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by Rob Sherman, Esq.
You've undoubtedly seen brilliant attorney-speakers at conventions, CLE programs, conferences, and even staff meetings. From the moment these people rise from their seat to approach the podium, they have their audience mesmerized and hanging on their every word.
By the same account, you've also experienced those painfully inadequate speakers who bury their eyes in their text as they read their speech. Within minutes they leave their audience half asleep, looking at their watches as time slowly passes by.
What makes one individual a gifted speaker and the other a dreaded bore? How can intelligent-often brilliant-legal minds who are able to communicate effectively one on one fall flat when speaking to groups? More important, are these attorneys who lack presentation skills reaching their fullest potential when they fail to take advantage of these opportunities to demonstrate their leadership?
Even if you currently consider yourself a good presenter, there are steps you can take to increase your presentation skills and strengthen your leadership potential. The fact is that the moment you rise to speak, you assume a leadership position. It doesn't matter if you are standing before two, 2,000, or 20,000 people; your goal is the same. You want your essence of leadership to move others to action, to persuade, and to inspire change.
Every day you have opportunities to make "presentations" that demonstrate your leadership abilities. You are involved in client, staff, and attorney meetings, as well as board presentations. You present to judges and juries on a variety of matters. You appear before administrative agencies and legislative bodies. Competition demands that you also present to outside groups such as service and professional organizations. Some attorneys are instructing in colleges and other educational institutions. In essence, you are constantly "selling" yourself, your firm, or other organization in which you are associated.
Despite the fact that effective communication is a key component of success, few attorneys have received formal training in this area. Instead, they learn by taking a few advocacy classes in law school, from watching others, and hopefully, from their mistakes. The following ten presentation skills are what the best attorney-speakers live by. Implement these techniques during your next presentation and you will not only set yourself apart from the crowd, but you will also gain the leadership recognition you deserve.
1. RECOGNIZE THAT SPEAKING IS AN ACQUIRED SKILL
Were your law skills perfected after your first day in practice? Are the greatest sports figures the ones fresh out of high school? Can a musician perfectly play a concerto after one lesson? Of course not. Why then do so many attorneys believe that speaking before groups is easy and does not take any additional training or skill development? Just like any other learned skill, becoming an effective presenter takes practice.
Effective speakers learn how to present in the same way they learn the tools needed to practice law-they study and practice to perfect their craft. The greatest speakers rehearse their presentations again and again until they can practically give their speeches in their sleep! Many practice it so many times they actually have it memorized, although that was not their original goal. Speaking effectively, whether formally or informally, requires a commitment to learning and the dedication to practice.
2. ADEQUATELY PREPARE FOR EACH PRESENTATION
Before you begin any presentation, you must know what your ultimate goal is. Do you want to inform people? Entertain them? Change their attitude? Motivate or inspire them? Whatever your objective, you need to fine-tune it before you reach the podium to speak.
While this may sound like common sense, it is amazing how many attorneys will make presentations without adequate preparation. These same people will spend months-even years-preparing a legal case, but little time preparing a presentation. As a result, they give rambling, disorganized presentations with little thought about purpose. These amazingly bright individuals end up losing an incredible opportunity to demonstrate their leadership skills in a way that can immediately increase their credibility.
Remember the phrase, "Always begin with the end in mind." If you can't figure out why your audience should care about the point you are making, they won't be able to benefit from your message. Define your objective before each presentation.
3. START WITH A BANG
In any presentation, the first 30 seconds are the "make or break" time. Unfortunately, many presenters begin with a polite, "Thank you very much for that kind introduction." They may even begin with an irrelevant joke, a comment about the weather, or an apology about a late plane arrival. While weak beginnings like these are tempting, they are also missed opportunities to capture your listeners' attention and demonstrate that your information will bring them real value.
Instead of starting slowly, consider beginning with a provocative statement, a rhetorical question, a surprising fact, an interesting quote, a news headline, or a story related to your topic. Humor is also an excellent way to enhance a presentation if it is relevant to your message. Whatever you decide to begin with, be sure it directly relates to your purpose and that it is a powerful statement that demands the audience's full attention.
4. USE YOUR OWN STORIES
Any concept is easier to understand if it is punctuated by your own experiences. Your personal stories are especially powerful if they reveal your human frailties and weaknesses. Professional speakers know that what they've learned from life's lessons will help them bond with the audience. Novice speakers tend to use quotes from great leaders such as Winston Churchill, or they relate a story from a well-known book. While it is a good idea to weave in brief quotes or short stories from other sources, you must illustrate your most profound thoughts from your own actual life experiences.
A personal story from your own experience helps you connect with an audience and illustrates facts better than any other presentation tool. Be sure to keep your stories short so your audience doesn't miss the point. Also, tie every story to your presentation's theme. If you don't think you have any interesting personal stories to tell, then you aren't looking deeply enough. Everyone has remarkable stories that are there for the telling.
5. SPEAK IN YOUR NATURAL SPEAKING STYLE
One of the most widely accepted myths of public speaking is that a speaker must take on a different persona while on the platform. However, when you think of the speakers whom you most admire, you'll find that many of them do not have "professional" speaking voices. Instead, they speak naturally and conversationally.
