Communication Tips From Trial Lawyers
Do successful lawyers have a "gift" that makes them great communicators? Yes, some are more talented than others, but consistent winners earn their victories by applying a few fundamental rules of persuasive communication.
Anyone who wants to be a better communicator - an executive, a professional speaker, or anyone to whom public speaking is essential - can benefit from the same concepts that lawyers use with great success. Here are the trial lawyers' seven secrets of communication:
Have a plan. You talk better when you know what you are talking about. Excellent trial lawyers are excellent preparers. You too should have a plan of action, a structure for your presentation. Whether your outline is a written or mental checklist, know the points you want to make, and put the points in a meaningful order for maximum impact. A good lawyer never asks a question in a trial without already knowing the answer, or knowing what to do if the witness springs a surprise answer. Don't expect to be spontaneously brilliant. Plan your talk.
Know your audience. Lawyers know that the backgrounds, experiences and beliefs of jurors are crucial to trial results, because people are inclined to defend their opinions and attitudes even in the face of contradictory evidence and reason. Consultants trained in psychology are paid in big cases to study the backgrounds of potential jurors in hopes of finding a receptive jury. Here is the point: If you want to persuade an audience of one or one thousand, know as much as you can about each recipient of your message.
Anticipate questions about your credibility. By planning your message and knowing your audience, you can prepare to address the audience's doubts about you or your "case." Always look for the weaknesses in your contentions or your credentials, and be ready to address them. Ask yourself, "Why would this audience not want to listen to me on this issue?" Then ask yourself, "What can I do to over come this resistance?" Whatever you decide is the best way to attack your obstacle, do it early in your presentation.
Visualize winning. Lawyers often take their clients to the courtroom a few days before a trial to acclimate them to the environment. The sense of comfort and familiarity can make both the lawyer and the client better communicators when the trial starts. If you are giving a presentation in an unfamiliar setting, go early and stand where you will give your talk. Go alone, and take your time to get comfortable with the surroundings. Imagine giving the presentation in the same room, filled with warm, appreciative people. Close your eyes and hear the applause. See the smiles. Feel the victory!
Arrogance repels. Smugness is ugly. We don't like to listen to jerks. It is hard to define what makes a person likeable, but the "like factor" is important in persuasive communication. Even if you are not a natural at conveying warmth and humor, you can still improve your likeability by observing basic rules of manners and etiquette. The "magic words" from kindergarten still work: please, thank you, you're welcome. These words are especially effective when said with sincerity and an honest smile.
Can humility be learned? Yes, because humility is an attitude. If humility does not come naturally to you, then choose to work on your humility. A humble attitude is a choice. If you have the desire to improve your attitude, try cultivating your humility.
Speak to the head and to the heart. Different people respond to different types of messages. A well-planned talk will appeal to reason, common sense and emotion. Try to hit all three aspects and weave them together.
Communicate with a range of expression, using sight, sound and movement to appeal to as many of the senses as you can. Help your audience see and feel - as well as hear - your message.
To touch the audience's hearts and minds, be especially careful of your choice of words. Words are powerful. The wrong word at the wrong time to the wrong group can put a chill on your speech that fire and brimstone cannot thaw.
Primacy. What is first heard and seen - the first impression - sticks. An opinion or attitude, once formed, resists change. Trial lawyers have long known that juries don't review a case impartially after all the evidence has been received. That's an unnatural way for human beings to make decisions. What really happens is that opinions are quickly formed (the "good guy" and "bad guy" are identified early in the communication process), and evidence contrary to these opinions is subconsciously filtered out and rejected.
How do you take advantage of primacy? Start strong.
To me, the first question to the first witness in a trial is being like a heavyweight boxing champion, on the opening bell, walking directly toward his opponent and throwing an immediate uppercut to the chin.
Starting strong means not saying "good morning" or "I'm glad to be here today" or some other cliched time waster. Starting strong means using the first words, the first sentence, to grab the audience's attention and to start the persuasion process.
Recency. What's heard last stays "ringing in their ears," and is remembered best. In trials, the lawyer who gets the last word treasures the chance to send the jury off to the deliberation room with a resounding, emotional BANG!
People act on emotion, so finish with a memorable, emotional flourish.
There is a rhythm to our language. Eloquent, thoughtful and effective speakers have learned that certain patterns of speech carry more impact than others.
Bad lawyers tend to write in redundant pairs. Cease and desist; devise and bequeath; insist and demand. But good trial lawyers, those who live by the spoken word, are aware of the power of threes.
"Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
"Preserve, protect and defend."
"Government of the people, by the people, for the people."
The rhythm of three's is poetic, it is artistic, and it is dramatic. Learn to profit from the impact of the "Rule of Three."
Use simple, strong language. Don't try to impress with hundred-dollar words. Love is a powerful word. Honor is a powerful word. Respect is a powerful word. Don't dilute the strength of your message with bureaucratic, stuffy or pretentious prose. Reject cliches.
Simple, clear, punchy words create a picture in your listeners' minds. Your audience will not remember the words; they will remember the images their minds created with your words.
Finding the right words takes work. Don't expect the best words to he the first to come to your mind. Keep digging for the truth in your message, and keep trying to find the right words to convey your meaning.
Anecdotes sell; statistics bore. The best lawyers know that stories are interesting. Every case that ends up in court has a story; successful courtroom advocates focus on the story.
Which of these two versions of an event is better?
• Vague and legalistic: "The defendant on the occasion in question failed to exercise due care and negligently collided with another vehicle, causing severe harm."
• Specific (tells the story): "Bob Smith got himself drunk that Saturday night, ran a red light, and crashed into Jane Doe's car, paralyzing her for life."
Both versions are accurate, but the one that tells a story is the one that holds the audience's interest.
Do what the winners do. Prepare well, act humbly, communicate on multiple levels, use primacy and recency to advantage, use the Rule of Three and the power of words to tell the story. Then you will communicate like trial masters.
Mark Pierce is a former Toastmaster in El Paso, Texas.