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Advice from the Pros

Fear of Speaking? How to Banish Fear and Give an Applause-Worthy Speech

By Mary Ellen Sullivan

Yes, we can hear the jokes now. A lawyer who is afraid to speak is like a vegan at a steakhouse — not only rare (no pun intended) but also a bit laughable. But wait. To many a lawyer, fear of speaking is not funny, it is an unhappy reality. Some lawyers work behind the scenes precisely so they don’t have to talk. And some litigators shine in the courtroom but cringe at other types of public speaking. But somewhere along the way, everyone gets called on to speak. Now what? We contacted three speaking experts—highly sought out lawyers on the speaking circuit as well as a trainer of litigators—on how to once and for all banish fear and give an applause-worthy speech.

First: Shift the Paradigm and Forget About Yourself

According to Karen Lisko, PhD, senior litigation consultant at Persuasion Strategies, “Speakers need to understand that the speech is not about them. It is not about who they are or what they wear or how they look. An audience is basically narcissistic and wants to know how the speaker is going to solve their problem. Good speakers always ask themselves, ‘What do I need to do to teach the audience? What can I do to help them?’ This very simple shift in focus goes a long way in allaying fear and eliminating self consciousness.”

Plus, you have to remember, the audience does not want you to fail, says Tom Mighell, a speaker on the tech legal circuit and creator of a popular podcast series on the Legal Talk Network. “Know that they are on your side.”

Next: Plan, Prepare and Practice

For Mighell, nothing beats solid preparation. “I need to have my entire presentation laid out, know what is on every slide, and even plan my transitions between slides. Then I’ll run through it a number of times until it sounds like I am having a conversation, not giving a speech.”

Attorney John Tredennick, CEO of Catalyst Systems Repository and a former litigator at Holland & Hart LLP in Denver, found the best way to get over his fear, or lack of experience in speaking, was to practice everywhere and anywhere. “In my second year at Holland & Hart, I realized that I knew nothing about speaking, and it hit me that if I was ever going to succeed I needed to speak, and speak well.” Tredennick took every available opportunity to speak in public—Kiwanis Club, high school programs, NITA meetings, introductions for other speakers—to hone his skills.  “I was terrible when I first started,” he admits, “but I put the time in regardless, and gradually I got good at it. I’m not a nervous speaker because I’m prepared. I work hard at it, and that fills me with energy.”

Lisko also advises preparing so well that you don’t need notes. Or, if that is just too scary, keep one note card with the skeletal structure of your speech bullet-pointed. “Each speech you give, even if it is a topic you have spoken on frequently, should come out slightly differently each time. Remember, you are having a conversation with the audience.”

Finally, Rely on Some Time-Honored Strategies

Everyone has their little tricks for grabbing hold of the audience, keeping momentum up and the insecurities down. Here are some of our experts’ favorites.

 KAREN Lisko:

  • On keeping perspective. “Keep in mind that the audience doesn’t know what you didn’t say, so if you skip over some material or can’t get to everything, don’t worry. Better to skip material than to speed up and try to get everything in.”
  • On inevitable screw ups. “Plan for them—even script them. If you know you are prone to brain freezes, figure out in advance how you can handle it. For example, if you are presenting on a new organizational software available for law offices and you lose your train of thought you can say something like, ‘See, this is exactly why you need to hire us ….’ Not only will you get a laugh, but you have created a marketing opportunity.”
  • On feeling nervous. “Know that when you feel nervous, it is a physiological reaction. The trick is to NOT reign it in—that’s when people get the shaky knees or trembling voice. Instead, release the adrenaline and use it to help you with the strength of your voice, the speed of your speech or even movement around the room.

Tom Mighell:

  • On giving yourself a break. “I like to keep a glass of water near me when speaking. Not only can it help with dry mouth that often accompanies speaking, but taking a sip also allows you to step back and take a breath—giving you a natural pause.”
  • On visual aids. “Use pictures, rather than slides with words—more provocative. Plus the words should only be coming from the speaker.”
  • On the first 45 seconds. “I like to start out with a story about me, rather than a joke. It not only relaxes the audience and gives them a little more info about you, but it also relaxes you because you know yourself so well. Plus it relates you to the topic and lets the audience know you have a stake in the topic.”

John Tredennick:

  • On-body positioning. “I advise walking around the room. Don’t remain sitting, don’t just stand at the podium, MOVE. This engages the audience, gives you energy and livens the pace.”
  • On reaching the back row. “If you are using slides, during your speech rehearsal, put up a slide, turn out the lights and go to the last row of your venue to see if they are readable—you want to make sure you reach everyone in your audience.”
  • On Q and A’s. “Plant one or two people in the audience to ask questions during the Q and A period. This gives you confidence because you will be familiar with the topics, and also sets the tone for the audience on the kinds of questions they should be asking.”

Some Speaking Do’s and Don’ts

Here are a few quick tips to keep on hand as you prepare to switch on the microphone.

  • DON’T talk too fast or too slow.
  • DO practice in a mirror or videotape yourself so you can see what the audience will see.
  • DON’T script a speech word for word.
  • DO go for a conversational style. Act as if you are speaking one-on-one with the audience.
  • DON’T start with a joke or use all your creativity in the opener. To do so is to set an expectation with the audience
  • DO learn how to handle technology glitches gracefully. This includes knowing when to try again and knowing when to move on.
  • DON’T start with “I’ll try not to bore you” or “I’ll try to get through this as quickly as I can.”
  • DON’T overload the audience with too much material. They can only take in so much information at a time.
  • DO remember to enjoy yourself.  If you are having fun, the audience will too.

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Categories: Public Speaking, You At Work
Originally published February 9, 2012
Last updated August 26, 2020
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Mary Ellen Sullivan Mary Ellen Sullivan

A Chicago-based freelance writer, traveler and the author of “On the Wings of the Hummingbird,” a blog about joy, Mary Ellen Sullivan wrote about the arts, music, travel and women’s issues, with a specialty in health care, for more than 30 years. She was the author of the best-selling book “Cows on Parade in Chicago,” as well as several travel guides. Mary Ellen passed away in March 2016. You can read about her extraordinary life here.

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