If you have been to more than one or two CLEs, you know that very few lawyers are great at public speaking.

I have given dozens of CLEs and presentations as a lawyer — over 1,000. I have given presentations I thought were great, and I have given presentations that bombed from the start. These are my tips for giving a presentation people remember for its positive qualities.

Pick a Unique Topic

An audience is more likely to show up and be enthused about attending your CLE if it isn’t a mundane topic. A unique topic produces an audience. If you are going to give a CLE, you want people to show up.

An overdone topic would be, “Hot Trends in Personal Injury Law.” This CLE sounds enticing, but it is not specific. A better choice would be, “Three New Areas of Personal Injury Law That Every Tort Lawyer Will Know In 5 Years.”

Instead of a “Beginner’s Guide to Writing a Will,” try something catchier like “Want a Good Will?  Here’s the 10 Point Checklist that Every Estate Planning Lawyer Uses.”

Prepare Your Presentation Materials

Hand in any written materials well in advance. This will give the CLE host time to submit your materials for accreditation before giving the presentation. This is especially important in the states where certain topics like ethics or elimination-of-bias credits are necessary. More lawyers will attend a presentation when the credit is already proved.

Your content should be direct, easy to follow, and current. Highlight key cases or recently enacted statutes so even veterans in the field will note something new. Write for people who do not know everything about your area of the law. In most CLEs, you will have audience members who do not know much about your topic. Make sure every acronym is spelled out and every key case is briefly explained. You want to keep all listeners tuned into your speech.

Create a Resource List

It is always good to have a purpose to your materials. Ideally, you will cite all the key cases in your practice area and address topics that are peripheral but interesting. If there is a law review article or a book that is helpful, cite it as well. If you can turn your presentation into a short manual, attendees will keep it, which could help create possible referrals in the future.

Advertise Your Speech

Post on LinkedIn about your upcoming presentation. Mention it on Facebook and Twitter. Tell people you work with and email others in your field. If you are going to present at a CLE, do what you can to make sure lawyers attend.

To Use, or Not Use, a Slideshow

Attendees almost expect a slideshow when they attend a CLE. Without it, they may think you forgot or were just too lazy to put one together. Nonetheless, you will find endless advice on the Internet on whether slideshows are the best or worst tool ever conceived for speeches.

If you decide to include a slideshow, use it as a guidepost. Like a river tour of Chicago architecture or a trip around Hollywood Celebrity homes, use the slides as the starting point for a conversation. This will help frame your topic and remind people where you are.

Make sure you also have redundancies of your file. If you have emailed the speech to the CLE host, assume they will lose it. Bring your laptop with the files you need on it. I have been to a few speeches where I was assured all I had to do was show up, but nothing was ready.

Practice Your Speech

Should you write out your speech entirely in advance?

No, because then you are more likely to just read it.

Should you memorize your speech?

No, because then you will spend most of your energy reciting instead of connecting with your audience.

Should you practice your speech?

Absolutely. Every time you create or revise your presentation, you should practice. You should know if parts of your presentation do not flow long before you are in front of an audience. You should work on what to say, how you want to say it, and what to leave out. But the most important thing for you to focus on is pacing. You need to know how long your presentation will go without an audience. With an audience, your presentation will likely go faster (because you will talk more rapidly) or go slower (if there is a lively discussion).

I like to plan my presentations in ten-minute blocks. I plan out an hour, for instance, and break it into six blocks. If I am near the end of my first planned block and there are three minutes remaining, I will tell a story that I was not sure I would have time for. If you fill time using ten-minute increments, it will be much less noticeable than filling fifteen minutes at the end of the hour.

Preparing Yourself for the Speech

How many times have you seen a presentation, whether it was a CLE or some other event, and you could tell that the speaker did not want to be there, was not prepared to be there, or had no idea what they were in for when they agreed to be there?

