Better Public Speaking For Lawyers

  • October 15, 2014
  • Janice Mucalov

Why Lawyers Should Be Good Public Speakers

When we think of lawyers and public speaking, we imagine trials and administrative hearings. But more public speaking by lawyers takes place outside of the courtroom, notes Samuel Pillsbury, a law professor at Los Angeles’ Loyola Law School.

“Lawyers often speak to lay groups about various matters of controversy. They… appear before legislatures, city councils, planning commissions, or give talks to civic groups, business executives, or company employees. Lawyers also may need to give media interviews on behalf of clients.”

The problem is that many lawyers are not good public speakers. Compounding the problem is the common misconception that because you’re a lawyer, you’re automatically a fearless public speaker.

This expectation is one reason why it’s more important for lawyers to have good oratory skills than it is for other professionals. As a lawyer, you’re probably also the kind of person who wants to make a difference in this world – whether to help save the environment or to increase public funding for your local school. One way to make a difference is to speak well. If you’re a trial lawyer, it’s critical that you know how to persuade a judge or jury.

Public speaking is also a great way to increase your visibility and market your law practice. People perceive you as being the expert on the topic you speak about. Talking for 15 minutes in front of the right audience could do more for your practice than working for six months in your office.

But what if you’re not a natural public speaker? Don’t sweat it. Public speaking is a learned skill.

You can learn to speak well in all public speaking environments – from one-on-one reporting to fellow associates or partners and discussion groups with clients to speaking engagements at conferences and continuing education seminars. With practice and good feedback, you will improve. Before long, you’ll become a competent, interesting speaker. Who knows, you may even wow your audiences too.

Taming Your Fear

Face your fear

If you’re like most people, you dread speaking in front of an audience. Surveys, in fact, show that people often fear public speaking more than death.

It’s easier said than done, but you have to confront your fear, says Nicole Wells. The founder of Communication Gym ( and an adjunct faculty member at New York University, she trains lawyers to become better public speakers. Realize that every speaker gets uncomfortable or nervous. “Usually you think you’re much worse than you really are,” adds Wells.

And don’t apologize for any nervousness or anxiety – this just distracts from your message. The audience, judge or jurors probably won’t notice anyway. And if they do, they’re likely to be sympathetic.

Start with a small audience

For your first engagement, don’t stand up in front of a crowd of two thousand people. Get comfortable addressing family members or friends first. Then try speaking in front of a small group of strangers. When you’re ready, move onto larger audiences.


Preparation is key to controlling your fear. If you know your material inside and out, and are ready to answer audience questions, you’re well on your way to giving a good speech.

As soon as you know your topic, start work on your speech. Think about what you want to get across. Do your research and write an outline.

Then: practise, practise, practise. Rehearse your speech in front of the mirror as well as family and friends. Ask for feedback. Record your speech and listen to yourself. Revise the areas that need improvement.

Focus on your message

Don’t focus on yourself and your anxiety. Look outward. Concentrate on your message and the people in your audience. Remind yourself how important it is for them to hear what you have to say.

Use relaxation techniques

Relieve nervous tension by breathing deep into your belly. Before you are introduced, clench your fists, hold for five seconds, then release. Continue to inhale slowly and exhale completely.


To ease the terror of speaking in public, you have to do it often. Familiarity reduces the fear. Take advantage of opportunities where you can speak in front of an audience:

  • When attending a seminar or sitting in an audience yourself, ask questions of the speaker. (Often you have to move to a microphone to ask your question.)
  • Call in to a radio station to ask a question or voice an opinion.
  • Tell stories to your spouse, children and co-workers.
  • Volunteer to introduce a speaker.
  • Join an organization like your homeowner’s association, a volunteer board, or your parent teacher association. These offer many occasions to speak in front of a crowd.
  • Volunteer to be part of a continuing legal education panel.
  • Join Toastmasters International (see “Where to go for more information and training” at the end of this article).

Common Public Speaking Mistakes

Reading from your notes

The fastest way to bore your audience is to read your notes. The best public speakers don’t rely on any notes at all. If you must, use index cards printed with key words or points. Glance at the key word to prompt your next thought. Then look into the eyes of the audience before expounding on that thought.

Speaking too fast

Most people speak too quickly, especially if they’re nervous. And usually they think they’re speaking more slowly than they actually are.

Monitor your pace. A general pace of 150 to 180 words a minute is considered comfortable for most audiences, says Wells.

Varying the pace and volume creates variety and helps to keep your audience’s attention. So you can speed up to 220 words a minute at times, then slow down when delivering key important points. You also want to pause at the end of any complex sections.

To speak more slowly, find a newspaper phrase, count 160 words, and practice reading it for one minute.

Many people also rush too quickly into their speech. To get started, evenly distribute your weight so you’re grounded. Look confident. Pick out someone in the audience to look at. Take a breath, pause – this adds dramatic tension – then start speaking.

