Improve Your Presentations

Calvin T. Sun

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Immigration Attorney

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Avoiding a dentist visit: $1,000 Avoiding an IRS audit: $5,000 Avoiding an oral presentation: priceless If you have this attitude, please think again and read this article. As a law student, and later as a lawyer, you will be well served by having the ability to speak well in public. Here are some tips. Know your audience To Edward Ohlbaum, professor and director of trial advocacy and clinical legal education at Temple University Beasley School of Law, this point is critical. "Too often,"he says, "students andoftenlawyers are guilty of underestimating or even overestimating their audience or jury." Ohlbaum also advises against the use of "five-dollar words." You're talking to an audience, not practicing for the SAT. Know and believe the material All the advice in the world is useless if you're unfamiliar with your material. Before you give your presentation, you need to know it thoroughly. Even more important than knowing the material is believing in it. If you lack this knowledge or this confidence, you still can make the presentation and say all the right words. However, your body language, your voice, and most important, your eyes will betray you. Avoid reading the presentation Have you ever seen someone read a presentation word for word? I did once, and it was horrible. If you read your presentation, you will lose your audience. You will be so intent on your reading that you will fail to connect with them. Of course,you might need to read a presentation at some point. For example, judges, when issuing jury instructions, will read those instructions rather than speak extemporaneously. In most other cases, though, avoid reading a presentation. Don't memorize At the same time, don't make the mistake of delivering a memorized presentation. Even though, in this case, you wouldn't be looking at notes or an outline, chances are your presentation will lack spontaneity. Worse, should you be interrupted (for example by a judge, CEO, or other audience member), you might have trouble returning to your previous lines. If asked a question, always repeat it for everyone to hear. Answer the question directly, then add any explanation of your answer. Write down main points The best approach is to outline your main points. If you're using a projector and PowerPoint, then your main points would be the "bullet" items on your PowerPoint slides. If you're delivering a presentation without a computer and projector, then most likely your main points will be written down. Many people will use index cards or loose paper for this purpose, but both leave something to be desired. Index cards can be difficult to read and hold while making a presentation. And nothing kills your presentation more than dropping all 50 of those cards at a critical moment. Loose paper offers little improvement. Even though you might need fewer sheets than index cards, you still would have to deal with shuffling them, and with the possibility of page mix-up. Therefore, consider outlining your major points on regular paper then stapling the paper to a letter-size file folder. This allows you to have your outline on paper in front of you and adds stability so your papers are easier to handle. This method works best when you use a lectern, which shields the notes from your audience. Whether you use the folder method or not, the approach is the same: the points on the outline serve only as "headlines" for the point you're making. As you speak on each point, you would augment that point with your own words. Use the lectern correctly A lectern is useful for keeping your notes in order while you speak. If you do use a lectern, avoid the common tendency of gripping the sides. Doing so will make you look scared. Also, if you're tall, gripping the sides will cause you to be slumped over the lectern. Instead, keep your arms at your sides, using them only to move your notes as needed. Keep your notes with you prior to your talk, bringing them with you as you approach the lectern. Don't leave them at the lectern beforehand, because a previous speaker might accidentally take them. Open and close strongly Your audience will likely remember your opening and the ending the most. Therefore, opening strongly--with a good "grabber"-- is important.You need to catch the attention of the audience, summarize what your presentation is about, and get them to continue listening to you. This principle applies to other presentations as well. If you were giving a talk on insurance, for example, you could open with a question: "What if, one night, your client called and said his entire manufacturing plant had just burned down?" If you were talking about technology law, you could ask your audience, "What would you do if you found your entire customer list posted on the Internet?" You then could continue by saying, "In this presentation,we will discussways to avoid this situation." In the same way, end your presentation on a strong note. You could end with a request ("I ask you to find for my client") or a quote or an anecdote that illustrates your point. I often use the story of Francis Browne, a Titanic passenger and student who reluctantly debarked the ship in Ireland, an action that saved his life. I tell how, despite his desire to stay on, he listened to his school adviser who cabled himto "get off that ship," and add that I hope the audience similarly will listen to and heed my words. Whatever words you use, make sure the audience will remember and hopefully act on them. Control your voice Try to vary your volume and the pace of your words when you speak. Keeping both at one constant level will bore your audience. If you speak louder, your audience will more likely hear you. Ironically, though, if you lower your voice, you may attract their attention even more, as they strain to listen to you. If you do lower your voice,make sure you do so deliberately. Many speakers speak at a low volume unconsciously, rather than by design. The key to having an effective speaking voice is to produce sound not from your throat but rather from your diaphragm. In addition, make sure that you are standing straight, not hunched over (such as in being slumped over a lectern), to avoid constricting your diaphragm. Finally, imagine that as you are speaking, you are "throwing" your voice to the people in the last row. Look at the audience Looking at the audience is less of a problem if you're delivering a "standard" talk--one without the use of slides or PowerPoint. However, if you're using the latter, avoid looking at the screen behind you. The more you look at the screen, the greater the chances you'll start talking to the screen. If you do, your back will be to the audience, your voice will be directed at that screen (which makes no sense because the screen can't hear you), and most critically, you will lose the attention of your audience. Here's what I do to avoid this problem. I position my computer so that it's in front of me, that is, so that I can see it while facing the audience. Next, I configure my computer so that it sends a display signal both to its own display and to the projector. On most laptop computers, this setting is governed by pressing a sequence of keyboard keys. Once you've done these things, you will see on your computer what the audience sees via the projector. Therefore, you have no need to turn around. Keep your hands apart What to do with your hands? Some people put them behind their back, giving the audience the impression the speaker has something to hide. Others fold their arms, giving a sign of defiance. Still others put their hands in their pockets, giving a sign of indifference. The best thing to do is simply keep your arms at your side when you talk. This way, there's less chance that you'll distract the audience. If you do choose to do anything else, try to keep your hands apart. Once you bring them together, you may unconsciously keep them there, giving the impression that you're praying. If your audience is a group of pastors, it might be fine, but otherwise it might send the wrong message. Sometimes, when going through a talk point by point, I will usemy hands to introduce each point.When I discuss the first point, I announce it, showone finger of my left hand, then point with my right hand to my left hand. I will do the same with the second and following points, holding up successive fingers with my left hand. Make appropriate eye contact In a previous section, I cautioned against reading your presentation because doing so keeps you from maintaining eye contact with the audience.Without eye contact, your audience will feel detached from you, and youwill have more trouble getting your points across. If you're using the standard talk with notes, you will have to look at those notes from time to time, even if you follow the notes-stapled- to-folder approach. It's okay to break eye contact occasionally, to look at your notes, but immediately afterward, resume your eye contact. Ironically, if you look at audience members in the eye, you could become distracted. For that reason, I don't look directly into the eyes. Instead, I look at the bridge of the nose.The effect on the audience is the same because usually they can't tell. The benefit to me is that I have less chance of being distracted. Don't just look at one person either. Pick out a few people--some in front, some in the middle, and some in back--and direct your remarks toward them.That way, the entire audience will feel involved. It's true that many people fear public speaking more than dying. However, following these points and practicing them will turn you into an accomplished speaker and will advance your career.

Additional Resources

This article originally appeared in the ABA Student Lawyer. It has been adapted to fit length requirements at avvo.com

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