Lawyers aren’t simply born public speakers. If you want to be good at it, or even okay at it, you need to practice.
There are countless resources available to help you cope with public speaking issues. My best advice is elementary: you have to do it. You have to find places to speak publicly. At a party, do not just politely nod at everyone. Jump in with a story.
If you want to get more serious, try joining a local Toastmasters group. You will end up getting total strangers to listen to you.
Here are the best practices I can offer on giving a good CLE.
Never Tell Your Audience Why You Will Suck
If you are nervous, the audience will figure it out. If you are unprepared, they will figure that out as well. Do not take up your valuable speaking time offering a useless disclaimer about why, ultimately, the CLE was not a priority for you. Each one of these pre-excuses is an attempt to tell your audience they were not important enough for you to adequately prepare for.
Is Now a Good Time for a Joke?
A priest, a rabbi, and a cowboy walk into a bar . . . .
How is this joke going to help you? It won’t. Even if you run it by all of your friends who are priests, rabbis, and cowboys. Telling a joke at the beginning of any CLE is a time-honored tradition. But that does not mean it is a good tradition. Jokes are destined to offend at least some portion of your audience. If you are going to say something funny, it should not be from a book. Instead, tell a true and humorous story about your practice that relates to your CLE.
If you must use something canned, try a trivia question you have researched that is marginally related to your topic. It can involve the audience.
Face the Audience
If you are using a slideshow, and most CLE speakers do, your laptop should be in front with the screen facing towards you. The screen that the audience sees is behind you. If you are turning back and forth between the screen and the audience, you are more difficult to hear. Control your slideshow with a remote if possible.
If the audience cannot hear you, it makes no difference how brilliant your CLE presentation is. You must speak loudly so the audience in the back of the room can hear everything you say.
Some CLEs require microphones. Maybe the CLE is being streamed or even recorded for later playback and a microphone is essential. But if it isn’t, a microphone can counterintuitively make it so you don’t speak loud enough.
You need to throw your voice just like you are throwing a ball to someone. If they are right next to you, you do not need to throw very far. If they are across the room, you may need to throw the ball as hard as you can. If you are focusing on making sure your voice is loud enough for the back row, you will instinctively speak louder. A microphone may give you the false sense that your voice is carrying far enough.
Check your volume frequently. Make frequent eye contact with audience members in the back row to make sure you do not lower your voice as the CLE progresses. If the back row cannot hear you, they will either lose interest or give you a signal asking you to talk louder.
Do Not Read Slides
Watching a speaker read a slideshow verbatim is painful, especially at the beginning of a CLE. The literacy rate for lawyers is pretty much off the charts. Do not read slides to your audience.
As the speaker, your slides should merely be a launching point for what you want to say.
For CLEs, do not get caught up in reading case names or statutes. If you need to refer to a statute, do not cite it in an oral Bluebook compliant fashion. Just say, “the statute on the screen,” or “that statute” while pointing at the screen.
Likewise, do not give a full cite to a case.1 If you must refer to the case by name, just name the parties. It is also okay to say, “The state Supreme Court ruled in the Dillinger case that…”.
Always Repeat Questions
Remember how I mentioned that you have to throw your voice to the back row of the audience? The same is true of an audience member that asks a question.
If you see a hand go up, grab your water, and walk away from the questioner while staying in front of the audience. You should then call on the person asking the question. They will be forced to throw their voice to where you are. They’ll have to speak up. More of the room will hear the question the first time.
After the question is completed, you should repeat it. If it was long, you should summarize what you think they were asking. When you do this summary, look at the back of the room; do not look at the questioner. Once you are done with the summary, clarify that you summarized correctly.
Try to Be Standing
It is rare to see a speaker not stand, unless the CLE is done in a panel format with multiple speakers.
For long CLEs, I have sporadically used a stool. But a regular chair is a terrible idea for long periods. It nullifies your ability to make eye contact with many of the people in the room. You are not tall enough to be seen.
### Use the Stage
If you want your audience to stay awake while you present, make them move. Occasionally move from one side of the stage (or front of the room) to the other. Your attendees will be forced to turn their heads slightly. They may even shift in their seats. Anything that makes attendees move is a good way to keep the audience engaged.
Always Take Questions (with a Caveat)
I have always found that questions work much better during a CLE, instead of at the end, when the question may relate to something said an hour ago. There are many positives to taking questions during a CLE.
- The crowd hears a different voice, breaking up the vocal monotony.
- A question probably means your audience is paying attention.
- The question might be asked because something you said was not clear. This helps you clarify that point.
- It tells the audience that they should feel active in your CLE.
But not all questions help. Some can derail a well-planned one-hour seminar. You have to be able to recognize when you can afford a time-sink question and when you cannot.
If you are running short on content, and you know that you will have twenty minutes of dead air at the end of the CLE, you may welcome any question. The best questions are ones that will clarify an earlier point or add to what you have already said.
There are three types of questions you should avoid:
- The irrelevant question. You can tell when the question starts that doesn’t relate to your CLE topic. Try to end this conversation as quickly as you can.
- A question you know you will address later in your presentation. This is probably the most common type of unwelcome question. An easy way to address this is by saying, “I’ll be talking about that later in the hour. If I don’t answer your question then, please remind me.”
- The hyper-technical question. If you are giving an introductory CLE on Real Estate Closings and someone asks about a rigid technical and tiny detail which affects less than 1% of all real estate closings, try something like this. “That’s a good question, but it’s very rarely applicable. To answer your question, yes, you’re right, that statute applies. I’d be happy to dive into that with you more about it after the CLE.”
Something will Go Wrong. Move On
Do not let something small, or even something big, throw you off.2 If you trip over your words or seem to be stammering, just pause. Take a drink and restart. Do not let your preparation be lost because of some glitch or even because of some major unforeseen problem.
If possible, think of a way to smile, laugh through it, and get to your main job: giving a killer presentation.
Featured image: “Rear view of male speaker on the podium.” from Shutterstock.
Especially bad, I saw a speaker give the state specific cite and the Northwest Reporter cite as well. ↩
I was out of town, staying with my uncle and giving a speech at 8:30 in the morning. As I got ready, the zipper on my pants broke. It was completely unfixable, despite my incredibly sad attempt to find the sewing kit in the house and suddenly know how to sew. There weren’t any stores open, and I had to get to the CLE. Was I panicked? Fully. All I had with me for clothes was the useless pair of suit pants, the basketball shorts I had from the drive up the day before, and pajama pants. After my first ever attempt at emergency sewing repair (and some blood being spilled), I ended up borrowing a pair of my uncle’s pants. He was slightly taller than I was, so I had to roll up the cuffs. The real bonus was I had a great opening line for my presentation. “Raise your hand if, like me, you’re wearing someone else’s pants today…” I then told the story. It was easily my best CLE opener ever, because it was sincere and obviously true (band-aids on two fingers and rolled up pants for proof). I now bring two sets of “speech clothes” to any out of town presentation. ↩