Public Speaking Tips from a Work in Progress

Public Speaking TipsPlease welcome back Jennifer Warren, attorney and Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law, to discuss how to work on your public speaking skills – something she’s personally been working on since law school.

Like most law schools, the second semester of my first year legal research and writing course involved a class wide moot court competition where I had to make an appellate argument based on a current legal issue. I found myself looking forward to the competition. Although I still had many moments of self-doubt, by the second semester of law school I felt like I had started to find my footing, at least academically. I had done well during the first semester and was keeping up in my current courses. I hoped that with the right amount of practice and preparation I would do just fine during the moot court assignment. So I prepared, and I practiced, and I prepared some more. My scheduled day arrived, I presented my argument, and…it was terrible! I spoke too quietly and too quickly, I forgot key points, I stuttered, I looked at my notes too frequently – I made pretty much every public speaking mistake out there. Despite what I thought was a sufficient amount of preparation, I had done miserably.

Following my oral argument flop, I faithfully avoided participating in any moot court or mock trial teams during the rest of law school, figuring that it made more sense to focus on my strengths and avoid my weaknesses. But when I started practicing law, I quickly realized that there is no way to avoid public speaking. Whether it’s arguing a motion in front of a judge, taking a deposition, doing a trial, or presenting at a CLE, the ability to speak clearly, confidently, and coherently in front of an audience is a necessity for most attorneys. I’ve made a point of improving my public speaking skills over the last few years and, although admittedly I’m still a work in progress, the following strategies have made a big difference for me:

1. Be Yourself

Do what comes naturally to you and don’t try to be someone you’re not. If you try to force things while speaking in front of an audience, they usually fall flat. For example, I’ve learned over the years that I’m not particularly funny. I really can’t tell a joke! Weaving a funny anecdote into a speech is usually a great way to keep the audience engaged, but it never seems to work successfully for me. Instead of trying to force a joke, I’ve learned that using other engaging techniques – like incorporating videos, personal stories, or audience activities – is a better strategy for me.

2. Get Excited

The audience – whether it’s an auditorium full of people or just opposing counsel sitting across the conference table – will be able to tell if you’re passionate about what you’re doing. If you’re energized, interested, and organized, the audience will respond to those qualities in a positive way. If you’re aloof, hesitant, or bored, you risk losing the upper hand. Get excited about what you’re doing and others are bound to be excited too.

3. Don’t Worry about being Judged

This one is easier said than done, but try not to spend too much time worrying about what other people will think of you. The less you worry about being judged, the more likely you are to feel comfortable and confident. When I finally accepted the fact that the audience is just a group of regular people who usually don’t know as much about the topic as I do, it became much easier to speak confidently because I was no longer concerned with whether they were all criticizing or judging me.

4. Practice, but don’t Overdo it

Research, preparation, and practice are key to successful public speaking, no matter the context. You should have your argument or speech written in advance and you should spend time presenting it out loud, if only to yourself. But, you don’t want to practice to the point where you lose the ability to adapt on the fly or find yourself giving a mechanical recitation of a memorized speech. It’s a tricky balance, but you want to practice to the point where you feel comfortable that you can hit all your key points without feeling like you need to recite your argument word for word.

5. Have a Signaler

If you’re giving a speech to a large group or presenting at trial for the first time, you may want to have a signaler. Ask an intern to sit at the back of the courtroom and give you a discrete hand signal to let you know if you need to slow down, speak up, etc. Having someone else monitor these stylistic qualities will give you one less thing to worry about.

6. Don’t be Afraid to use Notes

This was a game changer for me in terms of speeches or large group presentations. While you will want to have the bulk of your presentation memorized, there’s nothing wrong with having some notes on the podium. Once I gave myself permission to bring up a few notes, I was immediately less nervous. Although I rarely need to look down at them, just knowing that they are there makes me feel more comfortable while I’m speaking. The same goes for arguing at a motion docket or cross examining a witness – although you’ll want to prepare your argument and questions in advance, briefly glancing at your notes every now and then to make sure you’re hitting all your key points is perfectly acceptable.

7. Consider Recording Yourself

Watching yourself speak can be torture, but it’s an invaluable way to improve your skills. If you’ve got an important speaking event coming up, consider recording a practice session so that you can see what needs to be tweaked for the final version.

8. Be Cognizant of the Occasion

It’s important to recognize that different forms of speaking may require slightly different skills or attitudes. You’re going to approach a contentious motion argument different than a CLE presentation. Before crafting your speech, think about who you will be speaking to, the goal you are trying to achieve, and the best way to reach that objective.

If public speaking doesn’t come naturally to you or if, like me, you’ve had a negative public speaking experience in the past, don’t give up. Speaking in front of an audience is a skill that you can practice and refine just like any other skill. And, like most things, it really does get easier the more you do it. So push yourself outside of your comfort zone and get in front of an audience – you’ll be a more confident, assertive attorney if you do!

For more helpful advice, check out these articles:


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About Jennifer Warren

Jennifer received her B.A. in Politics cum laude from New York University and her J.D. with highest distinction from the University of Oklahoma College of Law. She has several years of experience in the areas of juvenile law and civil litigation and is the Academic Achievement Coordinator at Oklahoma City University School of Law.

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