Trying to say too much

An audience’s attention span is short. Yet many speakers attempt to cram in too many details in their speeches. You won’t be successful if you try to get across five main points in a five-minute speech – aim for just one major point.

How long should your talk be? That depends on the occasion.

A good length for a speech after lunch or dinner is 15 to 20 minutes, says Conrad Teitell, a Connecticut-based lawyer who founded and teaches the American Bar Association’s course on public speaking for lawyers and appears on PBS television programs.

An educational seminar may range from 40 minutes to two hours. But if the length is two hours, you should break that down into six separate 20-minute talks.

Lack of eye contact

Failing to look at your audience is another common mistake. You want to create a rapport and make a connection with them. Don’t, however, gaze mechanically left to right, scanning the room like a surveillance camera.

Instead, make eye contact with specific individuals in the audience. Talk to one person directly for one thought, then move on to another person for your next thought.

Failing to use good transitions

If you don’t segue properly from one point to another, your speech will be muddy and disjointed. People perk up at transitions, says Wells. “They think, ‘I have to listen to this new idea. There’s a new point coming along,’ so they pay extra attention.”

Recap the point you’ve just made, then transition smoothly to the next. Examples of easy transitions include:

  • “Consequently…”
  • “Because of this…”
  • “On a similiar note…”
  • “My third point is…”
  • “Turning now to…”

Using Humour

Humour is a powerful tool. It can help you establish a bond with your audience, defuse hostility, illustrate a point, lighten up heavy material, keep your audience from nodding off, and make you and the information in your speech worth remembering.

But what if you’re one of those people who can’t tell a joke?

“You don’t actually have to be funny,” submits Wells. “You don’t need to tell jokes. Being human, being real, being authentic – these are the most important things for a lawyer to remember when giving a speech.”

Still, most everyone can use humor effectively, once they find a style of humour that fits with their personality. “Self-deprecating humour is always a crowd pleaser,” says Teitell. And it’s okay to be mildly entertaining rather than side-splittingly hilarious.

For humour to work, remember to avoid being sarcastic or insulting. Keep it clean – you don’t want to embarrass people.

Teitell also adds that, even with humour, you still need to show that your speech is to be taken seriously. “You don’t want to joke around too much,” he says. “The more conservative the audience, the less humour you use.”

Other ways to spice up your speech? Sprinkle in a few good relevant anecdotes or quotes. Begin by saying, “Winston Churchill once said…” or “It’s fitting to conclude with the words of former Supreme Court of Canada judge Bertha Wilson…” There are many books on anecdotes and witty quotes, or go online. If you’re giving a lecture or talk on bankruptcy, Google “Bankruptcy anecdotes.”

“People also love to hear personal stories,” says Teitell. Sharing your own life experiences is a surefire way to connect with the audience.

Tips and Techniques for Better Public Speaking

Check out the venue in advance

It’s essential you familiarize yourself with the room in which you’ll be speaking in advance. Says Teitell:  “It’s not your job, but it is your problem if people can’t hear you.”

Arrive early. Test the microphone and any visual aids, and practise using them.

Also note where your audience will be sitting. If 100 people are confirmed for a 300-seat room, they’ll be scattered around. Teitell suggests that you bring some masking tape and rope off the back rows, so people will end up sitting closer together and to you.

Do you have a chance to meet your listeners beforehand? Mingling before the presentation allows your audience to get to know you, enhancing your credibility with them.

Prepare your own introduction

Does the emcee have the right information to introduce you? Give the emcee an introduction you’ve prepared, containing at least the following pertinent information:

  • what the topic is
  • why you're speaking on this topic
  • who you are
  • why you are the speaker

Know your audience

Just because you can get up and talk for 30 minutes in front of a crowd doesn’t mean that you’re a good public speaker. Good public speaking is about the ability to communicate and connect with your audience.

Phillip Miller, a Nashville-based personal injury lawyer and active trial consultant, laments that the whole idea of audience engagement is missing from many speeches. To establish a rapport, understand who your listeners are.

What is their age? What is their education level and cultural background? What do they read? What are their attitudes?

Are they on your side or against you? You’ll have a motivated audience in the case of a voluntary continuing legal education program, but could face a sceptical one in the context of a trial.

What’s the purpose of your talk? The three main purposes are to persuade, to inform, or to inspire.

Plan your speech accordingly based upon your audience and the purpose of your talk. 

Move around

“The podium is a huge barrier,” says Wells. “Get away from the podium if you’re standing. You’ll score huge points with your audience.” Wear a little clip-on microphone so you can move around on the stage. Movement creates interest for the audience and will also help you to release tension.

If you’re seated in a panel, stand up and walk about at the front of the room. Or at least lean forward onto the table in front and look out at the audience (not the panel). If you’re the moderator of the panel, stand.

Start with a strong lead

Don’t begin with a weak “Thank you for that kind introduction.” Or “It’s a pleasure to be here. I’ll begin with a funny joke I heard last night.” Just smile at the emcee, pause, then launch right into your speech.

