I love public speaking. But, like writing, I firmly believe that public speaking can be improved throughout one’s career. As a newer attorney, here are the areas that I continue to work on.
Most people speed up when they get in front of a crowd. For me, it’s a combination of nerves and enthusiasm. Younger attorneys, however, can be particularly susceptible to talking too fast.
First, we are generally well prepared when given the opportunity to present at a hearing or CLE. Preparation means that we can have a lot of material to get through and a lot to say. Moreover, if I’m giving an oral argument and a judge asks a question, I am elated when, halfway through the question, I realize that I have an answer. This elation, however, can result in a response that sounds like I channeled the micro machine man. I can get so eager to share that I forget to focus on the presentation aspect of the thing. And, finally, the need for speed may also be generational—younger folks generally tend to talk faster than the older folks.
This issue is exacerbated when I read from cold text. In a legal presentations, cold text rears its head constantly. In an oral argument, I may read a quote from a case. In a deposition, I may want to read a witness’s notes to them. Because I know that we all have a tendency to rush the reading, I now try to deliberately slow down when I hit cold text. Court reporters will thank you.
But what about when you’re not reading from cold text? I usually write SLOW DOWN across the top of my oral argument outline. I’m most prone to speed at the very beginning of a presentation before I settle into the rhythm of the thing. Reminding myself to slow down at the get go can help me hold my horses.
When I’m giving a presentation, it’s easy to stop paying attention to the room—this is a dangerous move. When I was clerking, I saw a young attorney give an incredibly boring and long oral presentation. The judge gave this young man several cues that he should wrap it up, but he was so focused on his presentation that he missed the cues. The judge also made a pretty good joke, but the gentleman was, again, so focused on his presentation, that he missed it and looked fairly humorless and out of touch as a result. Judges and witnesses and even CLE audiences give cues about presentations. A judge may nod or indicate with a waive of her hand that she is not concerned with a particular issue. Paying attention to these cues helps target and craft a presentation as its happening.
Admit what you don’t know
Sometimes questions will come out of left field. A judge may ask a question about the record that nobody has ever considered before. When this happens to me, I have a tendency to want to answer the question, but I don’t want to be dishonest, so I have made awkward sounding guesses: “Your honor, I believe that is likely the case, but the record is unclear.” This is a confusing answer. Later, I always wish I had just said, “The record doesn’t address this issue.”
My tendencies here can actually get me into trouble in almost every area of my life. The other day, I was having a conversation with a doctor. I mentioned that my husband taught at the University of Wisconsin—River Falls, and the doctor responded that a friend of hers taught there and had Aaron Schaffhausen in her class. I thought the name sounded vaguely familiar, but for the life of me could not place the name. When this happens, I usually assume the person must be a sports star (I know my Kim Kardashians, I do not know my Christian Ponders). So I said, “how wonderful.” The doctor looked at me and said, “not really—he pleaded guilty to killing his three daughters last July.” Oops. Once again a reminder that simply admitting I didn’t know who she was talking about would have prevented me from looking like a looney toon and a fake. A reminder to take the same approach in court as well–who wants that kind of blunder on a record?
All this isn’t to say that new attorneys are terrible presenters—we can be awesome. I just want to keep on getting better and, as a newer attorney, at least I have time on my side.
(image: microphone and out of focus public speaker from Shutterstock)