The success of any legal career depends, in no small part, on the ability to communicate arguments and ideas persuasively and with impact. Advocacy is crucial not only in court or arbitral proceedings, during negotiations around a deal table, or in communications with regulators, but also in a multiplicity of other areas, such as when delivering pitches or presentations, when having a difficult conversation with a client or when seeking to progress your own career in an appraisal or partnership process.
This article highlights five simple points to help practitioners improve on this important skill.
1. Practice your delivery
Save for very seasoned or natural speakers, most of us will need to put in the time to organise our thoughts and to practice our delivery. Even for familiar topics, it is still worth doing so. It is one thing to understand the material yourself, and quite another to present on them in a way that is clear, succinct, and impactful.
By practicing out loud, any problems with delivery should become apparent. Common issues include wordiness, taking too long to go through background and peripheral issues, losing focus on the crux of the matter, or having an unclear structure.
One or two practice runs should help identify any such issues, giving a chance to refine delivery, to make it tighter and more structured. Better yet, organise a mock run in front of colleagues and ask for feedback.
2. Know your topic; know your audience
There is no need to elaborate on the obvious importance of mastering your topic, and being prepared for counterarguments or questions.
What is also important, but easier forgotten, is to think about and cater the delivery to your audience. Ken Haemer, former AT&T presentation research manager, highlights the point in the context of presentations: “Designing a presentation without an audience in mind is like writing a love letter and addressing it: To Whom It May Concern.”
To make delivery relevant to the audience, you need to step into their shoes, to actively think about issues such as what they already know (or do not know) about the topic, why they should spend time listening to you, what they would be interested in or concerned about, and what questions they may have about the topic.
One technique to help focus delivery on the target audience is to put questions to yourself. For example:
- Why should the audience know about, or be interested in, this topic?
- What is the significance of this topic to the audience to whom I will present?
- How will the audience, or their practice or business, be impacted by what I am presenting on?
The aim is that at the end of the presentation, the audience should clearly understand the relevance of the materials, and should not be left wondering “so what?”
3. Let your personality shine through
Some speakers give the unfortunate impression that they wish they were elsewhere, doing anything other than speaking at that time. Some sound interested in their topic (even if the topic may be quite boring), and make the audience feel that they should be interested, too. You want to be the latter speaker.
One of the best tips on presentations I have heard given to juniors was: “Let your personality shine through – but don’t giggle.” Have a bit of flair and personality in the delivery. It is also vital to sound interested in your topic: if you are not interested, it will be difficult to persuade the audience to be interested.
When it comes to speaking about less interesting topics – and oftentimes the topics that lawyers need to talk about fall in this category – try to have something lighthearted to say provided the occasion permits. Granted, a lot of legal topics do not naturally lend themselves to jokes, but if you can manage to come up with some, it can help to capture the audience’s attention, or at least to wake them up.
4. Let your personality shine through… but keep your cool
Be excited, but be sure to keep your cool, especially if you are of a more passionate disposition. For instance, try not to shout expletives at the other side in a mediation: England and Wales Solicitors Disciplinary Tribunal, Case No. 11534-2016, judgment dated 19 June 2017, paragraph 39
5. Stories and anecdotes can work well
Last year, I noticed two different debating styles while listening to the Pence-Kaine US vice-presidential candidates debate: Mike Pence used more anecdotes, for instance talking about his police officer uncle to make a point about law enforcement; Tim Kaine spent more time laying out the policies. Leaving aside politics, I thought that Mike Pence was more eloquent.
For better or worse, humans, for the most part, naturally pay more attention to anecdotes than to plain statements of facts. In speeches, presentations, or debates, use stories and anecdotes to your advantage. Often, the most impactful and convincing anecdote is experience that is personal to you that you can share. Alternatively, borrow the experience of colleagues or others. You sound more convincing when you can say: “We have seen this, and we have handled it this way.”