Your opening statement has to be compelling to get the audience to listen to you. Grab attention with:

  • a thoughtful question
  • a relevant anecdote or personal story
  • a startling statistic
  • an appropriate and interesting quote
  • a challenging statement
  • a pertinent news headline

For example, “90 per cent of people who sue never have to go trial…” or “Twelve years ago, as I was walking down…” After your opening, move on to:  “Today, I’m going to talk about…”

Be organized

Your speech should be organized in a logical sequence, like chapters in a story. Or it could follow a timeline. It should have a clear beginning, middle and an end. Surveys show that what judges and lawyers value when listening to a presentation is a clearly-stated case using plain and straight-forward language. Close your speech with a bang – a relevant thought-provoking question, a succinct summary, a great quote, a powerful story, or a call for action.

Be bold

Speak loudly, clearly and with confidence. Vary the tone and volume of your voice to keep your speech lively.

Invite questions

Questions are important, as you become more intimately involved with your audience this way, says Teitell. So welcome questions. Teitell invites people to ask questions throughout his speeches – not just at the end.

If no one has a question, get the ball rolling by asking yourself a question:  “Many audiences ask my views on the theory of….”

When you get a question, repeat it, as not all people will have heard the question (perhaps reframing it).

If you prefer to take questions at the end of your talk, don’t end with a question-and-answer session. Tell the audience instead that you will take questions after your closing point. After the questions, end with a second very short closing.

Seek feedback

To improve your public speaking skills, you need to find out how others perceive you. Ask a friend or trusted colleague for honest but constructive feedback. Should you speak louder? Does your speech move them? (Why or why not?) What three areas could be improved? (How?).

Using Visual Aids and PowerPoint Presentations

Visual aids will enhance almost any presentation. Learning is most effective when people see as well as hear. Studies indicate that message retention is only 10% after three days for an oral presentation, but increases to 65% for both showing and telling.

Remember, however, that visual aids are only to be used to support your talk – don’t rely on them as a crutch. Here are some specific tips:

  • Keep your visuals simple, relevant and easy to follow.
  • Make your text size large. Images too should be easily visible and large enough to be seen by everyone in the room.
  • Use bullet points, not complete sentences.
  • Choose bold colours that help the text stand out.

Flipcharts and overhead projectors

A flipchart on a portable easel or an overhead projector with transparencies is easy to use (no computer wizardry required!) and inexpensive.

Flipcharts are most suitable for small audiences of 20 or fewer people. You can prepare the flipchart before your talk and write on it as well during your presentation to make a specific point or jot down audience responses. Just be sure not to look at your flipchart when speaking.

An overhead projector with transparencies can also help seize your audience’s attention with pie graphs and bulleted points.

Computer-based visuals

Microsoft PowerPoint is the most commonly used computer presentation software (less common, though still popular, is Adobe Acrobat Professional). You can use your laptop to fire up the program – and with an added screen and other equipment, you can display some pretty impressive visual simulations and illustrations. With a remote control, you can change the image and still move around the room.

Speaking in the Courtroom

Oral advocacy in the courtroom is a specialized form of public speaking, where persuasion is key.

For jury presentations, research shows that jurors make decisions based on the story model, says Miller. So you need to tell the jury what they want to know, not just what you think is important.

For example, with a product liability case, it’s not enough to call on experts to testify that the product was defective. There’s no story there. You need to answer questions relating to why the product was defective. Why did the manufacturers in good conscience make a product that could kill or injure people?

If you don’t fill in the blanks, jurors tend to supply their own answers, which may be completely inaccurate and off-base. Your goal, says Miller, is to create a trial story that incorporates the facts critical to your case and resonates with the way the jury sees the case.

For more information, see Miller’s “Storytelling: A Technique for Jury Persuasion” cited at the end of this article. Many continuing legal education programs also offer courses on trial advocacy skills. Check with your local bar association or trial advocacy society.

Where to Go for More Information and Training


One of the best ways to improve your public speaking skills is to join Toastmasters International. A non-profit organization, Toastmasters was formed to help people become more competent and comfortable in front of an audience. Toastmasters groups typically comprise 20 or so people, who meet weekly for an hour or two to practise giving prepared speeches and analyze each other’s talks. You might even find a of Toastmasters lawyers’ group in your city.

Public speaking courses

Many universities and continuing legal education programs offer public speaking classes – some specifically for lawyers.

Or, suggests Wells, organize your own group of lawyers to meet for the purpose of practicing public speaking once a month.

Hire a personal coach

If you have a big speech coming up, consider hiring a personal coach to prepare you. An expert can help ensure that your body language and eye contact are congruent with your message so you come across as authentic. A coach can also demonstrate points and videotape you, providing feedback on areas that need improvement.

Other helpful resources

Janice Mucalov is a freelance writer in Vancouver.