Daily Dispatch

Practice is for Professionals

Perfecting Your Presentation Skills

By | Oct.15.13 | Communicating, Daily Dispatch, Law Practice, Skills

presenter

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.

Marsha Hunter is a principal in Johnson & Hunter, Inc. She teaches attorneys how to speak persuasively and spontaneously. Her specialty is human factors — the science of human performance in high-stakes environments. Marsha teaches communication skills for the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, the Department of Justice and upper-echelon law firms. Follow her on LinkedIn and on Twitter @MarshaH.

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4 Responses to “Perfecting Your Presentation Skills”

  1. Mike O'Horo
    15 October 2013 at 2:31 pm #

    Great post. One possible reason lawyers are reluctant to prepare and practice is what’s known as a “fixed” mindset vs. a “growth” mindset.

    Mindset is a simple idea discovered by world-renowned Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck in decades of research on achievement and success—a simple idea that makes all the difference.
    In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They’re wrong.

    In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment. Virtually all great people have had these qualities.

    According to Dr. Larry Richard, lawyers score very low on resilience. I’ve asked him whether that correlates to either a fixed or growth mindset. He doesn’t have data to support it, but believes that, based on many factors he does have data to support, it’s likely that a high percentage of lawyers are predominantly of a “fixed” mindset. If true, that goes pretty far toward explaining their resistance to things like training or practice. To quote a famous sailor, “I yam what I yam.”

  2. Marsha Hunter
    16 October 2013 at 3:29 pm #

    Dear Mike,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. Brian Johnson and I have been aware of the research on resilience in lawyers, and feel it explains a great deal. Lawyers are trained to know things, and to dispense wisdom and knowledge. It can be a leap to admit there are some areas that need improving.

    Most of us can relate to the idea that we “know” certain things, or have certain innate skills. But to realize that “know” is different from “know-how” is key. In the law, the focus is on “knowing.” Getting attorneys to have fun “knowing how” to improve a skill, see real results, and enjoy the accomplishment is what learning is all about.

    Marsha


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