To adequately prepare for a presentation, you need to prioritize that event. If the presentation is not the most significant event in your day, you are doing it wrong. Here’s why:

I once gave a five-hour presentation analyzing a lease. One lease, line-by-line. The host asked me to do it, and I decided to try, knowing full well that the task was daunting. The audience was 120 landlords that are not exactly on my side as a tenant attorney. This presentation wasn’t just the most important event in my day; it was the most important event in my week — maybe even my month. 120 people were paying to listen to me talk for five hours. I handled 600 hours of that room’s time. Even if it is only thirty people for an hour, that still means that you are dictating what will happen for thirty hours belonging to the group. You owe your audience, at a minimum, preparation and quality effort.

Prepare Your Body

I firmly believe that your body will help you get amped up for your presentation. I think I’ve only canceled once because of illness. But I’ve been sick the day after presenting dozens of times.

Here’s a couple basic physical tips to get ready to present at a CLE:

  • Get enough sleep. We will assume that you have composed an excellent presentation and practiced it to the point that you know how long it will take. None of this will matter if you show up with two hours sleep when you normally get seven. Everybody uses different techniques to ensure they get a good night’s sleep, but do everything you can to be well-rested when you show up.

  • Eat right. I’m not going to tell you what to eat on the day of your presentation, or even the day before (I actually plan out my eating schedule for several days prior to a speech). But I will tell you what not to eat: something new. The day you present is not the time to find a new Internet recipe for a kale/calamari/pomegranate omelet that you’ve heard about. Only eat food your body is familiar with before presenting. The day of a speech is not the right time to start a new weight-loss diet. You want familiarity.

  • Wear something you have worn before. I think it is great if you want to get new clothes before you give a presentation, but you should wear the new outfit prior to presenting, so it feels comfortable and familiar. Shoes are a different matter. New shoes can take some real time to feel right. Try not to use this occasion as a good excuse to break in uncomfortable new footwear.

Right Before the Speech

Okay, so you have written and practiced a quality presentation. You aren’t wearing brand new shoes. Here is a quick checklist of what you need to cover the day you present, but before you actually start talking.

Know the Room

Some people will advise that you see a room the day before (or even earlier) to get a feel for how your presentation will work. If possible, that makes sense. But at least arrive early enough to spend a few minutes before you talk looking around the room. I always like to see the views (especially of the screen if there is a PowerPoint) from multiple seats.

Double-Check the Tech

Make sure the technology you are planning on using is functional. You shouldn’t do this during your speech. Check the tech before you are introduced. This is always easiest if you are the first (or only) speaker.

Know the Audience

If possible, look at the list of attendees before you go on stage. You may know someone in the audience who has insight into one aspect of your presentation. Talk to them before presenting to make sure it is alright to single them out for a question. I have had opposing counsel show up to a CLE I was presenting at. I did not change my content; I was just aware that they were there and “braced for impact.”

Bring Water

Never assume the CLE host will provide water or other beverages during your presentation. You need to have this in case your throat seizes up. I like to take a drink while listening to a question. This gives you an extra second or two to think through an answer before you speak.

Ramping up to the Presentation

If you ever turn on a big game before tip-off or kick-off, you will see footage of the locker room where the athletes either have headphones on and are isolated, or you will see the entire team working themselves up in a team huddle. In both cases, they are trying to get themselves ready for the event. Preparing to present at a CLE should be no different. You could attempt to have a team of people dance around in a huddle with you, but if that doesn’t work, I’ve known speakers who listen to loud music on headphones right before they start. Personally, I let my mind drift. I may be looking at the floor, but I am not focusing on anything. I manage to tune out the world briefly. Lots of people have different traditions they use to prepare. You need to figure out your own way to get excited about presenting.

Everything covered in this article should tell what to do in preparation for a presentation at a CLE. Next week, we will focus on best practices for delivering your presentation at a CLE.

Featured image: “business woman speaking at conference” from Shutterstock.

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