The legal profession demands excellence in communication. In litigation, of course. But it’s also critical to business development and success in every other practice area too. There are client pitches and updates, CLE presentations, other industry and community events, and more. For all these settings, here are some quick tips to be memorable, influential and achieve speaking goals.
1. Prepare like we used to early in our legal career, for moot court or any other time healthy “fear” motivated us to action. After years of law practice, confidence in our speech skills grows. That’s great, but it also makes winging things extremely attractive. We probably get by. But is it good? Is it the best we can do for our clients?
2. Wrap up, sooner. It can be difficult to land the plane when speaking. Remember to trust ourselves (we conveyed the point), trust the audience (e.g., the judge understood it), and then sit down. No one respects a rambler.
3. Be specific, especially in a pitch for new business. Potential clients are unlikely to simply “catch our drift.” They are too busy thinking about the day’s next 12 meetings. We must therefore cover with specificity how we are best positioned to help them and then make an explicit ask for business that details next steps. This is critical because specific requests are what force people into thinking. Maybe they still say “no,” but at least we’re in the game.
4. More structure. When presented with information that is all over the place, the brain’s primary goal is to “order it.” This gets in the way of being able to really listen, hear the words, reflect on the message substantively. It’s also really annoying. Do that work for the audience. If an audience knows where we are headed and the turns make sense, they can sit back, take it all in, and enjoy the ride.
5. Stay conversational and ditch the script (usually). Except in the rare cases where the precision of each word is vital, a good presentation is more akin to a “purposeful conversation.” We know exactly where it should go, but we never take the audience there like a robot reciting prayer. Prepare with purpose, then go with the flow. Remain humble enough to adapt as necessary yet confident enough to keep pressing our goals.
6. Consider asking for less. Good persuasion often is incremental, especially when we seek to establish a new business relationship, change minds on thorny issues, or seek big action. Maybe “less” is the better ask right now, for more later.
7. Edit it way down, then again. We know this in writing, and it’s even more important in oral communication. Clients, industry colleagues, even judges, they are a lot like hostages that want to go, no matter how into you they are. We all appreciate concise speakers because they demonstrate respect for our time. Concise also reads as confident, credible. Plus, too much information is an invitation for the listener to tune out. Our best points risk getting lost.
8. Two fundamental questions for visual aids: do we need it, can they see it? Be selective for maximum impact and remember audiences hate being shown things they can’t see!
9. Be the you that’s most like them. Except for other lawyers, most do not find us very relatable. People have an easier time listening to, believing, and following people to whom they feel similar. We can usually switch up our dress, vibe, minor things to create more of that similarity with clients, and most other audiences. But never at the risk of authenticity, dignity, personal comfort level.
10. If they aren’t critical to our goals, ignore the one ‘jerk’ in every audience scowling at us, arms crossed. Don’t believe whatever message we think they are sending, and the rotten attitude probably has nothing to do with us anyway. Give all our focus and energy to the people who matter and the vast majority of good people who will give us a fair shot.
11. Address “the other side” and likely objections. We do this in court because we must, but it also matters in client pitches, industry talks, most any other speaking. Volunteering a perspective against our interest boosts credibility. It also enables us to control the narrative and have a chance to refute opposing views. This is far better than leaving any gap or open question, which is almost always decided against a speaker’s interest. Finally, an objection not addressed is an objection not overcome.
12. Transition more sharply than in writing. A presentation is not an essay; for example, there are no paragraph indentations. Over clear transitions are therefore critical to help an audience follow along. There’s a bonus too: sharp transitions wake the audience up. When they can tell we are moving on, most who hated our first idea will tune back in for a minute to see our next trick. Maybe we get them back!
13. All settings will neither allow nor warrant it, but we should strive to be unique where possible, like at industry or community events. Audiences are bored and distracted before we even begin. If something has been done or heard a gazillion times, we shouldn’t bother. None of us are entirely novel and most topics aren’t either, but with some effort the thrust, angle, style can be.
14. In the end, the end matters. How we conclude a presentation may determine our success, and whether we will be remembered and if so, for what. More than content matters. Maintain energy until the last word, the conviction in our client’s position, the passion for our topic. This final display of confidence can seal the matter in our favor. Conversely, no matter what happened or how we feel, never slink off defeated unless we are trying to be remembered as a Slinky.