Aug. 5, 2015 – Whether you are speaking to an audience of 10 or 200, effective oral communication is crucial for building and maintaining your credibility as a lawyer.
Colleagues, clients, and others may doubt your expertise and abilities if you appear unprepared or lack confidence in your speaking skills. If you have not prepared a formal presentation recently or don’t regularly speak in public, presentations can be particularly intimidating, but there are ways to convert your nervous energy into enthusiasm.
This article discusses several strategies that can help you prepare, practice, and deliver your presentation in an effective, credible manner. Even for seasoned public speakers, revisiting your speaking mechanics is always good idea.
As soon as you agree to give a presentation, begin brainstorming. Consider carefully why you’ve been asked to speak, who the audience is, and what your core message will be. Remember: the audience members need a reason to be active, engaged listeners.
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Be prepared. If you have not taken adequate time to brainstorm, craft, and practice your presentation, you are far more likely to be nervous.
Arrive early. This allows you to see how the room is organized so that you can make conscious decisions about where you will stand, whether you will use a podium, and where you will need to look to make eye contact with each audience member. If you arrive early, you are also less likely to be out of breath or flustered from rushing to the venue. In addition, you can take advantage of time before your presentation to converse with individual attendees; those friendly faces can give you a confidence boost once you start your speech.
Be confident. Remind yourself that you have a compelling story to tell and an important message to share. There are people in the room who are eager to hear your message.
Be sincere. If you are truly trying to connect with your audience and you are convinced that your core message is valuable, the audience will perceive that and will forgive your “ums” and “ahs.” If instead you make comments that suggest you do not take your role seriously, the audience will not be so forgiving.
Breathe! A few deep, calming breaths before you start will calm your nerves and help prevent you from running out of air during your presentation.
As a lawyer, you have unique expertise. The audience members – especially the nonlawyers in the room – will expect to hear your educated analysis of the topic.
Identify the main points, which may include describing changes in the law, a regulatory system, or a specific case. Select examples and stories to illustrate your points; this will make your presentation more interesting, understandable, and memorable.
Be confident. Remind yourself that you have a compelling story to tell and an important message to share.
Next, consider your introduction and conclusion. The first quarter of your presentation is a crucial time to connect with the audience: capture their attention, introduce your topic and core message, convince the audience you have expertise and important information they need to hear, and forecast how your presentation will flow.
When crafting the conclusion, be sure to include concrete takeaways to share with the audience. Then, plan out the last couple of sentences so that you can end decisively, emphasizing your core message.
In recent years, the use of Microsoft PowerPoint and printed handouts has become increasingly popular. While those visuals can enhance your presentation, they are not the presentation. If everything you intend to say is written down and distributed, then why give a live presentation?
Craft your message and main points before you consider adding visuals. This will ensure that you are focusing on the unique opportunity a live presentation offers: the ability to inspire, to explain complex information, and to create memories in the minds of the audience members that they will remember long after your presentation is over.
For most presentations lawyers give – whether you’re updating your coworkers on a change in the law or speaking to a group of businesspeople about a regulatory framework – the audience will expect you to speak in a conversational style, rather than read a speech word-for-word.
Christina Plum (U.W. 1995) is an adjunct professor at the U.W. Law School, where she teaches public speaking. She is also a staff attorney for the Wisconsin Court of Appeals in Milwaukee. Reach her by email or by phone at (414) 526-0805.
Professional public speakers recommend having a “heightened conversation” with the audience, which is sound advice for lawyers. You may choose to memorize key sentences or phrases, but aim to speak from an outline, so that you do not appear to be giving a dramatic reading or straining to recall a speech you have memorized.
Many lawyers spend significant time preparing detailed notes or a PowerPoint presentation, but then fail to practice the presentation out loud even a single time. This is a mistake. Until you have forced yourself to talk through the material and examples, you cannot be certain of the time required to give the presentation. Practicing aloud also helps you make adjustments so that the message is clear and concise. If possible, ask a colleague to watch your practice session and offer constructive feedback.
The importance of the first few sentences you speak cannot be overstated. In those sentences, you will engage the audience (or not), offer a glimpse of your personality, and demonstrate the extent of your preparation.
If you are confident and well-organized, the audience will relax right along with you. Use those first few minutes to clearly explain what you will address and why they should listen to the presentation. If you have not been formally introduced, find a way – subtly or explicitly – to communicate that you have the expertise and experience to competently address the topic. If you do these things, you will engage your audience, provide them with a roadmap, and help them understand what they can expect to learn.
While your brain is considering the words you will say, it must also consider how you will say those words and how your gestures and body language will reinforce your message. Thousands of books and articles address the mechanics of public speaking. Many authors agree that the following mechanics are the most important to master:
making eye contact with the audience (which also demonstrates your confidence and sincerity);
maintaining a good posture that allows you to freely gesture with your hands and arms;
speaking at a pace that maintains the audience members’ attention but still gives them time to digest the information; and
avoiding vocal tics and filler words, such as the overuse of the words “like” or “um.”
The best way to evaluate your performance of these key mechanics is to practice aloud, record and watch your presentation, and ask for feedback from others.
Even if you are not a frequent public speaker, there are simple strategies you can employ to help you prepare, practice, and deliver a presentation that demonstrates your confidence and expertise, which in turn will reinforce your credibility in the eyes of colleagues and the public. While most speakers will experience some degree of nervousness, being adequately prepared and sincere about your message will go a long way toward helping both you and the audience relax and interact productively.