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The Advantage Blog

  • Christopher J. Dominic


Updated: Aug 9, 2021

For a spoken word version visit The Advantage by Tsongas podcast.

As a Trial Consultant working with lawyers and people in the litigation field across the country, I’ve noticed over the years that one of the “elephants in the room” is that when it comes to speech making, we could stand to practice more. Speaking, like writing, is a skill improved by performance and feedback. So why do so many experienced trial lawyers, time after time, show up to deliver an opening statement that sounds like it was put together the night before? Sure, some of them, maybe many of them, were actually put together the night before but, why? We could say, “Lawyers are busy,” but the “busy” excuse translated, really means, “something else was more important to me, so I prioritized that.” If we presume the attorney wants to perform at his or her best and/or the client will pay for the time to make a speech better, it seems like the reason for this has to be something else.

In full disclosure, I am a speech geek. I have seen many speeches that were so good you could feel the temperature in the room change. You could easily observe and feel the judge, jury, and gallery being moved.

A good speech can make my day, and a bad speech can sour a couple of them.

The “practice makes perfect” adage doesn’t just apply to the opening statement. Attorneys should put in considerable rehearsal time for any litigation related “speech” – closing argument, motion practice, voir dire, etc. And don’t think that a bench trial or arbitration doesn’t deserve the same amount of polish as a jury trial. Just because a judge or arbitrator has legal training doesn’t mean they want to hear someone talk instead of speak. The distinction between “talking” and “speaking” is important. When you are speaking you are performing an art and leveraging the power behind the science of public speaking. When you are just talking you are just, well. . .talking.

Before your next speech, challenge yourself to prepare beyond your typical practice. Implement one (or more) of the tips below to step your game up a notch.

Best Practices for Improving Tone & Delivery

  1. Think of yourself as a professional speaker. As I write this, the 2017 Major League Baseball World Series is tied 2-2. My impetus for this article was thinking last night watching the game, “Does Jose Altuve just think about the mechanics behind his glorious swing? Quite to the contrary. He has taken thousands of cuts and received professional feedback from a hitting coach with the aid of video technology. Would Clayton Kershaw be able to deliver that ridiculous curve ball by just giving it some thought? No. He practices. And practices. And practices.

  2. Practice speaking as you would to your audience. Do not just think of your speech in your head. Do not just write words on paper. Don’t just type an outline. Practice out loud. Exercise your lungs, your vocal cords, and your tongue. Stand up in front of a mirror, your spouse, or your cat. It doesn’t matter if they listen, just practice out loud.

  3. Ask for feedback. Depending on budget, time constraints, and the importance of your speech, ask for feedback from a professional, your co-workers, or your friends. A professional speech coach can improve your speech in the same way a professional hitting coach can improve Altuve’s swing. But if the budget isn’t there, your co-workers or friends may be able to offer good feedback as to how credible you look and sound, and if your intended message is getting across. One caution though, feedback on content from people who are different from your intended audience should be taken with a grain of salt – sometimes a pound.

  4. Videotape yourself. I know, I know. The thought of videotaping yourself sends chills up most people’s spines. But the payoff is very high. When you watch yourself on video, you will see yourself as your audience does. You will notice that your hands are fixed behind your back. You will notice that you are randomly pacing. You’ll hear the overuse of “ums “and “ahs.” Just becoming aware of these things is the first step to improvement. You don’t need a fancy video camera. Your smart phone, tablet, or laptop will do just fine.

Using these four tips should make you a better speaker, improve your clients’ satisfaction with your performance, and keep the speech gods happy.

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