Five Tips to Be a Better Speaker in the Virtual Courtroom
Updated: Jul 7, 2021
The scene is a conference room at a law firm, but it looks like a newsroom is set up at one end of it. There's professional lighting, a podium, a flip chart, and two cameras on tripods. We're getting ready to practice the opening statement for an upcoming virtual jury trial, and I'm pondering which of the challenges from the last virtual jury trial will repeat itself.
Thinking through the last trial and the dozens of remote participant focus groups and mock jury research exercises we have conducted since the world changed a year ago, I am quick to recognize that this attorney is most likely going to struggle to look at the camera. I quickly access my mental catalogue of techniques I can use to help the lawyer stay focused on the lens when not referencing their notes or the screen showing the PowerPoint slide.
We start, and as it turns out, I anticipated the wrong challenge. The struggle this morning will be switching eye contact from one camera to the next when transitioning from the podium to the flip chart. With a bit of feedback and practice, our attorney looked ready to go into broadcast work. I was impressed at just how quickly they improved.
And then, it happened. Rather than staying focused on the computer camera, the lawyer started speaking to the others in the conference room. The problem is, they are not the audience. The audience is on the other end of cyberspace looking at a video feed of the presentation. And from that viewpoint, our attorney has just gone from captivating to distracting. What's going on?
Our lawyer fell into an old habit that works very well when persuading a live audience but is ineffective in a remote environment. They were persuading others in the room instead of the jury and judge behind the camera. This innate tendency to make eye contact with other people in your physical presence is powerful.
"I didn't realize how reliant I had become on non-verbal feedback when speaking," our attorney commented. As it turns out, one of the challenges of a virtual courtroom presentation that has any length to it is the amount of steady time presenting to a lens without nonverbal feedback from your audience. Regardless, after an hour or so, our lawyer could have gone on air in any television studio in the country. One thing that never changes is that skills are improved by practice and feedback.
A few days ago, I told one of my clients that I enjoyed observing the first virtual trial in Portland, Oregon. They followed up with the question, "What are the most important tips you'd give to someone making a remote presentation, whether it's just an appearance to a judge or a full-blown, remote trial?” The following are the top 5 tips for performing your best when presenting in a remote environment.
1. TALK TO THE AUDIENCE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE LENS
It is essential to speak to the camera lens at eye level in a remote environment. But without human beings to speak to, the speaker can break contact with the lens or just come off flat. Imagine your audience (i.e., a judge, jury, mediator, arbitrator) watching you behind the lens to speak to them even though you are looking at a camera lens.
2. MAKE YOUR EYE CONTACT AND BODY MOVEMENT DELIBERATE
When you are not speaking, make your eye contact and body movement deliberate. Look at the screen when others are speaking. Look down at your notes. Reference another screen. The key here is not to exhibit behavior where the audience stops to wonder, "what the heck is that attorney doing?" The most typical distractions are looking at yourself on a minimized screen or looking out the window on a beautiful day, but there are many others depending on the situation.
3. HAVE THE RIGHT GEAR
Make sure you have a good camera, microphone, and broadband internet. Your audience will be seeing your face and upper body better than they would in a live trial. With this in mind, a substandard camera can have a direct effect on your appearance. If you like your computer but not the camera that came with it, buy an external USB camera; most are relatively inexpensive. The same goes for your voice. It only sounds as good as your microphone. Consider buying a USB microphone if the one you have makes you sound like you are on AM radio. Finally, make sure you have the minimum bandwidth to prevent skipping or freezing while you are presenting. Best practice is to plug directly into a hard line and skip the Wi-Fi altogether. If you are going to be in a virtual event that will go for days at a time, I highly recommend getting trial technology assistance.
4. SPEAK INSTEAD OF TALKING
One of the challenges of speaking to a microphone and lens in front of a screen is the tendency to communicate like you are having a conversation with a colleague in your office. In this situation, you are talking instead of speaking. While this is appropriate in some situations, it certainly is not when persuasion is your objective, such as making a motion to the Court or making your opening statement to an Arbitrator, the Bench, or a Jury. The timbre of your voice needs enough volume to have dynamism (i.e., a speaking rate with peaks, valleys, pauses, etc.). Dynamism in a presentation increases your chances of being compelling to your audience. It is difficult to project your voice correctly if you do not stand at a standing desk or sit with good posture so your lungs can get the air needed to project deep, rich speaking tones.
5. LOOK PREPARED
After a year of working from home many of us have formed new habits. One of these habits is dressing casually and doing Zoom calls wherever makes most practical sense in your house. This phenomenon was highlighted recently when a judge took an attorney to task during a virtual presentation, telling the lawyer, "at least have a tie on." It's harder to persuade your audience when they see you sitting on your bed in sweats. At best, you look aloof and unprepared. Make sure the wall behind you is appropriate or at least neutral and dress for Court. There is some more specific, excellent advice regarding this subject in point 4 of this article on remote depositions.
By talking to the audience on the other side of the lens, making your eye contact and body movement deliberate, having the right gear, speaking instead of talking, and dressing like you are in the courtroom, you will be in the best position to be a compelling and persuasive speaker in the remote courtroom.