Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JANUARY 2005

Legal Practice Tips
CONTENT COUNTS
The cornerstone of every presentation
By David J. Dempsey

The unluckiest insolvent in the world is the man whose expenditure of speech is too great for his income of ideas.
—Christopher Morley

Your critical presentation is fast approaching. It might be the opening statement in the case that has consumed you for the past year; your presentation to the muckety-mucks of the behemoth corporation that will determine which law firm represents it; or a pitch to the attorneys in your law firm attempting to persuade them to invite you to the promised land of obscene riches: partnership.

You are a confident, experienced speaker, and you imagine that you are pretty effective just speaking off the cuff. So do you really need to agonize over the substance of the presentation? Is it really necessary to carefully select the material you will weave into that crucial presentation? Only if you want to significantly enhance your chances of persuading your listeners.

Without solid material, in all likelihood your presentation will fall short of its full potential. Eloquent delivery rarely compensates for a presentation short on substance. Excellent presentations – those that move and persuade the listeners – are meticulously built on a foundation of content: vivid examples, precise details, compelling stories, apt quotations and pertinent evidence. Content helps clarify and illustrate your points and makes your message persuasive and distinctive. It takes considerable effort to craft your speech this way, and it is unquestionably more work than just "winging it," but it makes a bloody huge difference every time.

So where do you begin? Always start building your presentation answering one question: what does the judge, jury, client or audience need to know in order to be persuaded? Not every detail, and not everything you know. Just the essential material. Always maintain an audience perspective, and ask what is important to the listener, because everyone is tuned into the same frequency: "WIIFM": What’s in it for me? Remember that at every stage as you research and draft your presentation.

My little (note)books were beginnings—they were the ground into which I dropped the seed...I would work this way when I was out in the crowds, then put the stuff together at home.
—Walt Whitman

Next, begin gathering material. Where do you find it? Start by drawing it from what you know, see, hear and read every day. Gather quotes, anecdotes, articles, examples — virtually anything that you find interesting or compelling. But don’t just look in the obvious places such as the daily headlines, legal journals, case law or legal lore. Nose around in obscure crannies for your material: graffiti, cereal boxes, labels, billboards, voice mail messages, lessons you learn from your children, idle musings, political babble – it can all be useful. But – and this is important – you must capture those ideas immediately because they will disappear in a flash.

Scribble your ideas in a journal, store them on your computer, stuff them in a shoe box, write them on your hand if necessary – just capture them so you have a rich data base of material when you begin crafting the speech. Don’t sit down and stare at the blank computer screen expecting the ideas to come cascading out of your noggin. Fickle Mr. Inspiration seldom shows up on your schedule; he is pigheaded that way. And that tick-tock sound will blare as the fateful moment to speak draws near. Most of us do not produce our best work with our heads in the deadline guillotine. Avoid wasting valuable time ransacking your porous memory for that pithy quote or provocative thought you were just sure you would remember.

"A man would do well to carry a pencil in his pocket and write down the thoughts of the moment. Those that come unsought are commonly the most valuable and should be secured because they seldom return."
—Francis Bacon

Here are five sources for ideas that you can incorporate into your presentations to make them more persuasive, entertaining and informative, but don’t limit yourself. Be creative. Set aside anything that might give your presentations a little zing, even if you do not know exactly how or when you might use it.

1. Personal stories
Most successful speakers and trial attorneys are masterful storytellers. Why? Because stories invariably make any presentation more interesting. A compelling story can rivet an audience; merely mention that you intend to share a story, and the audience will become more attentive.

But be careful: the stories must be succinct and relevant. Too often the story meanders and the meaning becomes obscure. Don’t make the audience struggle to decipher the point of the story, because most listeners will not work that hard. Like you, they are pressed for time. As they listen to you, there are dozens of issues competing for their attention, and they are easily distracted. But if you make the story vivid and crisp, and set images floating before their eyes, you can captivate an audience.

"The tendency of the casual mind is to pick out or stumble upon a sample which supports or defines its prejudices, and then to make it representative of a whole class."

