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Public Speaking

Leaving them Speechless When You Give a Speech

By Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Standing next to a projector in your best Sunday suit and speaking to a crowd through a microphone doesn’t necessarily make you an effective public speaker. We’ve all suffered through presentations that should never have made the big time. And we’ve all walked away from one muttering about how the speaker not only failed to entrance but, frankly, didn’t seem to have a clue. Clearly, we weren’t ever going to call that speaker for advice.

Speaking engagements, while part of every short list of business development activities, can work against you just as easily as they can help develop leads for new business. Getting the invitation to speak—to a trade group, a board of directors or chamber of commerce—is the easy part. It’s what you do with the invite that counts. Your goal? Make sure everyone in the audience knows you are knowledgeable about your subject, and walk away with business cards and phone numbers from people who have more questions for you.

Yes, Your Goal is to Impress Them

With a little advance thought (and don’t you dare give a speech without advance thought!), it’s fairly simple to put a speech together with information that represents you and your firm well. But it’s how you present that information—and yourself—that will draw new business. And that might take some practice.

  1. How do you look? Wear something comfortable that makes you feel like a million bucks. Clean, pressed and all shined up. While dark colors look professional, the addition of a little something really bright near your face keeps everyone’s eyes on you. A tie, scarf, jacket or necklace in a bright and flattering color will make everyone feel good. Even you. Comb your hair, brush your teeth, fix your lipstick. People will be staring at you for an hour with nothing better to do than pick apart your grooming.Head them off at the pass.
  2. How do your slides look? Hopefully they are clean, simple, crisp and thought-provoking. Lots of visuals, very few words. Use this background to add punch to your ideas, but please don’t use slides that merely repeat the words you are saying. Or vice versa. If people wanted to read a book, they could stay home. Instead, challenge yourself to do your entire presentation with slides containing only photos. No words. People will hang on your words to explain the mystery of what you are showing them instead of reading ahead and losing interest.
  3. How do you sound? You should sound like you know what you’re talking about. If you don’t, rehearse until you do. Speak at a regular pace. Use pauses for emphasis or to allow people to catch up with you. Let the suspense build when appropriate. Smile when you speak, it improves your tone and it makes you look good. If people say they can’t hear you, it may be a sign that you need a little voice coaching to learn to project from the gut instead of from just behind your back teeth. And, yes, use a microphone, even if it seems pompous. It’s what professionals do. No one will know how wonderful you are if they can’t hear you. And on the subject of things you may feel embarrassed about? Yes, do stand up.
  4. Tell stories. You know it’s wrong to just say, “Hey, folks, I’m really great at what I do!” So how do you demonstrate your competence and experience? Tell stories about cases you have been involved with, clients you have helped, anything that will expand the points you are making in your speech while illustrating that you are successful, busy and well connected. Worried about confidentiality? Get over yourself! There are ways to tell stories without identifying names and details.
  5. How will they remember you? Your last slide should simply be your name and contact information. Leave it up there for the duration so people can write it down. In addition, provide something they can take away with them besides the requisite speaker handout—the more useful and intriguing, the better. A checklist, board game, questionnaire. Think viral. If it’s an amazing and relevant tool or document, they will want to share it with others so give them the link to your website or download.

Most importantly, love what you’re doing and believe what you’re saying! It will show. And they’ll love you right back.

Merrilyn Astin Tarlton has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, President of the College of Law Practice Management and an LMA Hall of Fame inductee. She blogs about innovation at

Categories: Business Development, Communications Skills, Daily Dispatch
Originally published November 2, 2011
Last updated May 5, 2018
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Merrilyn Astin Tarlton Merrilyn Astin Tarlton

Merrilyn is the author of “Getting Clients: For Lawyers Starting Out or Starting Over.” She has been helping lawyers and law firms think differently about the business of practicing law since 1984. She is a founding member of the Legal Marketing Association, an LMA Hall of Fame inductee, and a past President of the College of Law Practice Management. Merrilyn was a founding partner of Attorney at Work. 

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