If you think you must dramatically change your style when standing before a group, you are making a serious error that will perpetuate your speaking career. After all, if you have to transform yourself on the platform, how can you possibly relax and "be yourself?" Effective attorney-presenters adapt their own style to the platform and do not attempt a wholesale conversion of their personas. You cannot connect with an audience without authenticity, and your authenticity is lost when you aren't yourself.
6. ALWAYS "WORK" THE ROOM
When you speak to external groups, make it a point to "work the room." Don't arrive two minutes before your speech and leave immediately after it. Use the time before your presentation to mingle with the crowd and learn as much about them as you can. Discovering the needs, desires, and fears of your audience is essential if you are to "ring the bell" as a speaker. In most instances, your audience wants to meet you as well. Effective presenters give their audience this opportunity. Some speakers even personally interview two or three attendees in preparation for a program and then refer to those individuals during the presentation.
If you fail to take advantage of the time before your presentation, you have lost an opportunity to enhance your credibility with your listeners. Even if you are speaking at a firm function or a staff meeting where everyone already knows you, you should arrive early and greet those entering the door. By doing so, you help put your audience at ease and let them know that this topic is important to you and the firm.
7. USE SILENCE INSTEAD OF "FILLER" WORDS
We've all sat through a presentation counting the times the presenter has used extraneous "filler" words, such as "um," "you know," or "OK." Very often, the presenter is unaware of the distraction his or her nervous habit creates. Psychologists tell us that people use those "filler" words because they are afraid that if they stop talking-even for a moment-their listeners will leave the room. This, of course, is untrue. Luckily, there is way to eliminate these "fillers" from your presentations.
First, tape yourself giving a presentation. As you review the tape, take note of the number of times you use filler words. At your next practice session, tape yourself and make an effort to eliminate those words from your speech. Do this again and again until you have totally eliminated these annoyances. Strive to replace the filler words with silence. Your audience will appreciate the time to think about what you have to say.
8. USE AN OUTLINE RATHER THAN READ YOUR SPEECH
You can practice your presentation until it becomes second nature. You may even memorize your speech. However, there is one rule you must not break: Never, never read your speech. What glues so many presenters to the written text? Fear. They write out every word of their speech and then cling to it like children clutching a mother's skirt. They are nervous about losing their train of thought or "freezing" on the platform.
Great presenters have learned how to use "keywords" to jog their memory. After they write out their speech word for word, they make an outline based on the finished product. Finally, they create a keyword outline, choosing the right words that will remind them of the content at each point. These keywords prompt complete thoughts as they speak. When you know your material, a keyword outline is all you need. It only takes a second to glance down, look at the word, and then deliver the material from your heart.
9. SPEAK WITH PASSION
Powerful, memorable addresses are the result of the speaker's deep passion for his or her subject. The fact is that it is virtually impossible to inspire others if you are not personally committed to your topic. Always speak on a subject that excites you; otherwise, it will be difficult to get your audience to do something as a result of your presentation. Whatever you want them to do, there is a better chance they will do it if you show that you are passionate about your subject.
Remember, every audience is a jury, and they are voting up or down on your effectiveness. When you speak with passion, you can connect with your listeners and make them feel as strongly as you do about the topic. An added benefit is that your fears will dissipate when you are truly excited about your subject matter. Speak with passion and you will inspire others.
10. MAKE YOUR ENDING AS MEMORABLE AS YOUR BEGINNING
Like a great fireworks show, you save your best for last. Yes, you begin with great attention-getting material, but the "big bang" is for the finish. Unfortunately, most presentations end with a question and answer session. This is the equivalent of ending with a whimper.
Instead, tell the audience that you will take questions and then say, "We will move to our closing point." After the Q&A, tell your audience a story that ties in to your main theme. Another option is to summarize the points made during the presentation, or to conclude with a quote or call to action. Whatever you end with, make it memorable, just like the beginning.
The best attorney-speakers know that their presentation skills are directly related to their leadership potential. So whether you're a seasoned attorney or fresh out of law school, you'll advance your career faster if you can present your ideas to others with ease and confidence. Those who incorporate the above suggestions into their future presentations will soon find themselves at the top of the leadership ladder and at the pinnacle of their career.
Rob Sherman, Esq. is a practicing attorney, speaker, trainer, and author of Sherman's 21 Laws of Speaking: How to Inspire Others to Action, which was selected as Book of the Month for InterNet Services Corps, February 2001. Rob was a featured speaker at the recent Missouri Bar Solo and Small Firm Conference. He founded the Sherman Leadership Group based in Columbus, Ohio, and works with attorneys and business executives who want to take their speaking and leadership skills to a higher level. You can receive free presentation and negotiation tips twice a month by subscribing to Sherman's Executive Communicator at http://www.ShermanLeadership.com Contact Rob at Rob@ShermanLeadership.com
To purchase Rob Sherman's book for $14.95 plus $3 S/H, call toll free (877) 532-3372. by Rob Sherman, Esq.
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