I recently attended a CLE program that featured a nationally renowned law professor. Although this was a well run event in an attractive setting, my expectations were muted, as the discussion topic focused on an interesting, but procedural provision that was unlikely to stir the passions of most lawyers. Boy, was I pleasantly surprised.
The professor managed to transform this esoteric topic by employing several communication and presentation skills that made it quite a memorable hour. It illustrated that seemingly minor touches can have a significant impact. Paying attention to these details, and not being afraid to “go for it,” may just help you to win that pitch, emerge as the candidate of choice in a crowded interview field, or better connect in a critical meeting. I will share some of the professor’s techniques and a few others I have observed throughout my career.
Set the Tone When You are Leading an Event
As the professor also received a prestigious award at this program, and the audience was replete with members of the judiciary and law firm lawyers, everyone was well dressed. The professor, though, sans his suit jacket, ascended the stage with sleeves rolled up and a tie that had notably been loosened. This sent an important message that the professor wanted to engage with the audience, hoped that they would not be intimidated by him, and, most importantly, would relax and listen.
I believe that 99 percent of presenters would have employed a more standard and less risky approach, which would have included a recitation of established case law, new developments, and what the future may portend. This is a perfectly acceptable approach (ergo the prediction that virtually everyone would have adopted it), but it likely could have induced some somnolence (because of the topic). The odds are good that the presentation may not have been recalled to any appreciable degree, as it would have fallen into the maw of solid performances that never resonated. Even though I may not remember the name of every decision the professor cited, I will forever recall the topic, as his innovative approach was captivating.
This tactic can similarly be employed by those who are hosting a meeting or otherwise are the parties leading an event. If you believe that some informality better fits the occasion, it is incumbent upon you to send that message, whether it entails your attire or openly encouraging everyone to participate in the discussion. Conversely, if a more formal or serious environment better fits the matter at hand, your countenance should convey that message. Unless you are breaking the news of someone’s death or are handling a termination, this type of situation does not mean that gloom and heavy air should fill the room, as you do not want everyone to be unduly tight. A few minutes of repartee on last night’s game or a popular issue du jour are still helpful ice breakers, but it often is best to keep that to a minimum and to get everyone’s attention early.
Adapt to Circumstances to Better Connect with Others
A corollary point is that it is important to pick up on the social and other cues that permeate a meeting or other gathering, as connecting with others — and not just having information pass back and forth — is a key to success. For some people, this is second nature, but, for many others, it is a skill that requires much refinement.
Understandably, people often are intrigued by others who have skills that they lack. For instance, an introvert may wish that he had the social ease of his more gregarious colleague or someone who rues public speaking may marvel at the facility of a counterpart who excels talking to large audiences. In most circumstances, though, studies have shown that people better connect with, trust, and are more comfortable with people like them. If you hope to bond with others, and believe that also furthers an objective at an event, it thus is quite important that you mesh with others.
Authors on this topic espouse that one should try to be in synch with others as to their speech patterns and mannerisms, as these are crucial means to foster stronger connections. So, if you are meeting with someone who is high energy and tends to talk quickly, you are much more likely to form an attachment if you eschew carefully choosing each word and forsake long, drawn out sentences that are punctuated by lengthy pauses. Similarly, if someone is sending signals of openness and interest (such as considerable eye contact and sitting on the edge of a chair), this is not the time to be closed (by crossing your arms, glancing off into space, and appearing disinterested).
For those who also struggle with how to break the ice or put others at ease, take notice of your surroundings. If you are meeting in someone’s office, there undoubtedly are conversation starters, whether it is a picture of little Johnny or Katelin, some memento of an important accomplishment, or just an item that reveals an outside interest. Commenting favorably on what you see or asking a question should trigger a discussion that will put you and your colleague at ease.
Keep Things Interesting and Make it Memorable
The professor spiced his presentation by changing his cadence throughout the presentation. Much as a top baseball pitcher mixes speeds, so did the professor, as he interlaced his effusive speech with a lower tone and more reflective moments when he wanted the audience to absorb what had just been communicated. This variance was highly effective, as it not only kept everyone awake, but sent signals as to when we should pay particular attention to a point and those that were the takeaways. Those who have a penchant for droning on at a monotonous pace or even those who are perpetually peripatetic should be mindful of the benefits to changing pace.
