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The Advantage Blog

  • Christopher J. Dominic


I was standing around a table with some lawyers after a CLE I had just spoken at where I had (apparently provocatively) stated, “Delivery is not the little sister of content in persuasive speaking, she’s the twin sister. In the litigation community these days delivery is jealous of her sister because content gets so much more attention!” When I was a Graduate Teaching Associate, one of our lesson plans was to have the Speech and Communication 101 student evaluate the persuasiveness of four different versions of the same speech. The versions were:

  1. Good delivery, bad content

  2. Good delivery, good content

  3. Bad delivery, good content

  4. Bad delivery, bad content

I suspect you would not be surprised to learn that after years of this lesson plan and hundreds of student evaluations, that “good delivery, good content” was found to be the most compelling and persuasive speech. What is perhaps surprising, is that the “good delivery, bad content” version of the speech received more positive evaluations that you would think. I had the pleasure of being the “good delivery, bad content” speaker. I can personally attest that the structure and content of the speech was utter garbage, but the delivery was highly entertaining and contained every credible nonverbal delivery cue I knew. And it worked. About 1/3 of the students who evaluated the speeches were moved purely by the delivery—seemingly unbothered by the empty rhetoric and factually incorrect data. While this fact disappoints many, it is one of the reasons why delivery is a factor in persuasion.

But, back to the table of attorneys. . .

One of the attorneys, we’ll call him Chad, commented enthusiastically to the lawyer next to me, Matt, that he had seen Matt’s most recent voir dire and opening statement in trial, and while he had always thought Matt was a good lawyer, he thought he had taken his craft to a “new level.” Matt looked pleasantly surprised and said, “Thanks Chad, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.” Chad smiled coyly, “It’s definitely the nicest thing I’ve ever said to you Matt.” Chad’s facial expression transitioned to a more serious appearance, “Seriously Matt, is there some special secret here?”

MATT: No secret—just practice and feedback.

CHAD: You practiced voir dire?

MATT: Not on this case, but I have before. On this case, our trial consultants worked with me on a few delivery techniques to be able to get more out of jurors. I learned how to use vocal tone and body language in a deliberate way to get more control over the communication coming from prospective jurors who aren’t talking as much and to politely shut down people who start dominating.

CHAD: What about the opening?

MATT: I’ve got a new philosophy on opening. I’m now convinced that the best chance we have at a competitive advantage from the opening statement involves delivering a presentation that initially captivates the fact finder and doesn’t require them to work hard to understand and remember our persuasive message. So it’s now a more intensive project that gets developed in iterations over several weeks instead of a few days.

CHAD: Did you practice in front of others?

MATT: I did it alone at first, and then I did it in front of our trial consultants and got feedback. We did it a few more times after that to implement the feedback—sharpen delivery, develop the demonstrative exhibits, that sort of thing.

CHAD: Are you memorizing lines?

MATT: Oh no, just extemporaneous from my notes on the lectern, but I find that after putting in the time, I don’t need to look at the notes or the screen very often. In state court I like to move and find myself passing by the lectern every once in a while just to make sure I’m not forgetting something.

CHAD: I thought you were very natural. . . . I don’t spend enough time on delivery.

MATT: How much time do you spend?

CHAD: (Smiling in a playfully, ashamed way)—Not enough.

Chad’s final comment really struck me. After reading my article “Not Even the Best Presenters Should Wing It,” I had several people say to me some paraphrased version of “I really don’t spend enough time on delivery.”

Presuming the vast majority of attorneys in litigation would like to be perceived as a good if not great speaker, I found it interesting just how often I heard this feedback. For the last several months, I’ve deliberately been asking litigators about how they see the role of delivery in speaking. What I’ve come to conclude in my casual discussions so far:

  1. Attorneys know clients value litigators for legal knowledge and experience as well as good written and spoken communication skills, but that many often don’t think of delivery as a skill at all.

  2. Others that also value delivery as a skill aren’t organized enough to get around to working on it. They are focused often on written deadlines and time for working on delivery comes later (i.e., submissions to the court are in on time, now I have the rest of tonight to work on the opening I have to do tomorrow).

  3. Many have had little education and training on speaking delivery. They may have experience speaking but so consistently do not get feedback on delivery that they don’t give it much thought and also do not improve.

  4. Some confuse delivery as a personal attribute rather than a talent and/or skill (i.e., you have it or you don’t).

  5. Some are embarrassed that they “aren’t more developed at this stage of their career,” and are essentially afraid of being discovered for the weak speaker they are.

So with this backdrop, how do we make delivery an equal partner with content when speaking?

  1. Start with the presumption that speaking effectiveness gets better with better delivery. To some extent, delivery is a talent, but everyone can improve delivery as a skill. All skills are improved through performance and feedback.

  2. If you are a litigator, speaking effectively is an essential competency of your job. Some of you research and write most of the day, but don’t formally speak very often. The trouble is, you don’t want to sound like someone who researches and writes all day, but doesn’t formally speak often when you go in front of the judge to make a motion.

  3. Change your perspective and build delivery into a part of your preparation. Stop thinking of it as a “nice to have.” If you think of working on your speaking delivery as a “nice to have,” you will be relying on luck to have the time you want to work on it.

  4. If courage is what you need, videotape yourself speaking with nobody else around until you can tell you are improving. This should help you get to the point where you can get feedback from others. If you can’t stand the way you look on tape, join the club. No pain no gain. A health analogy seems to work here—at some point, all of us have to hop on the scale if we want to lose weight. If you can’t build the courage to get on the scale, then you have to moderate your expectations for how fast or effective your improvement will be.

By making delivery an equal partner with content in your daily life, you improve as a lawyer. Implementing these four tips can help raise your persuasiveness to the next level.

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