Oregon State Bar Bulletin — MAY 2003

Legal Practice Tips
Convert 'stage fright' into 'stage might'

By David J. Dempsey

According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that seem right? This means to the average person, if you have to go to a funeral, you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.

—Jerry Seinfeld

It was every trial attorney’s dream. I was five minutes into the opening statement in my first jury trial, and the jurors were mesmerized by my oratorical skills, smiling, nodding in agreement, clinging to my every word — mere putty in my hands. I smugly mused that I was well on the road to becoming not just a trial attorney, but the trial attorney. This was amazingly easy for one so gifted, I thought; I pitied the mere mortals who enjoyed none of my skills. Life was so very good as I confidently glided about the courtroom. And then it began.

The right knee began to bob, gently at first, then more violently. Then the left knee joined the right, and I had fully synchronized knee bobbing. Simultaneously, my hips joined this inexplicable revolt of my body parts, and they began gyrating left and right. This was not what I had planned. It got worse: my hands began to shake, my voice began to quiver and crack like a pubescent teenager, and I began to babble nonsensically, which was hugely amusing to my previously impressed jurors.

The courtroom bailiff was poised, ready to pounce and administer CPR if necessary; the judge was ready to hold me in contempt because he was so annoyed with this transparent ploy for the jurors’ sympathy; and unfortunately, I had seized the undivided attention of everyone in the courtroom as I shimmed and shook about the room. The remaining 15 minutes seemed like an eternity. My nightmare mercifully ended, but not before juror number four offered this commentary – in a voice loud enough to be heard in several counties: 'Hey, hey, what’s up with Jell-O Boy?'

I have been speaking in courtrooms, boardrooms and classrooms for over 25 years, delivering more than a thousand presentations, opening statements and closing arguments, and I still become anxious every time I speak. I am not alone. Speaking generates enormous anxiety for most attorneys, both young associates and battle-scarred veterans of the courtroom, and those who deny it either cannot be trusted or are simply dreadful speakers without even knowing it.

This is not our fault. Law schools do a remarkable job teaching us how to think like attorneys, dissect issues and analyze thorny problems. Through the rigors of the Socratic method of teaching, we may learn to weather a violent onslaught of questioning and, if we are fortunate, survive with a modicum of dignity. Unfortunately, law schools devote virtually no time to teaching attorneys how to forcefully advocate their positions and speak with confidence and conviction whenever and wherever they speak. Ironically, the ability to distill our message to its essence — and to deliver it with power, passion and persuasion — is critical to our profession. Without training, we are left to fend for ourselves, and we are typically far less effective than we should be.

Speaking anxiety is often more intense for attorneys because we are the experts, directing the play and controlling the events. On television dramas like Law & Order or The Practice, the general public watches attorneys fearlessly and effortlessly argue motions or present opening statements and closing arguments, always unflappable and articulate. They see these actors speaking eloquently and arguing passionately and confidently, and they conclude that speaking is an inherent skill for attorneys. Unfortunately, with little preparation for the rigors and stresses of speaking, this unrealistic expectation only heightens our anxieties.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear — not absence of fear.

—Mark Twain

Although some attorneys do not recognize the importance of effective presentation skills, stage fright is much more than a small bump in the road to becoming a successful speaker. Furthermore, ignoring this weakness or avoiding presentations only intensifies the problem. Fear of speaking can quickly spiral out of control, crippling those who are otherwise engaging speakers and handicapping their careers. The only way to conquer stage fright is to confront it. The following ten secrets will help you control your anxiety when you speak. Fortunately, none of these points involves anesthetizing yourself.

Ten Secrets to Mastering Stage Fright

1. It Is Perfectly Natural to Be Anxious.
Even professional speakers and celebrities who make their living on stage are often terrified by speaking. It is worse for attorneys, however, because we are often speaking in a hostile environment, before an irascible judge, an opposing counsel determined to upend you at every opportunity or a client who has paid you an obscene amount of money (and whose happiness is critical to your livelihood). If trained professionals become nervous, it is perfectly natural for someone with less experience to feel anxious. The secret is to learn how to channel the anxiety in a positive fashion to enhance your message.

2. Our Worst Fears Are Rarely Realized.
Our imaginations are incredibly vivid when we are preparing to speak. We visualize the worst occurring: hyperventilation, public humiliation, adverse verdicts and loss of self-esteem. We fear that if we are unmasked and our nervousness shows, clients may see us as imposters and wonder whether we are qualified to represent them. These fears are imaginary, often ludicrous, and they rarely materialize.

