Oregon State Bar Bulletin — JULY 2009

Legal Practice Tips

Forging a New Trail
Projecting Confidence is Critical in Turbulent Times
By David J. Dempsey

Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.
— Publius Syrus

The legal community is in uncharted waters: unprecedented layoffs and hiring freezes, client budget cuts, shrinking billings. All of these economic realities make it tough for even the most optimistic lawyers to find the silver lining and communicate confidence. When everything appears to be on shaky ground, how do you project the type of confidence that not only boosts morale but also inspires colleagues, clients and prospective clients?

Aristotle wrote that “compelling rhetoric makes for compelling leaders.” As President Obama demonstrated, engaging speakers can convert dispassionate and perhaps disinterested observers into committed participants, eagerly following the leader … provided they speak with confidence and conviction. If lawyers want to inspire their audiences, they need to project passion. A “just the facts” presentation typically does not do that when the speaker delivers the message from the head and not the heart, relies heavily on his or her notes, or resorts to the crutch of a PowerPoint presentation.

In a scathing memo to his management team, Arthur Levinson, Ph.D., the CEO of Genentech (Fortune’s best company to work for in 2006), succinctly summed up what permeates far too many professional presentations:

“I have seen the spread of unintelligible, gibberish-laden PowerPoint presentations. I have recently sat through presentations that were simply incomprehensible, mind-numbing, bloated discourses full of buzzwords and otherwise devoid of meaningful content. This disease is spreading like a plague.”

In our experience working with lawyers around the country, this plagues lawyers’ presentations as well. In today’s fiercely competitive legal environment, lawyers cannot afford to fumble and ramble when they speak. If you hope to inspire and instill confidence in others, you must forge a new trail.

So, how do you do that? Here are four recommendations.

Focus on Your Listeners
In Dr. Frank Luntz’s outstanding book, Words That Work: It’s Not What You Say, It’s What People Hear, he writes that speakers can ensure their messages are heard among the cacophony of words and messages assaulting us every day by changing their focus:

“It’s not enough to be correct or reasonable or even brilliant. The key to successful communication is to take the imaginative leap of stuffing yourself right into the listeners’ shoes, to know what they are thinking and feeling in the deepest recesses of their mind and soul.”

Do you focus on your listeners when you speak — really focus? Do you craft your messages with them in mind? Every listener wants to know one thing: What’s in it for me? It’s not enough to know what you want to say. If your words don’t address the needs or desires of your listeners, your message will be lost.

So how do you know if and when your message is truly getting through? Perform an honest self-assessment now by asking yourself the following questions:

• Do I study the audience before I speak?

• Do I organize and draft my message with the audience in mind?

• Do my listeners sometimes seem detached or disinterested?

• Do I respond to nonverbal body language from my listeners, or do I unwaveringly stick to my script?

• Do I analyze how my listeners are reacting, or do I concentrate primarily on what I have said and on what I will say next?

• Do I attempt to involve my listeners using questions, or is it always just a monologue?

• Do I really listen to and process their questions, or am I more concerned about sounding authoritative?

• Am I primarily concerned about looking and sounding good?

Study your listeners, and they will let you know how you are doing. If they’re not engaged, their signals will alert you: rampant fidgeting; furtive (or blatant) watch-glancing; wincing; furrowed brows; distressed, puzzled or downright antagonistic stares; clinched jaws; or defiantly folded arms. On the other hand, if you’re clicking with them, they will send you unequivocal signs. What type of signs? Nods of agreement, sitting upright and leaning forward, smiling faces.

I do not object to people looking at their watches when I am speaking. But I strongly object when they start shaking them to make certain they are still going.

Lord Birkett

If you realize as you are speaking that your message is not resonating, you need to adjust your plan. Slavishly plowing ahead, despite all the discouraging signals, is a sure path to failure. As painful as the signals might be, don’t ignore them. Here are some excellent techniques for reacting and adjusting your course as you speak:

Solicit questions. Periodically deviate from what you planned to say and solicit questions from your listeners. For example, pause and ask: “I realize that I blazed through that material, and it might have been somewhat confusing. What questions do you have?”

Listeners want and expect to interact with you. They are typically eager to participate and share ideas. But here is the stipulation: solicit questions only if you are willing to listen to them. Don’t start thinking about what you will say next while the questioner is speaking. If you begin responding before you have a clear understanding of the question, you will gain little insight, probably alienate some listeners, and merely compound your problems. Pause, listen, process and only then respond.

