When I was in law school, a 1L I knew was complaining about having to get up and do a mock oral argument. Someone pointed out to her that even outside of litigation, talking to people is one of the core functions of lawyers. She heatedly denied she would ever be in a situation where she would have to talk to people.
Even the most wet-behind-the-ears lawyer knows that this is not the case, and that much of our professional life will be spent talking to people face-to-face in both formal and informal settings. That means it is mission critical that you communicate in a way that makes people tune in.
It turns out that there is a real reason that people suffer from attention drift even when listening to great speakers: we can listen much, much faster than people can talk.
American English is typically spoken at roughly 183 words per minute, but we can listen and understand at up to 400 words per minute.
That is quite a difference. Because your listener has so much more capacity to listen then you do to talk, they’re having other conversations in the back of their mind at the same time. How do you make sure not to lose their attention? Anyone who ever did one of those mock arguments back in the day has probably heard this piece of advice: drop your filler words. They’re distracting to your listener, who is likely already fighting the distraction of their own head.
Another sure-fire way to lose someone’s attention is to talk at them instead of with them. If you don’t build in some form of interaction—even if it is a situation where you are delivering a talk, such as a CLE—your audience will wander off mentally.
Finally, we get to the one that lawyers are incredibly guilty of: too much jargon. Even when you’re talking to other lawyers who are perfectly familiar with your favorite technical terms, using all that jargon makes your communication far less clear and far less accessible.
None of these suggestions are all that surprising, but they are all things we should keep topmost in our mind when we’re communicating with everyone—the court, our colleagues, our clients. Everyone benefits from clearer communication.