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  • Federal Judge: The 7 Objectives for Every Professional Presentation

    Judge James D. Peterson of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin explains that lawyers don’t have to be good speakers to give a good speech.

    Joe Forward

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    Jan. 4, 2017 – Lawyers communicate and speak for a living. Perhaps your New Year’s resolution is to be a better public speaker. Guess what? “You don't have to be a good speaker to deliver a good speech,” says Judge James D. Peterson of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin. “All you need is a good speech.”

    Judge Peterson, who holds a Ph.D. in communications and taught at the University of Notre Dame before embarking on his legal career – a litigator at Godfrey & Kahn and now a federal judge – recently presented his “Seven Objectives for Every Professional Presentation” at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s G. Lane Ware Leadership Academy.

    It started with dinner. On the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, Judge Peterson attended a replica of the 13-course meal served the night before the ship sank. A retired naval officer was the featured speaker.

    You don't have to be a good speaker to deliver a good speech.

    The officer broke every speaking rule there is, noted Judge Peterson, who has delivered more than 2,500 presentations over the course of his career. But the audience still loved him because he displayed such enthusiasm and knowledge about the Titanic, he said.

    “It's almost impossible to screw it up if you really care and are knowledgeable about your subject,” Judge Peterson noted. “They're going to love you if you just show up and give your presentation and take it seriously. It really is that simple.”

    “You already have most of what you need to give a great presentation because you care and you're knowledgeable,” he told a group of aspiring lawyer-leaders. “The rest of this will take you into a professional speaking category if you structure it the way I advise you.”

    The remainder of this article provides abridged excerpts from Judge Peterson’s presentation on the “Seven Objectives for Every Professional Presentation.” He focuses on out-of-court presentations about the law. But he did note that the objectives can also be adapted to in-court work and to other types of public speaking.

    1. Seize the Stage

    Jim Peterson

    Judge James D. Peterson of the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin explains that lawyers don’t have to be good speakers to give a good speech.

    If you go to a lot of presentations, you'll find that in a group like this, the speaker takes the stage while people are still milling around. They're having their coffee. The speaker walks up and raps on the microphone to make sure everybody can hear. Some people are half paying attention but many are not paying attention at all. Pretty soon the speaker is into the presentation and you realize, ‘I've just been drinking my coffee and the guy has started already’. As a presenter, you need to seize the stage.

    Do something that grabs attention, even if it's just a loud ‘good morning, I'm glad to be here, I'm starting’ rather than starting timidly and checking the microphone and things like that. You have to do something that is dramatic and attention-getting.

    But there's something else, too. You should seize the stage by promising something of value to your audience. I tried to do that here with the story about the Titanic dinner. I told that story to show that you can do something relatively simple that would help you become a better speaker. So seize the stage by beginning dramatically and also by offering something of value to your audience.

    2. Connect with the Audience

    You go to a concert. The band is touring the country, and they show up in Madison. They might say, ‘hey Madison, it's great to be back. My band and I love coming to Madison. We always go to the farmers market and have a great time.’

    That's a little gesture just to connect with the audience. The next night, they'll be in another town playing for somebody else. But they want to demonstrate their connection to the audience, and I think you should do that too, in two ways.

    Do something that grabs attention.

    The first way is to establish a little personal connection with the audience in some way that shows that you care and that you're interested in them. You really want to draw a bond between you and the audience. Just be friendly. You want to communicate that you are a friendly, approachable person and that you're eager to talk to them and that you share a common project.

    But there's another important way you have to connect with the audience. And this is a particular problem for lawyers, who sometimes don’t really connect in a communicative way with their audience. We are technically educated people, and sometimes we talk about highly technical and sophisticated fields.

    Joe Forwardorg jforward wisbar Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by org jforward wisbar email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.

    Sometimes we will miscalibrate our speech to the audience. We come in too low or we come in too high. In my past practice life, I did a lot of intellectual property litigation. That was the focus of my practice, so I was often called upon to talk about intellectual property, especially copyright. Sometimes the audience was a group that knew nothing about copyright law, and I had to make sure that I didn't just dive in with a lot of really technical talk about particular sections of the Copyright Act and go right over their heads.

    I realized that with some groups, I had to start with basic ideas about what copyright covers. Some people don’t know the difference between a copyright and trademark, and it can get kind of technical. But sometimes, I had to be sensitive to the idea that I can come in too low. For instance, librarians know a lot about copyright.

    That’s part of what librarians study in school, they have to work with it every day, and people ask them questions about it. So if I come in to talk to librarians with my standard basic copyright presentation, it's going to be beneath them, and I’m going to seem patronizing. So it's very important that you get your presentation pitched to your audience in the way that shows that you understand the information that they already have. You have to know what they know before you can connect with them.

