can be both introduced and removed seamlessly, so that the audience is not distracted. Practice will also help an attorney rely less upon a script or notes, she added. Bullet points are fine but “a written script is a mistake unless you are President Obama delivering the State of the Union address,” she said. “Lawyers cling to notes much more than they need to and it’s one of the worst things to do,” Shadel said. “You know what you want to say, so don’t stand up there and stare at a piece of paper.”

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