I recently interviewed Josh Karton, a communication expert from Los Angeles, who helps lawyers all over America become better speakers and presenters. Josh, who has a dramatic arts background, explained that it’s often difficult to get lawyers to look up from notes and just speak to an audience. He told me it’s because our training in law school teaches us a duty to the written word, but when we speak our duty is to the listener, not to our written notes.
This makes a lot of sense. The bulk of our communication training in law school is in written form. Better write that test answer or brief correctly. Don’t mess up that citation. Don’t you know how to properly footnote?
We become obsessed with getting it right so we can get good grades, and later win before the Judge. But what about when we are called to speak before a jury? They could care less that we get every single fact and figure down correctly, they just want to be engaged and guided. Imagine going to the theater and having someone read Shakespeare to us. That’s how jurors feel when we read off a page. Their minds wander, and as Josh observes since we’re not giving them an interesting story of the case they fill in their own story. And one of its main characters may be someone boring the hell out of them at that very moment.
How I Broke Away From My Notes
So what exercise can we do to break away from our notes and fulfill our duty to the listener? One method that’s helped me came from preparing to speak at extemporaneous speaking competitions called the Silver Tongue Competition. I was going to hit the stage in front of 500 people, six judges, and a silver microphone before I even knew my topic. It was one of the scariest things I had ever done. How do you prepare to speak on a topic when you don’t even know what it is?
That’s how jurors feel when we read off a page. Their minds wander, and as Josh observes since we’re not giving them an interesting story of the case they fill in their own story. And one of its main characters may be someone boring the hell out of them at that very moment.
For weeks before the competition I would go into my office, close the door and pull out an old Merriam-Webster dictionary. I’d set a timer for the allotted six minutes and then flip through the dictionary picking out three words, say paper, tingle and lion. Then I would talk for six minutes in some crazy or logical way trying to weave a story or commentary together using those words. I usually did a horrible job, but as time went by I got better at connecting the dots in my brain and speaking from those connections. The competitions later went well in large part because I got used to the uncertainty and began to trust my ability to simply talk. I began to trust me. Now when I rehearse for trial I may write out my Opening but when I get up to deliver in court I usually only have a few conceptual words in front of me, which I may or may not check. I may not get everything perfect but I know I’ll hit what’s important and hopefully I’m not boring.
Honoring the listener begins with trusting ourselves that we’ll get it right and accepting that we sometimes get it wrong. My view of Josh’s advice for the courtroom is that it’s not at all about us, it’s about the listeners. Once we let go of worrying about us we can start to care about them and give them what they need, and that can help us win.