    Establish a little personal connection with the audience.

    There's yet one more aspect of connecting with the audience, and that is you really need to know what they need to know. You have to be aware of the kind of problems they face.

    So when I would talk about copyright law to an audience, I would ask the person who invited me what the people need to know, ask what they want to hear about. I try to find out what kind of problems they face. For example, a lot of times, librarians would say they have a lot of requests for special copies from people with disabilities. There are special provisions of the Copyright Act to deal with making copies for people who are disabled. If I didn't ask, I would never think to cover that little, tiny specialized area of copyright law.

    Find out what they know already and what they need to know. If you demonstrate an understanding of their problems, you will make a really good connection with them.

    3. Establish Your Authority

    I'm going have to establish my authority to talk on the subject, which means that I’m going to have to elevate myself above you. I’m going to have to show you that I know more about this subject than you do. So you risk, in establishing your authority, separating yourself from your audience and alienating them a little bit.

    And that's exaggerated by the fact that most of the time, people think that the way to establish your authority is to give your credentials. So, I could be up here and I could say I have a Ph.D. in communications from the University of Wisconsin, I've delivered more than 2,500 presentations, and I teach public speaking at the law school. But I risk sounding a little arrogant by just listing these credentials.

    Frankly, it’s also not very interesting. There is a much better way, a much simpler way, and it's a way that virtually anybody can do. I don't care if you just got your law degree last May. The better way of establishing your credentials is to tell the story about how you became knowledgeable and passionate about the subject of your speech. It's so much more compelling to hear somebody tell the story about why they care about what they're talking about rather than to get a list of credentials.

    Tell the story about how you became knowledgeable and passionate.

    Say you have a four-month-old J.D. from the University of Wisconsin. In itself, it’s not that powerful. But if you explain how it is that you became interested and passionate about the subject it makes a really good story, and it’s really compelling.

    So you might say, ‘I got this assignment from a partner and it required me to read 75 cases about statutory damages and copyright law. I realize that there is a real problem at the root of this issue, and I wanted to share what I've found out about it.’

    That makes a good story, and it also would satisfy the most experienced lawyer in the room that you have a really good basis to speak with authority on that subject because you explained why you care about it, what you found interesting about it, and what you did to become really knowledgeable about it. It’s so much better than just standing up and reciting your credentials. When you establish authority, this way it actually deepens your connection with the audience rather than alienating them.

    4. Give a Roadmap

    If you're going to give an argument to the court, you have to give a roadmap and it’s kind of mechanical. You say, ‘your honor, there are three reasons you should find in favor of my client. Here they are’ and you address each one.

    That is a great idea, even if you give a roadmap in a kind of mechanical way. There are other more artistic ways to do it, but somehow you have to say how you're going to lay out your presentation and why. The fact is that our comprehension and retention is multiplied if you give people a structure for the information that you're going to provide to them.

    If I just get up here and start talking, you are going to try to remember what I was saying as best you can. But if I can give you a kind of a framework within which you will fit that information, you're going to understand it better and you're also going to retain it better.

    You should always tell people how long you're going to talk.

    But there's also a couple of practical considerations that give you more reasons to provide a roadmap. One of them is this: it's inevitable that attention will lapse at some time. If you're reading an article or book and your attention lapses, you can always go back just read it again. But when you're speaking in public like this, individuals are going to flag at some point or another and if you don't give them a structure, if they zone out for a minute or check their email, they have a hard time getting back into the flow of your presentation. But if you give them a really clear structure, they can come back in whenever you reorient them into the roadmap.

    Which raises an important point about presentation technique. You have to give the roadmap, but you also have to follow it, and signpost it. A lot of times, people will give a road map but they don't follow it and they don't signpost it as they go through it.

    Back to the practical considerations. The roadmap is also great way to control the presentation, and to control your audience’s reactions. In a lot of formats, people can start peppering you with questions as you go through. I think that's a good sign. It’s a sign that your audience is engaged. But every once in a while, you get somebody who is a “derailer.” They ask a lot of questions that not everyone is interested in and you want to say, ‘just shut up for a minute, I’m going to get to that.’ If you lay out your roadmap really clearly, it does two things for the derailers. It tells them whether you already plan to address the topic, and so it might keep them from asking a question at an inappropriate point. And if they still ask an off-point question, you can compliment them on the question and say, ‘as you see, I have a section on that later so I'm going to revisit your question a little bit later.’

