Every presentation has two important components: the message, or the content of the presentation and the means used to communicate the message; and the messenger, or the speaker, and that would be you.
Which one is most important, the message or the messenger? The answer is “yes.” The message and the messenger are both “most important” for making an effective presentation. The key ingredients for an effective presentation are a strong message and an equally strong messenger.
The content and visuals must communicate the message and bolster the messenger’s “ethos.” Ethos is the composite of the speaker’s perceived virtue, goodwill and expertise. According to Aristotle, the ethos of the speaker must be strong for the speaker to be believed. Today, the word that best captures ethos is “credibility.” Credibility is something all lawyers try mightily to establish and maintain with clients, judges and juries—especially when making an important presentation. Here are six ways to build up your ethos/credibility when making a presentation.
1. Treat credibility as a bank account.
A federal judge once told me he viewed the credibility of the lawyers who presented in his courtroom to be like a bank account. Every lawyer appearing before the judge has a bank account. Some of the accounts are large and some small. Some accounts are in the red (or move into the red) based on the tactics and behavior observed by the judge.
Treat your credibility as a bank account, which you build up through the quality of your arguments and the skill and professionalism of your presentation. You want to grow, not shrink, your bank account. But we see lawyers every day in courtrooms shrinking their accounts by overreaching, making frivolous arguments and by being discourteous to opponents, witnesses and the judge and court staff.
2. Treat your audience as king.
You build credibility with your audience by placing the audience’s needs first. In her book “slide:ology: The Art and Science of Creating Great Presentations,” communication expert Nancy Duarte stresses: Treat the audience as king! In her book Duarte writes: “Success means giving them [the audience] a reason for taking their time, providing content that resonates, and ensuring it’s clear what they are to do.”
Treating the audience as king means presenting data or content in a simplified and compelling way, but not overly-simplistic or dumbed down; it means teaching with pictures and images rather than dense, text-laden PowerPoint slides; presenting arguments supported by the evidence; and committing to the presentation so the audience sees you engaged and passionate about the topic. You build credibility by careful planning and preparation and by giving a passionate presentation.
3. Be the real you.
Credibility is enhanced by the speaker’s naturalness before the audience. Naturalness results from words and body language that are entirely you and not by imitating a style you believe will sell to the audience. Being the real you means just that. You need to present yourself as you are and not as someone you think you should be. The messages of great advocates and great speakers are received, embraced and ultimately adopted by the audience because the messenger was perceived as credible, sincere and as themselves. Every lawyer has their own unique style. You need to determine your own personal style and convey that style when you present. By doing so, you will be comfortable and real.
4. Be likeable.
In his book, “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion,” Dr. Robert Cialdini, a social psychologist, studied the psychology of compliance. He wanted to learn the psychological principles and techniques having the greatest influence in causing someone to comply with a request. He coined the six factors he found the “weapons of influence.” One of those weapons applicable to making presentations is “liking.”
Liking refers to our natural tendency to agree with people we like. If the audience finds you to be like them, or at least likeable, you have a greater chance of causing the audience to agree with you. This doesn’t mean you transmute yourself into someone else so you will be more like the audience. It means knowing your audience—their education, training, challenges and, most importantly, what the audience needs to get out of the presentation. Usually what the audience wants is a comfortable decision path. Your job is to show them that path.
5. Be perceived as all knowing.
Credible presenters are perceived as all knowing about the subject matter. Your audience must perceive you as knowing more about the topic than anyone else on the planet, including expert witnesses. Creating this perception occurs largely, if not exclusively, through intense and focused contextual preparation. Prepare until there is nothing left to do to prepare and you feel completely ready. Your preparation should take you to what sports psychologists call “the soft zone”—a state in which you are quietly and intensely focused and ready to flow through the presentation.
6. Prepare contextually.
Prepare by simulating the exact conditions and the same context as will exist for the actual presentation. I call this “contextual preparation.” Often lawyers “prepare” for an important presentation by looking over their notes or slides, but never engage in a full dress rehearsal in a context that mirrors the actual presentation venue. You may have heard the expression, “practice makes perfect.” Actually it should be, “practice makes permanent.” How you practice a presentation will determine the quality of the presentation.
Smart performers prepare contextually by replicating actual presentation or competition conditions. Peyton Manning, the great NFL quarterback, prepared for a Super Bowl game where heavy rain was predicted by practicing in wet conditions. In his “wet mechanics” practice, Manning practiced by throwing water-drenched balls to his receivers. Josh Waitzkin, an eight-time National Chess Champion in his youth, practiced by purposely introducing all forms of distraction—loud rock music, talking and smoke—to be at peace with distractions he encountered in an actual competition, typically against Russian opponents.
If you have an important presentation coming up and want to prepare contextually, ask some of your colleagues and staff members in your office to serve as your audience. Give a full dress rehearsal presentation exactly like you will give in the actual presentation. Solicit your mock audience’s feedback. Time permitting, give it again to another mock audience after you factor in the initial feedback. As much as possible, replicate the actual presentation conditions. Dress like you would for the actual presentation. Speak from a podium if you need to during the actual presentation. Take questions if questions will be part of your presentation. In short, prepare contextually.
Usually we present in unfamiliar venues where the audience does not know us or our backgrounds. We have no pre-existing or pre-established credibility and nothing yet in our bank account. We have not yet earned the audience’s trust and respect. By following these six steps, you can be perceived as credible and build your bank account.
Dave Dolkas is a partner at McDermott Will & Emery in Silicon Valley. He specializes in IP litigation. This article is adapted from a chapter from his book, “Managing Complex IP Litigation” (LexisNexis 2014).