A former partner taught me a valuable lesson many years ago, namely, the impact of “lighting up the room” in situations where you are competing against others. His thesis was that there are many firms and lawyers who are just as formidable, bright and accomplished as you (and perhaps even more so). Consequently, turning in a good, solid performance may win the proverbial day at times, but, because of the ferocity of competition, it is very likely you will lose to someone who upped the ante and did something that was truly memorable.
In some cases, the differentiator may be substantive. For example, the context in which this partner offered this advice, 20 years ago, involved a pitch for new business. As our team was very talented, but lacked the depth and national reach of others, we decided to offer an innovative alternative fee proposal (yes, despite the current hullaballoo, alternative fees had their genesis many years ago). This engendered a detailed discussion, which made it very apparent that we were quite interested in the client’s business and had spent considerable time in crafting a proposal that benefited the client.
During my general counsel years, this decision to offer a unique presentation often was the pivotal factor in selecting one firm (or lawyer) over another. In many cases, lawyers would regale us with their accomplishments, skills, and all the reasons why they were the best in a particular situation. Some would go a step further, and would offer some cursory thoughts on how to best approach the matter at hand (whether it was a litigation case, a deal, or other vexing legal issue). The ones that normally “won,” though, rolled the dice by not only outlining a strategy, but by expending the extra effort to put it into context as to where our company may be going in the future. In some cases, they may have been off base, as they did not have access to some key internal facts, but this didn’t matter. Their investment of time and being bold enough to go beyond the issue of the moment, sent a strong signal that they may be a valuable partner in the short and long term.
While the substantive is a necessary predicate, form can also be a crucial differentiator. The professor utilized the ubiquitous PowerPoint program during his presentation and it was stocked with good, crisp and professional slides. The one slide that stood out, though, was one that had some hand-written notations and was unlike the others. The professor spent most of his time on this slide, as it showed the firms around the country that were employing the strategy he advocated. This caught our attention because of its difference and drove home its point because of the content that underlied it.
Props, whether they are in the form of exemplar documents or physical tools or items, can be quite powerful. It is not necessary to be David Blaine or a sleight of hand telestrator in this regard (in fact, this would be an obvious turn off), as substance still is important. Nevertheless, supplementing a presentation or discussion with an object that buttresses your point can be a difference maker.
A compelling example concerned pitches that our company received to defend a series of medical device products liability cases that threatened our company. One particular outside counsel aspirant brought our product, and one somewhat similar device from a competitor (that he had successfully defended at trial) to our meeting. This lawyer showed us the specific aspects of each product that were similar, how the plaintiffs’ experts had attacked those components, and the design issues we were likely to face in the cases that had just been filed. This was infinitely more compelling than an abstract discussion of the result achieved in that other case and certainly was overwhelmingly more compelling than noting the achievement in a parenthetical in a document submitted as part of a presentation (as I have seen in many other situations). Every person in our company spoke about that presentation afterwards and, almost needless to say, we hired that lawyer to defend the case.
I can anticipate that practitioners in other disciplines might rightfully say that this is easy for a products liability or other litigator to do, as there often are objects of some type that are in the midst of a controversy that can be used for demonstration purposes. How could this possibly apply, let’s say, to a tax, white-collar, deal lawyer, or lawyer in some other practice area? The answer, quite simply, is to develop a slide, document, or some other material that is substantively accurate, grabs attention, and makes a compelling point.
For example, if there is an issue in play that has felled other executives and their companies, and perhaps even resulted in sanctions or imprisonments, it is easy to craft a document or slide that categorically addresses the point and perhaps is accompanied by a picture of an executive’s perp walk or a headline that announces the fine, suspension, or other action of note. This can be done in a tasteful (and not schlocky) way that will drive your point home in a way that goes well beyond what even the most carefully written memo or other presentation ever could.
There is nothing wrong with good, solid work — it is the stuff that ultimately wins cases, fuels successful deals and ensures that advice in any practice area is cutting edge and accurate. In order to get into play, so that you can employ your tried and true daily practices, you often have to get out of your comfort zone, so that you can “light it up” in meetings, presentations, pitches and other gatherings. It is in those settings that you have to do something memorable, for, you can rest assured, at least one of your competitors will. •
Frank Michael D’Amore is the founder of Attorney Career Catalysts, a Pennsylvania-based legal recruiting, consulting and training firm.