    One more point on the roadmap. You should always tell people how long you're going to talk, and then stick to it. Sometimes they know because the program schedule shows it. But a lot of times, it's not clear how long you're going to talk and frankly, for a lot of people listening to a lawyer talk is not necessarily top on their list of things to do. So they want to know how long it's going to last. And, if you're going to talk for an hour, you might as well just tell them. It's amazing how much the audience’s anxiety diminishes if they know how long you're going to go. It's a relatively easy thing, but it's surprising how many people don't do it.

    5. Deliver Your Content

    Aristotle thought that rhetoric had three functions: to persuade, to teach, to inspire. In modern thought about public speaking, we think of three types of speech: the persuasive speech, the educational speech, and the inspirational speech. When I think about my takeaways [discussed in the next topic], I try to think about which ballpark I’m in.

    Most often, when you are outside the courtroom and you are asked to give a presentation, teaching is your main mode. You are there to teach people about aspects of the law. But I don’t think of persuasion, teaching, and inspiration as three completely different types of speeches. I think of them as modes that you are going to combine in various proportions in every speech you give.

    People think that our job, as lawyers, is to tell them the rules, so it’s clear what they cannot do. That is a prejudice you will always face as a lawyer. People think the law is a set of rules that inhibit their behavior. Don’t do this, it will infringe copyright. Don’t do this, it will violate securities law. Don’t do this, you’ll get arrested.

    Persuading, teaching, and inspiring are part of what you should be trying to accomplish.

    It’s a downer and it makes people resistant to your message. So when I talk about copyright law, I present it as a bunch of rights, not a bunch of rules, that authors have and users of content have. I would tell the audience, teachers or librarians, of the opportunities to do great things with copyrighted works under copyright law, to use the copyright law as a tool. I wanted to persuade them to my perspective of the subject area. Recognize that you are fighting against that general inclination for people to think of lawyers as the party of ‘no.’ Go in there and say look, 'I’m here to tell you that what we do as lawyers is to help you accomplish things. We are the party of doing things.’ So even when teaching is your main mode, recognize that you’ve got persuading to do.

    To give another example, I used to speak to new associates about the history of my former law firm. Again, teaching was a main mode, but I really wanted to inspire them to feel good about being a lawyer at our firm, and to continue the great work of the lawyers who came before us.

    So remember Aristotle: combine persuasion, education, and inspiration in every presentation. Try to do something that's persuasive and inspirational instead of just saying here’s a bunch of facts that I’m going to give you.

    6. Give the Takeaways

    In a way, this is really just a version of an old cliché that you've heard about public speaking: To give a good speech, you tell people what you're going to tell them, then you tell them, and then you tell them what you told them.

    And there's a truth to the cliché, but it's so ridiculously simplistic that it's really not very helpful. A better way of conceiving it is this. You give them a roadmap to structure what you're going to say, then you present your information using that structure. But when you're done you don't just give them the roadmap again. What you should do is give them the takeaways. Here's the thing: how many presentations have you been to, especially those by lawyers, that two days later you can't remember a single thing that was said. It’s pretty common; don't be that person. Help the audience out by giving them the takeaways.

    Really boil it all down to one or two things.

    It should sound like this. ‘If you can remember one thing from what I said today, it's this.’ If you think you're really good, you can stretch that into two things. But really boil it all down to one or two things, and just tell the audience this is what you should remember from my speech, take this away with you. If you serve it up that way, there's about a 75 percent chance that the people in your audience will remember your takeaways a couple of days later. You're going to be among the top 10 percent of speakers just because people will remember something about what you said.

    7. End Decisively

    Just like a lot of people creep up on the beginning of presentations, a lot of people just fade back at the end. How many presentations end with, ‘I guess that's all the time I have.’ How feeble an ending is that? You should have an ending that seems like an ending. End decisively on something that really ends the presentation.

    A technique I like to use is to illustrate a problem with a story in my introduction. Then I return to that same story at the end. Only now I reframe and reconsider the story in light of my takeaways.

    So I'm going to end by recalling our speaker at the Titanic dinner. He got up several times during the meal and did all the horrible things that I talked about. He didn't structure his presentation at all, he wasn't really a good performer, he didn't use my objectives, but it was a great night anyway. Why?

    Have an ending that seems like an ending.

    He was so palpably excited and he was so profoundly knowledgeable about the Titanic, that despite the fact that he gave a really awkward presentation, everybody there loved him, including me. There was just no way to resist this guy's passion for the Titanic. And he had all sorts of great stories about it.

    It's almost impossible to screw it up if you really care and are knowledgeable about your subject. They're going to love you if you just show up and give your presentation and take it seriously. It really is that simple.

    You already have most of what you need to give a great presentation because you care and you're knowledgeable. My seven objectives will take a little preparation and maybe some practice. But if you add them to your passion and knowledge, your audience will think you are a professional speaker.