One of the cornerstones of building your profile as a lawyer is to give presentations—to client groups, referral sources, and other lawyers. The objective is to showcase your expertise, alert your audience to problems they may not know they could have (and that you can solve), and ultimately bring in new business. So the impression you make when you speak has a direct bearing on future business. However, in their haste to showcase their expertise, many lawyers end up making a very poor impression.
Any communication, whether it’s an argument presented to a judge, a talk to a trade association, or a wedding speech, has three tasks to perform. I call them the three Ins: the presentation must Interest, Inform, and Inspire—in that order. Lawyers are usually really good at the second of these three tasks—so good that they forget the other two.
If you don’t interest your audience before you inform them, the impact of your information is at best lessened, at worst, lost. You were trained to “let the facts speak for themselves”, but you first have to show the audience how the facts are relevant to them. Even in a court of law, which is supposed to deal in matters of fact, counsel works hard to get the interest of the judge and jury before informing them and ultimately convincing (inspiring) them.
Let’s say you’re a construction lawyer making a presentation to an industry association. You want to talk about construction liens because that’s your star practice area. If you delve right in with the requirements for different kinds of liens, most of the audience will start shifting in their seats and wondering how soon they can go for coffee.
If you want to interest an audience, first you need to know who they are. When you’re invited to speak or you send in a proposal for a presentation, ensure that you know as much as possible about the people who will form your audience. Then get their attention right away by opening with something that’s of direct relevance to them. So our construction lawyer speaking to a group of building executives might open with a statistic, such as “In the last five years, of the 120 building starts in this city, 40% ended up in some form of litigation, delaying completion and leading to cost overruns. Today I want to show you how to avoid becoming part of that statistic.” (The figures are mine and completely imaginary; yours should be accurate and arresting.) Another way of opening would be with a brief and relevant case study showing how a situation leading to a construction lien can arise (see my previous column The Case for Case Studies).
This section of a presentation is the one where lawyers tend to forget their audience and delve with great gusto into the minutiae of their topic. They have a wealth of information and want to pack it all in. This overwhelms the audience, makes them feel stupid, and turns them off. Remember that it took you a long time to achieve your present level of expertise. Your audience may not understand concepts that you mastered long ago, terms that you now use every day, and acronyms that you thought everybody knew. Resist the temptation to include everything you know about the topic; one of McCaffery’s Maxims is that half as long is probably twice as good. Get into the audience’s shoes: in their position, what would you want to know? What do you want them to know? Structure the information: it isn’t just a random list of facts, it’s a compelling chain of evidence. Give your audience ONLY the information you want them to remember, that supports your key message. Hit the highlights, not the details.
Your key message is likely to be “Here’s a legal situation that can affect you.” Your subtext is, this is complicated, don’t try this at home. DON’T be tempted to delve into the complexity to convince people! Instead, pick the issue that affects them the most and use vivid examples.
So you’ve got the audience’s attention and you’ve given them the facts: now what? Close with a call to action, that’s what. This isn’t the time to be vague or coy: if you’ve presented a convincing case that a problem deserves the audience’s attention, you shouldn’t leave them wondering what to do next. After summarizing the main points, our construction lawyer might close with something like: “Always have your contracts with suppliers reviewed by an experienced construction lawyer.” Then the last slide can sit on the screen while the speaker takes questions.
And that slide, of course, lists the lawyer’s contact information.