I am grateful for my speaking gigs over the last 25 years. A friend who's a new lawyer asked what advice I would give aspiring speakers. Here are 10 things attorneys can do to excel in front of an audience.
No 1: The audience is your friend. For many people, the fear of public speaking ranks right up there with the fear of death. That's why audiences empathize with anyone who has the courage to get up in front of a group and give a talk. They're pulling for the speaker to do well.
No. 2: Knock down barriers. Don't speak behind a podium; it's a barrier between you and the audience. Friends don't put up obstacles to connection.
Don't hide behind a microphone stand. Use a clip-on microphone instead. But make sure you understand how the on/off switch works. I learned that lesson the hard way.
Don't keep a giant cushion of space between you and your listeners. Walk around the stage. Exposure enhances friendship. It's also more visually interesting than someone standing still.
No. 3: Embrace physicality, and don't use technology as a crutch. PowerPoint presentations often sever the tie between speaker and audience. Instead of relying on slides, try gesturing.
Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, watch one of Pastor Joel Osteen's sermons. Observe how he uses gestures to keep his audience engaged.
Try this when speaking: Hold up three fingers and say, "There are three things I want you to remember from this talk."
Use your hands to deploy the power of contrast: Hold up the index finger on the left hand, and say, "On the one hand. . . ." Then, hold up the index finger on the right hand, and say, "On the other hand. . . ."
Use your arms to make an enveloping gesture toward the audience by raising your arms to your chest level and exposing your palms at a 45 degree angle. Osteen is especially good at this.
This isn't to say speakers should ditch PowerPoint entirely. It's effective for displaying an engaging image that's integrated into the talk. A timeline or a quotation can illuminate the message.
PowerPoint also is helpful to summarize the high points of the talk. Remember: Effective speakers use aids to enhance a talk; they don't rely on props to substitute for a good talk.
No. 4: Engage one to engage all. This takes a little practice. A speaker's comment can trigger a reaction from an audience member, just like in jury selection. Asking that person why he reacted and repeating the answer for the audience's benefit can draw in the entire crowd. By talking to one person, the speaker talks to all the people in the room. A word of caution: If the person does not want to engage, move on. The goal is to bind, not alienate.
No. 5: Love the topic, the topic loves you. Speakers must speak about something they love. Don't do a training-wheels talk ("I'll start with this topic and get experience. Later, I'll talk about what I love. I must suffer first.") Do that, and you'll be miserable. If you don't hand-to-heart love the topic, move on.
No. 6: The start: No jokes or endless thanks. In the misty past, a speaker started off with a joke, and it worked. It has failed ever since, but, like a bad pickup line, speakers keep doing it, hoping magic will strike twice. It won't. Don't start a talk with a joke — period. It wastes the audience's precious time.
Humor does have a role as an organic part of the talk. When I speak about motions in limine, which ideally decrease objections at trial, I recount how my brother, when he served on a jury, renamed a lawyer's repeated request for a "side bar" as a request to go to the "salad bar."
Also, your speech is not at night at the Oscars. While it appropriate to offer brief thanks at the opportunity to speak, limit it to a "thank you."
No. 7: The start: belief, action, benefit. This is how I begin a speech. I didn't realize it had a name until I read a May 9 blog post, "How to Structure Your Next Speech, Opening Statement or Presentation," by Ken Lopez, the founder and CEO of A2L Consulting. Here's the opening of a talk I give about professionalism.
• Belief: "Thanks for the introduction. I am talking today on something I feel very strongly about: professionalism in the law — not just to opposing lawyers but to staff, newer lawyers, the public and yourself."
• Action: "Treating each as professionals is not, as some argue, weakness."
• Benefit: "Doing so is not just professional but good business."
Any lawyer can use this structure to set up a speech:
• Belief: "I think the law can provide for XYZ."
• Action: "I've read the recent cases and extracted ABC principles."
• Benefit: "Here is how we can use those principles in our practice."
A speaker has two minutes (tops) to gain an audience's attention. Make those two minutes count.
No. 8: There is no Plan B. I say this to myself every time before I speak. To paraphrase Joseph Campbell's thoughts on life, let go of the speech you planned to give in order to give the speech that is waiting to be given.
Sure, prepare to give the talk, but be in the flow. Be open to ideas that come unbidden, and insert these new insights into the next talk. Repeat the cycle.
No. 9: Don't be a dead armadillo. Former Texas Agricultural Commissioner Jim Hightower titled his book, "There's Nothing in the Middle of the Road but Yellow Stripes and Dead Armadillos." So, adopt a viewpoint. Take a stance. Be memorable.
Which of these statements will an audience remember? "Before the amendments to the Americans With Disabilities Act, it was difficult for an employee to establish that she was disabled." Or, "Before the ADA amendments, I was convinced that O.J. was going to find the killers before the courts found a disabled person."
No. 10: Be you. Tom Asacker wrote a book, "The Business of Belief: How the World's Best Marketers, Designers, Salespeople, Coaches, Fundraisers, Educators, Entrepreneurs and Other Leaders Get Us to Believe."He argues, "[I]n making a presentation . . . your best argument is always yourself — your exuberance, your vitality, your passion, your belief."
Isn't that the truth?