—Walter Lippman

2. Examples
Examples breathe life into your presentation. They can make the complex ideas understandable and the generic descriptions memorable. Rather than simply telling the jurors that your client suffered "horrific third degree burns, " make it vivid. Use an example to explain it:

"In order to understand the pain my client endured while the dressings on his burns were changed every day, imagine the last time you had a blister on your hand from raking the yard. Do you remember how tender your hand was, how painful just one little blister was to you? But what if 3/4 of your body was covered with thousands and thousands of fresh blisters–on your neck, your stomach, your face? Imagine the excruciating pain of ripping open those blisters — three times a day for months–with no pain killers. That, ladies and gentlemen, is the living hell my client experienced."

3. Quotations
Quotations enhance your persuasiveness and credibility, particularly if the source of the quotation is credible and well-known such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Martin Luther King, Jr. or Mohandas Gandhi. In contrast, a quote from Vinny the Doorman or Max the Cabbie, while interesting and perhaps entertaining, will hardly carry the same persuasive impact.

You can embellish your presentation by sprinkling in quotations from a variety of sources: scripture, poetry, literature and politics. An apt quotation will add pizzazz to a dreary presentation, charm or surprise your listeners, and perhaps, if you are fortunate, persuade skeptical listeners where your words and opinions alone might fail. Your personal library should include several books of quotations, such as Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, Quotionary, by Leonard Roy Frank and The International Thesaurus of Quotations. The right quote at the right moment in your speech can be enormously powerful.

4. Comparisons and contrasts
Apt comparisons will make your points more persuasive. Use ideas or events that are known to your audience and compare them to ideas or events you are helping the audience understand and perhaps accept. Ronald Reagan repeatedly asked voters to consider one simple question, "Are you better off now or were you better off then?" Comparisons that are relevant and easily grasped by the audience can be very convincing.

Contrasts can be used to make your points more understandable. For instance, you can contrast the inconsistent testimony of two witnesses who observed the identical event. Politicians often utilize this technique to draw stark contrasts from their opponents: "My opponent trusts big government. I trust you."

5. Statistics
Statistics are an excellent means of persuading your audience, but they are a double-edged sword. The line between statistics that enlighten and those that confound is incredibly fine. Package and present your statistics in charts, graphs or PowerPoint slides in a way that clarifies your message. Your statistics must be simple and understandable or they become a liability.

And don’t overwhelm your listeners with minute details. This will stupefy the audience. Their eyes will quickly glaze over, and they will begin bolting for the mental exits (or worse, the real exits). Many lawyers live in this treacherous land of hazy, complex detail and baffling statistics when they speak. That is seldom effective or persuasive. Stay away from there.

It takes time and effort to craft a presentation rich with content. But a speech based solely on your impressions and opinions — regardless of how smoothly you deliver it — is seldom as valuable or persuasive as it could be, unless, of course, you are Bill Gates, Warren Buffett or some equally notable visionary. The rest of us mere mortals must do our homework and build our speeches on a solid foundation of substance.

David J. Dempsey is a trial attorney and a general partner in the Atlanta law firm of Coleman & Dempsey, a professor of public speaking at Oglethorpe University and an award winning speaker. He is the author of Legally Speaking: 40 Powerful Presentation Principles Lawyers Need to Know (Miranda Publishing, 2002) and the founder of Dempsey Communications, a presentation skills training company (www.legallyspeak.com). Reach him by e-mail at ddempsey@ dempseycom.com, or by phone at (800) 729-2791. © Copyright 2005 Dempsey Communications, LLC.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David J. Dempsey is a trial attorney and a general partner in the Atlanta law firm of Coleman & Dempsey, a professor of public speaking at Oglethorpe University and an award winning speaker. He is the author of Legally Speaking: 40 Powerful Presentation Principles Lawyers Need to Know (Miranda Publishing, 2002) and the founder of Dempsey Communications, a presentation skills training company (www.legallyspeak.com). Reach him by e-mail at ddempsey@ dempseycom.com, or by phone at (800) 729-2791. © Copyright 2005 Dempsey Communications, LLC.

© 2005 David J. Dempsey


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