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Stump Speech Dos and Don’ts

September 18, 2014

Lawyers give a lot talks to a variety of audiences, venues, durations, subject matter, number of listeners.  Audiences can include consumers, attorneys, other professionals; venues might be bar meetings, public groups in town libraries, hotels, rooms we reserve in restaurants; we may have 15 minutes on a panel or an hour and a half to go deep into a topic; and we may speak to six people in our conference or 600 at a major conference or convention.

Some of us are comfortable addressing crowds and others have insurmountable stage fright. Others may be comfortable speaking to consumers but not to a group of their peers. Yet they may not be able to turn their consumer talks into paying business.

And some of us are natural story tellers and others need to work hard on their speaking skills. But whatever our experience and skills, we can all improve. We can do better at tailoring our talks to the venue and audience, connecting with the audience, maintaining their attention, conveying our message, and converting audience members into clients or referral sources.

I recently joined a group of professionals who are meeting once a month to improve our speaking skills. As part of the first meeting I attended (the second for the group), we were each given two minutes to get up and address a topic we know well. Then the group commented on how we did, with the goal of providing constructive criticism on our delivery rather than the content: volume, cadence, eye contact, what we did with our hands, how we stood, speed, connection with our audience.

It was difficult to think about all of these issues as well as the topic and the available time. We all felt vulnerable up in front of the others, opening ourselves to comments in a way that’s rare for adults. But all (except for one participant) were there with a sincere desire to improve our speaking ability. (One member of the group felt he was a great speaker, but just needs more and better speaking opportunities.)

I had not known ahead of time that these practice talks would be part of the meeting, so my only preparation was to think about my talk while waiting my turn to speak (fortunately, I wasn’t first – or last). Some of the comments I received reflected my lack of preparation. The group thought I started well but soon lost my connection with them as in effect I went into myself trying to think through what I would say as I said it. They also said that while I started by talking about clients in a way that drew them in, I then got to heavily into the law and more abstract considerations and their minds started wandering.

The leader of our group, a very experienced speaker who still sees room for improvement, suggested the following guidelines for preparation:

Worst:                  No preparation.

Bad:                  Reading from a script.

Best:                  Writing a script, practicing it, discarding it.

Fortunately, the script doesn’t have to be long for a two-minute talk. Neither do the practice sessions. After we’ve honed our two-minute presentations, we will work on five-minute and 15-minute talks.

At my second meeting, when I did have the opportunity to prepare, I did better, but still had trouble integrating a story about a typical client situation with the message about long-term care planning I hoped to convey. This will clearly take considerably more work both on scripting the message and practicing my delivery.

Over the years, I’ve attended a number of workshops on speaking and especially remember significant “take aways” from two presenters. The first showed tapes of successful speeches from the early and the late 20th century. The speakers almost 100 years ago declaimed weighty pronouncements in stentorian tones. The more modern speakers spoke in a more conversational style directly to members of the audience.

The other presenter from many years ago made the case that audience size doesn’t matter. While you will make an impression on more people if you are speaking to 60 or 600 listeners, if you only have six in the room you will be able to make a stronger connection with them.

The bottom line is that like anything else we do, the more we work on it and the more we practice, the better we will perform as speakers. And let’s all speak with conviction. Check out the following video to see what I’m talking about:

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