3. You Are Your Harshest Critic.
Study videotapes of your presentations and you will be pleasantly surprised. When you are actually speaking, with all eyes scrutinizing your actions and clinging to your every word, it is intimidating, and your anxiety is heightened. You become overly critical, certain that every blunder is glaring. Upon careful review of your presentation, however, you are generally pleasantly surprised by how poised you actually appear. Audiences, jurors and judges frequently do not realize that you are anxious (unless, of course, you are babbling incessantly, rocking violently or focusing your eye contact on the ceiling, perhaps praying for divine intervention).

4. Listeners Sympathize and Empathize.
Every member of the audience or jury has felt exactly as you do when you speak, so they either sympathize or empathize with you. Half of your listeners are looking at you with admiration and awe for having the courage to speak (something they have artfully avoided at all costs); the others are simply muttering, 'There but for the grace of God go I.' Although the general perception is that speaking comes naturally to attorneys, your listeners understand the anxiety that speaking creates.

No passion so effectually robs the mind of all its powers of acting and reasoning as fear.

—Edmund Burke

5. Your Listeners Want You to Succeed.
Whether your listeners have been compelled to hear you speak (jurors) or they have willingly appeared (clients or fellow attorneys), they are giving you their most precious commodity – their time. You have information that they want, and you are the expert. Your listeners want you to present that information in a logical, concise and even entertaining fashion for the simple reason that it will benefit them.

6. Your Audience Has Never Heard Your Presentation.
Attorneys often curse themselves, both mentally during a presentation and verbally afterwards, when they realize that they have forgotten a few words, a few lines or even an entire point in their presentation. Remember that most audience members, judges or jurors have not heard your presentation; no one monitors what you say line by line, word for word. Your listeners rarely know when you forget a point or misspeak. They do not know what you planned to say; they only know what you said, which should reduce your stress because it affords you a sense of freedom to make a mistake with little risk.

Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.

—Henry Ford

7. Visualize Speaking Success.
Frequently harried, we often devote most of our energy to mastering the facts and the law and very little energy preparing to speak. We seldom spend any time visualizing the outcome of our presentation. As a result, the presentation for which we have so diligently prepared for months, even years, is often presented in a flat and flavorless manner. We simply utter words rather than speaking with confidence and conviction. Excellent attorneys visualize the exact outcome they expect: jurors nodding in agreement; the jury foreperson announcing a favorable verdict; and audience members persuaded by their words. Visualization is the first step in achieving any goal, and picturing a successful presentation will help provide the confidence necessary for you to reach your advocating ambitions.

8. Seize Every Opportunity to Speak.
The more frequently you speak, the more confident you become. The fear of the unknown evaporates, and your confidence builds with each successful presentation. Refine your speaking skills before non-threatening groups such as Rotary Clubs or church groups, not before clients, prospective clients, judges or juries. This practice will give you a treasure trove of successful speaking experiences that will bolster your confidence.

Success covers a multitude of blunders.

—George Bernard Shaw

9. Prepare Early and Thoroughly.
Professional speech consultants and psychologists agree that being thoroughly prepared to speak dramatically reduces anxiety. But what does that mean? Obviously you must know the facts and the law, understand the nuances and the weaknesses in your presentation and anticipate the questions (there is always a contrary viewpoint). But intellectual preparation alone is insufficient. You must master your delivery by repeatedly practicing your presentation in the same manner you plan to deliver it. Simulate the speaking experience to prepare for the actual presentation. This focused and detailed preparation will pay rich dividends.

10. Act Confident!
The physical appearance of many attorneys as they speak eliminates any doubt that they are nervous. Their faces are taut; their demeanors are solemn; their arms are tightly folded against their chests and their movements are stiff, constrained and unnatural. No audience or jury will decide that you are confident when you send these blaring nonverbal messages. You should project instead a relaxed, confident demeanor. Assume the behavior that you want to reflect. Walk to the lectern confidently, not tentatively; pause before you begin; look at the audience or jury; smile; plant yourself erect and still. Doing these things will help you appear and feel more confident.

The human brain is a wonderful thing. It operates from the moment you’re born until the moment you get up to make a speech.


Nothing will completely eliminate your speaking anxiety, but visualizing success coupled with focused preparation and practice will help you harness your nervous energy and enhance your delivery. Review these keys to mastering your anxiety and you will take gigantic strides towards converting your Stage Fright into Stage Might.

David J. Dempsey is a practicing trial attorney and a general partner in the Atlanta, Ga., firm of Coleman & Dempsey. He is the author of 'Legally Speaking: 40 Powerful Presentation Principles Lawyers Need to Know' (Miranda Publishing, 2002). For more information visit www. legallyspeakingonline.com or call (800) 359-5731.

© 2003 David J. Dempsey

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