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Practice is for Professionals

Perfecting Your Presentation Skills

By Marsha Hunter

There’s a misplaced belief among lawyers, one that many may hold as a self-evident “truth”: Rehearsing and practicing is for lily-livered, milksop fraidy-cats. Just last week I heard, yet again, this self-evaluation from an attorney at a CLE seminar: “I’m much better when I don’t prepare.”

Says who?

You are not the best judge of your own performance. Even if some members of your audience liked your presentation, or you won your case, it’s nearly impossible for you to be an accurate judge of you. Don’t fall prey to the widespread myth that your inner Socrates or Atticus Finch will emerge as you approach the dais to begin a presentation. I hear it all the time, or variations on it: “I want to be spontaneous, not stale or overrehearsed.”

If You’re Better When You Don’t Prepare, Your Standards Are Too Low

It’s obvious that many lawyers do not rehearse, either for trial or public presentations. I have two theories about that.

The first is that some sincerely believe they are already so good they can’t possibly get any better. “Practice? What’s that? Rehearsal is for losers.” These folks likely harbor deep-seated worries that they aren’t as good as they hope. I invite such attorneys to consider that everyone can improve — even the best among us.

My second theory is that plenty of hardworking lawyers aren’t sure how to rehearse, and so have an uneasy feeling or reluctance about it. It is, in fact, rigorous. It can be disappointing, discouraging and confusing. Why add more of that to a lawyer’s already long workday? It’s easier to blow it off, even unconsciously, than knuckle down to it.

Practice is for Professionals: Athletes, Musicians — and Lawyers

To overcome the reluctance, first consider how many of your favorite celebrities rehearse or train or practice. Athletes and musicians come to mind. They not only practice, they have coaches and master-teachers standing over them, making small corrections, encouraging them and pushing them farther. They practice many hours a day. You probably can’t give it hours, but you can carve out some time for it that will make a real difference.

Try these three steps to start:

1. Close the door to your office. Set a timer for 10 minutes.

2. Stand up — and stand still — and start talking out loud. Talk about your topic for 10 minutes, until the timer goes off.

3. Ask yourself, “How was that?” Jot down trigger words to help you remember what you liked. The stuff you didn’t like is just as valuable because you’ve heard the weaker ideas and weeded them out.

Repeat this process for as long as you can — an hour if you’re lucky. And then repeat it for as many days as you can manage, so your practice stretches over time. Repetition is key.

Being prepared, super-prepared and even over-prepared is a good thing. Top performers in every field, from athletes to musicians to astronauts, also use checklists and rituals to make sure they are at the top of their game when the pressure is on. To become the most articulate attorney you can be, ritualize your delivery.

Illustration ©

Categories: Communications Skills, Public Speaking
Originally published October 15, 2013
Last updated October 30, 2018
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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.

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