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The Court's Secret Music

Speaking Lessons from the Supreme Court

By Marsha Hunter

Although it isn’t something I freely admit to my friends outside the legal world, I can share with you how much fun I routinely have on Oyez.org, the Supreme Court media site. (Oyez.org is part of the Oyez Project at the Illinois Institute of Technology’s Chicago-Kent College of Law.) If you haven’t checked out this site yet, do so immediately! There, you can have a virtual tour of Justice Stevens’ chambers, search Google maps for the gravesites of justices, and find all sorts of historical data, including the names of all of the justices who have sat on the court since 1789. You can even read transcripts by the bushel.

But it’s not what you can see on this website that really interests me — it’s what you can hear. Oyez offers a fascinating, ever-growing collection of podcasts. Listening to arguments, the back-and-forth between the justices and the lawyers, is illuminating.

While there is passion on both sides, the lawyers, not surprisingly, often sound agitated. You can clearly hear the excitement in their voices, as well as their nervousness. Remember, these are experienced, eloquent lawyers at the top of their game. But listening to one of them plunge headlong into a sentence that doesn’t come out quite right is a real lesson in the necessity of taking the time to breathe and think before talking.

With the clock ticking away right in front of them, they feel the powerful effect of adrenaline on their perception of time. They feel that time is passing more quickly than it is. We can hear lawyers racing against time, struggling against the effects of adrenaline. Listen for these instances and learn from their mistakes.

The justices, on the other hand, speak carefully and with deliberate purpose. As they speak clearly in fluent phrases, we can hear how self-assured they are. The music of their voices conveys the exact meaning of their words. By and large, the justices are measured and relaxed and seem to be enjoying the whole thing thoroughly.

So, before you head out for your next vacation or a long weekend, load up your phone with podcasts from Oyez. Alternate between your favorite songs and arguments of your favorite Constitutional issue. Both are musical, just in different ways.

Image ©istockphoto

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Marsha Hunter Marsha Hunter

Marsha Hunter is a principal in Johnson & Hunter, Inc. She teaches attorneys how to speak persuasively and spontaneously. Co-author of “The Articulate Advocate” and “The Articulate Attorney,” 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 @bjohnsonmhunter.

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