Some thoughts before you speak

If you haven’t sat through a thousand awful lectures, submissions and presentations you probably aren’t a real lawyer.

And if you have applied the unintended lessons of all that professional experience and training you are probably a dreadful public speaker as a consequence.

I was reminded of this when I attended a presentation this week on presentation skills. It was delivered to a room full of barristers by a non-lawyer, ex-teacher and freelance speechwriter, Ben Richards of Aticus.

Lecturing barristers on public speaking should be a tough gig. Richards made it look very easy – and he did so for a compelling 90 minutes without as much as a single note or Powerpoint slide.

I took copious notes. Here is a distillation.

  1. Delivering professional presentations and writing the seminar papers which are typically meant to accompany them are very different beasts. Treat them as such. Plan your paper’s content and its delivery as separate exercises.
  2. Australians often expect oral presentations to be bland at best. It is actually not that difficult to surprise on the upside.
  3. Why should any speaker see and hear his or her very own presentation for the first time simultaneously with the audience? Do at least some practice aloud beforehand. Also, warm up the vocal cords before you actually take the microphone.
  4. The first draft is never good enough. It will always need at least some rewriting and editing.
  5. Speak to the back of the room. There will never be anybody sitting in the front row anyway. Modulate tone and speed. Use vocal variation.
  6. The law is always prosaic. Be generous with the real-world stories and problems which make the legal issues you are discussing interesting.
  7. Also, start with your conclusions – if you keep your audience waiting its concentration might well be spent by the time you get to the end (where you were probably planning to put your conclusions).
  8. The presentation and the paper should not coincide. They are separate forms of communication which should not be fused.
  9. Don’t turn up late, flustered and then open with an apology and/or a plea to the floor for assistance with the operation of the PowerPoint projector.
  10. PowerPoint can only ever be a background visual aid. It is quite useless as a handout. It can be useful for diagrammatic explanations and/or key (and short!) pieces of text. [For a quick PowerPoint refresher see my post Slide into PowerPoint – a novice’s guide]
  11. The traditional 50 or 60-minute presentation format is problematic. It is usually a much better use of everybody’s time to divide the allotted hour evenly between two speakers and a Q & A session at the end.
  12. For the Q & A session be sure to plant some Dorothy Dixer questions – commonly at these events nobody wants to ask the first question but everybody wants to ask the second question.
  13. Doing a one-off presentation is terribly inefficient – wherever possible commoditise your talk. Its (complete or modified) reuse at subsequent events will improve both its efficiency for you as the speaker (through its delivery to more than a single audience) and also its quality as you are able to polish its content and delivery with practice.
  14. Preparation is key. Many brief preparation sessions over the course of weeks will usually be much more productive than a preparation marathon on the eve of your presentation.
  15. Preparation should start with three questions:
    1. Who is your audience?
    2. What is your objective?
    3. What are your key messages?
  16. You can rarely ask your actual audience in advance what they want to hear but you can usually speak to individuals who are potential audience members and/or have attended similar presentations. What do they know? What don’t they know? What more do they want to know? Ask them!
  17. Be realistic. Large books might well have been written on your topic. You (and your audience) have limited time. Don’t pretend that you can or should attempt to cover everything.
  18. Getting the structure right means putting the right ideas in the right sequence. Maybe start by putting the ideas on post-it notes, sticking them on a window and then rearranging them into an order that makes sense to you.
  19. Test the structure of your presentation by looking at its transitions. If the transitions don’t work it’s probably because the structure doesn’t.
  20. Never give a presentation without some ‘real-world’ connections. War stories are good. In their absence hypotheticals will suffice. Humour is good. So is fear-mongering with worst-case scenarios.
  21. Your opening should persuade the ambivalent audience that it should be interested. You can’t do this unless you sound interested yourself.
  22. Planning your opening is obvious (and important). Planning your closing is less obvious but just as important. The presentation that peters out with an apologetic murmur about the lateness of the hour or an abrupt full stop followed by an unexpected “Thank you” as you sit down is finishing on a bum note indeed.
  23. Speaking notes are a parachute – not a script. If you must have notes use keywords and phrases in large (say 30 point) type. Speaking notes which comprise full written sentences are inherently unsuitable to oral presentations. Using your 20-page seminar paper as your own speaking notes is an own goal accordingly..
  24. Audiences typically take away between 2% and 9% of a presentation’s content. Overcooking your content will compound the problem. Highlight the particular gems you want your listeners to retain.
  25. The average adult’s attention span is approximately 6 to 7 minutes. Harness this rather than being defeated by it. A 60-minute presentation on a monolithic topic is frequently doomed to failure from the outset. And yet it might fly if it is effectively broken up into, say, 8 to 10 chunks of approximately 6 minutes each about particular components of that very same substantive topic.
  26. Consider contriving your own interruptions as breaks to punctuate your presentation. Ideally each resulting segment will prompt a renewed attention span from the audience. These breaks in the presentation can be disguised as, for example, brief group discussion exercises or questions from the floor on a segment-by-segment basis.
  27. Each segment of your presentation should :
    1. Contain a statement of the “learning outcome” desired (eg why should we talk about X at all?);
    2. Highlight the substance of X which needs to be conveyed; and
    3. Conclude with a reflection on X by which the point of the exercise is very briefly recapped.
  28. In the Google age presenters who simply deliver publicly available information are wasting their own and their audiences’ time. Unless you are adding your own personal analysis, experiences, war stories, criticism, humour and/or editorials you are giving your audience nothing positive to remember you by. (Indeed, you might be giving them positive reasons to forget you.)
  29. Don’t run over time. It antagonizes audiences, subsequent speakers and the catering staff. Most of all it looks chaotic.

And on that last point Richards concluded – precisely an hour and a half after he told us he was going to speak for 90 minutes.

If only it was simple as people in Richards’ league make it look.

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