Six Public Speaking Tips from the Trial Lawyer Arsenal

By Matthew MacLean

Alright! Your hard work, initiative, and/or utter brilliance finally caught the attention of your boss. You’re moving up. You’ve reached the next rung on the ladder. You’ve arrived!

Now that you’ve arrived, however, you have to give presentations and speeches. Enter the wonderful and terrifying world of public speaking.

The words “public speaking” strike fear into the hearts of even the most accomplished people. According to the Chapman University Survey of American Fears, public speaking is the top personal fear of Americans. So if public speaking terrifies you, you are not alone. Chests tighten, stomachs lurch, and palms sweat when most people think about standing in front of an audience – any sized audience – and talking. A few tips from trial lawyers can make public speaking less daunting.

Sure, some have the same set of reactions (tight chest, lurching stomach, sweaty palms) when you say “trial lawyer,” but trial lawyers do know public speaking. It’s pretty simple: Trial lawyers talk for a living and do so in public. Often, they do it in stressful situations like trials or motion hearings. When I practiced law, I was fortunate enough to have trial lawyer mentors who shared their public speaking tips. Having found them equally effective in the courtroom and in the boardroom, I want to share them here.

Practice, Practice, Practice

No respectable trial lawyer (yes, they exist) would go into court unless he or she had practiced, practiced, and then practiced again. Some people will tell you will sound more “spontaneous” or “natural” if you limit practice time. Unless you want to sound “spontaneously” and “naturally” bad, however, ignore that advice. If you practice enough to have mastered the content, you sound calm, collected, and confident.

“Competence breeds confidence.”
Brendan Bruchard

Yes, practicing your speech or presentation can be a lot of work. But if you truly want to get more competent and confident at public speaking, you simply can’t avoid practice. As Freddy Behin, MD teaches, everyone may start at different places along the development timeline, but only the people who do the practice necessary to improve get to the mastery stage. It doesn’t matter if you start at the same skill level as trial lawyers or other good public speakers. If you do the work, you can not only match, but even surpass, them on your way to becoming a great public speaker.

Prepare for the Worst

When trial lawyers prepare for court, they plan for the worst. This will shock the self-help aficionados, but you absolutely have to plan for the worst to get the best results. That means taking the time to think about all the things that can go wrong. Seriously.

Of course, you can’t stop there. You have to think about the worst possibilities AND come up with plans to deal with them. Planning around, or through, everything that can go wrong is crucial to feeling comfortable in front of your audience. Nothing builds confidence more than knowing you are ready for anything.

Planning for the worst also helps avoid awkward and uncomfortable situations. For example, Olivia Fox Cabane recommends planning for, and around, physical discomfort. If the venue will be hot, dress so the heat won’t bother you. If the sun will be in your eyes, move. You get the idea. You can avoid, or at least minimize, most of what can get in the way of good public speaking by planning for the worst.

Have a Strong Opening Statement

In trial work, the opening statement is one of the most important, and overlooked, parts of the trial. The same is true in public speaking. All too often, a speaker starts with a minute (or two, or three) of mindless comments about being nervous, being happy to be there, thanking the host, giving their entire resume, or fumbling around getting notes together. Slow, boring, and predictable starts like that are recipes for disaster.

Trial advocacy expert Professor James McElhaney calls “the first half-minute when you have everybody’s undivided attention” the Golden Moment. “The first 30 seconds to one minute is the most important part of almost everything you do in trial.” Don’t waste the Golden Moment of your speech or presentation with unnecessary, redundant, and perfunctory statements.

If you are giving a presentation away from your office, chances are you will be introduced. No need to repeat the introduction or the bio in the presentation materials. It only wastes the limited time you have to grab your audience’s attention. And you‘ll have plenty of time to thank everyone at the end. Jump in and engage your audience right away, or you risk staring at a room full of heads as everyone fidgets with their smart phones.

Tell Stories

The best trial lawyers are master storytellers. According to Professor McElhaney, “stories are at the heart of how people think, learn, exchange ideas, and struggle to understand the world around them.” Most business public speaking is fact-driven rather than story-driven. Quarterly reports, budget reviews, sales pitches, and demonstrations all rely on facts and data. The problem is, facts and data are usually boring and difficult to digest…unless you make them into a story.

As personal communication coach Patrick King says, “Storytelling drives home a point more powerfully than anything else.” Reciting quarterly financial performance is painfully boring and hard to follow. On the other hand, telling the story of employees putting their heads together to brainstorm creative ways to cut costs, or a sales team streaming into a new market like an invading army, paints a picture. And, as the poet-philosopher Rod Stewart said, “Every picture tells a story, don’t it?”

This is the point when people tell me they aren’t “storytellers.” Unless you grew up in total isolation, you’ve been telling and listening to stories your whole life. Just take what you already know and apply it to your topic.

It’s About the Topic and Audience, Not About You

Lawyers, at least lawyers who want to win, don’t start trials by listing their accomplishments. Instead, they start with the parties and the facts because they are what the judge and jury care about. The same is true in business speaking. Unless you are a public figure, no one is there to hear about what you’ve done or who you are. I’ve seen too many lawyers lose a case they ought to win by prancing around like they are the smartest person in the courtroom. If you keep the focus on your topic and why it matters to the audience, however, you will win over the audience and get your message heard.

Dale Carnegie’s classic How to Win Friends and Influence People teaches that the best way to connect with people is to talk about them. Unless you are being asked to tell your life story, don’t. Even if you are asked to tell your life story, do it in an audience-focused way.

Get Your Game Face on and Talk

Preparing and practicing your talk is only half the battle. Sometimes you do all the practice and preparation you need, but taking that final step on stage or into the boardroom feels too daunting. It’s like a force field sits between you and the podium. Everyone gets that wonderful thing called stage fright, even trial lawyers. That is why trial lawyers develop “pre-game” rituals to get them in the right mindset.

Pre-game rituals might sound corny, but they work. In studying athletes, Harvard professor Francesca Gino found players’ pregame rituals, even silly ones, can positively impact confidence and performance. The same holds true in public speaking.

There isn’t a magic formula for developing an effective ritual. Some people like to relax in a quiet room. Others listen to music, stand around in their best Superman power stance, or do push-ups. A good friend of mine, trial lawyer extraordinaire C.J. Krawczyk, watches A Few Good Men the night before court. My pre-game preference is music (REM’s version of “Superman” or tracks 7-9 of U2’s “Joshua Tree” to be specific). Experiment until you find something that helps you relax and focus.

If that is too vague, Author Mel Robbins has an amazing tool called “The 5 Second Rule” to help make the leap. When you feel the “deer-in-headlights” thing coming on, count backwards from 5 to interrupt the panic forming in your prefrontal cortex, then launch into your talk. If you’ve done your prep work, you are ready!

Anyone Can Do It

Speaking in public is daunting for anyone. If you take to heart a few of these tips, however, you can unleash your inner trial lawyer and crush your next speech or presentation.

About the Author

Matthew MacLean is a Regulatory Consultant for Cascade Asset Management, LLC.