Refer to a specific person or event. Periodically refer to one of your listeners by name. Perhaps refer to recent events that occurred such as a recent favorable verdict, an important new client, or an upcoming retirement. Such acknowledgements form a connection with your listeners who will know you are focused on them.

Pause to allow for laughter and emotions. If your listeners are laughing, stop talking and let them laugh. Savor this moment, because at other times the silence after your witty lines can be deafening.

If some listeners are emotionally upset, honor that moment as well. Pause and acknowledge their feelings: “I know this is upsetting to some of you, and that is understandable.” Pausing and allowing for an emotional response shows that you respect your listeners, and it also gives you a chance to collect your thoughts.

Break the pattern. If your listeners seem numb, be honest; you may be the problem. Maybe your delivery has grown tedious. Maybe you have overwhelmed your listeners with information. Maybe the topic is complex or boring. If this
happens, mix it up. Now is the time to solicit questions, tell an interesting story, or take a brief break to regroup and gather your energy.

I have just got a new theory of eternity.

Albert Einstein (after listening to a long-winded speech)

Project Confidence
Every time you speak, remember this: you are communicating with your listeners from the moment they first see you. Your nonverbal message is often telling. Listeners immediately begin to evaluate you and form conclusions based on your appearance and conduct.

Follow these suggestions for displaying confidence.

Monitor your facial message. Your facial expressions should send the message that you genuinely want to speak and communicate. A simple smile can signal this to your listeners.

Don’t talk down to your listeners. Do not pontificate. The pontificator who stares down his nose at you through his bifocal reading glasses, and who frowns while he condescendingly lectures is seldom effective. Nothing alienates listeners faster than a speaker who patronizes them.

Connect with eye contact. Your listeners can see you. Do you see them? If so, actually look at them. Establish and sustain eye contact with as many of them as possible. Once again, this signals that you are confident.

Defuse hostility whenever possible. If your listeners are hostile toward you, acknowledge the animosity and attempt to neutralize it. You might say, “I recognize that many of you disagree with me on this issue. Thank you for your willingness to listen. I hope I can persuade you, but perhaps we will simply have to agree to disagree.” There are two advantages in doing this: you are showing respect for your listeners and their opposing viewpoint, and you are communicating to them that you are not afraid of contrary opinions.

Your listeners are watching and judging you all the time. Are you sending the right message, that you are confident, open, and prepared? Or are you signaling that you are puffed up, petrified or disorganized? Don’t undermine your credibility. The nonverbal signals are often more powerful than anything you say.

We shall never know all the good that a simple smile can do.
Mother Teresa

Persuade with Passion
Persuasive speakers are passionate about their messages. They speak with contagious energy, animated body language, sustained eye contact and captivating vocal power. But more importantly, they move their listeners because they themselves are moved. They are passionate about their ideas and determined to reach their listeners. What about you? If you are not on fire with your message, don’t expect your listeners to do cartwheels with excitement.

“Does passion really matter?” you might ask. Absolutely — and here is why. It makes a huge difference in how you connect with your listeners. Especially if your primary purpose is to persuade, any edge is significant in an intensely competitive marketplace.

When you are truly passionate about your message, you are viewed as an expert, your status as a leader soars, and you motivate your listeners to act on, or at least carefully consider, your viewpoint.

Nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion.
Georg Hegel

Focus, React, Project, Persuade — with Confidence
If you want to persuade and inspire your listeners with confidence and conviction, especially in today’s turbulent environment, then remember: you must first focus on your listeners and what’s important to them. It’s not about you; it’s about them. The added bonus is that forgetting about yourself will help you to project confidence and speak with genuine passion. Do that, and you will move the hearts and minds of your listeners — and the confidence you communicate will have the power to truly persuade.

A leader is a dealer in hope.
— Napoleon

David J. Dempsey, J.D., is the president and CEO of Neon Zebra, an Atlanta-based presentation skills consulting and coaching company that empowers business executives and lawyers around the globe to truly stand out and be heard whenever they speak. He is the author of two critically acclaimed presentation skills books: Better to BEST: How to Speak for Extraordinary Results . . . Every Time! (Miranda Publishing, 2006), and Legally Speaking: 40 Powerful Presentation Principles Lawyers Need to Know (Kaplan Publishing, 2009).For more information go to www.neon-zebra.com. You may also reach Neon Zebra at (800) 729-2791, or e-mail David at davidd@neon-zebra.com.

© 2009 David J. Dempsey

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