share TWEET PIN IT share share 0
Finish Your Sentences!

Better Presentations: How to Stop ‘Rough-Drafting’ and Learn to Speak with Precision

By Marsha Hunter

Why is it that so many lawyer presentations suffer from “hanging fragmentitis”? Here’s how to stop yourself from constantly editing, restarting and revising out loud.

Lawyer Presentation

When we speak, why do we so often fail to finish our sentences? Linguists must know the answer to this question, but I am at a loss. All I’m sure of is this: Lawyers find it difficult — often impossible — to finish sentences. They have some kind of built-in resistance to committing to a period. Commas, ellipses and random question marks — yes. Periods — no.

Here’s what I mean. A lawyer stands up to make a presentation to colleagues, an opening statement or a motion to a judge. She states her topic or theme, often (but far from always) in a single sentence. And then, she’s off to “The Land of the Never-Ending Sentence.” There isn’t a period to be heard for minutes on end:

“Mrs. X has been afraid for her life since the night her husband stabbed her with a kitchen knife.” (This is the complete sentence.) “Mr. X had threatened her on numerous occasions, and the police had been … uh … called to their residence more than once and in 2009 alone officers were called by … uh … by either a neighbor or the caretaker of the condos or even by Mr. X himself … uh … on one occasion, and so she has been scared and worried, especially for the … um … effect of the potential violence on her two young daughters, who she sent away to live with her … um … sister.”

And so on and on … and on.

Eventually, the story emerges from the thicket of verbal litter. Participles dangle, prepositional phrases attach themselves, as if by their own accord, to the beginnings of ideas or the end of a long-winded thought, serving only as a bridge to the next part of an excruciating, endless sentence.

Tangled in the verbal weed patch, like chattering language cicadas, is the cognitive wheel-spinning of habitual rephrasing:

“… who she sent away to live with her sister … who … uh … who she sent to a suburb of Boston … who she sent early … um … last year to live in a safer place … a less … a much less violent situation with her sister, because she was now … uh … even worried about a different type of … uh … abuse, verbal, physical … her older daughter reported … “

Grab Hold of Those Dangling Thoughts

We would never leave a written sentence unfinished. Why don’t we speak with the same care? Instead, we seem to be constantly editing, hitting the delete button, starting over, revising, and rough-drafting out loud. There is a fix for “hanging fragmentitis.” When you hear yourself starting sentences over, help yourself bring that sentence to an end by doing three things.

3 Tips on How to Make a Good Presentation

1. Resist tacking “and” onto the ends of your thoughts during presentations.

Do this with all your intellectual muscle. Speak in phrases, working your way through sentences with precision. This keeps your brain in sync with your mouth. We often listen to lawyers who speak so fast that they cannot monitor their speech in real-time. Their brain is way out ahead of their lips. As my Uncle Bobby Wayne of Alabama once observed of a talking head on TV, “I see he’s mashing his lips together, but I can’t make out a word he’s sayin’ — and I’m sure he don’t know, either.” “And” used to string meandering sentences together litters your speech with meaningless noise.

2. End sentences with downward inflection, walking down the musical steps of each sentence.

End sentences decisively, so listeners hear that the end is approaching. They need those inflective, musical cues to help organize your thoughts in their heads. If you are asking a rhetorical question, end with the upward inflection of curiosity. Walk your voice up the musical steps.

3. Pause briefly when your sentence ends.

You should hear silence. The silence that follows the downward inflection of an audible period gives listeners a moment to process what you have said. Silence gives you a moment to formulate the first word of the next sentence. Don’t worry that the pause will be too long — 99.9% of the time, these pauses are less than a second and still sufficient to let listeners know the sentence is over. Resist the urge to rush into the next sentence.

When making legal presentations, speak in deliberate phrases. That keeps your sentences on track and prevents you from excessive starts and stops. Trust that you can speak about your topic with articulate intelligence. You needn’t second-guess yourself and force listeners to endure your public editing. Sentence fragments wouldn’t do on paper. Don’t sprinkle them throughout your spoken presentations.

Don’t be a litterbug. Period.

Illustration ©

Categories: Communications Skills, Lawyer Skills, Public Speaking, You At Work
Originally published June 18, 2022
Last updated July 2, 2023
share TWEET PIN IT share share
Marsha Hunter 2020 Marsha Hunter

For more than 30 years, Marsha Hunter was the CEO and a founder of Johnson and Hunter, Inc., with legal clients in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Europe. Her clients were top ten and top twenty law firms, legal departments at the world’s largest corporations, the United States Department of Justice, and organizations and bar associations from Belfast to Tasmania. Marsha is co-author of “The Articulate Advocate” and “The Articulate Attorney,” her specialty is human factors — the science of human performance in high-stakes environments. Born in Montana and raised in the American West, she lives in New Mexico.

More Posts By This Author
MUST READ Articles for Law Firms Click to expand

Welcome to Attorney at Work!

Sign up for our free newsletter.


All fields are required. By signing up, you are opting in to Attorney at Work's free practice tips newsletter and occasional emails with news and offers. By using this service, you indicate that you agree to our Terms and Conditions and have read and understand our Privacy Policy.