You can turn ‘courtroom confidence’ into meeting room confidence, with these “present like a pro” hacks from a team of lawyers.
By Sonia Hickey
A difficult conversation with a colleague. Closing the sale. Motivating the team. Presenting to the Board of Directors. Many workplace situations require us to be self-assured and persuasive. And some people seem to do it effortlessly, as if they’re ‘born’ for the role. But as you’ve probably heard (and read!) time and again, these are skills you can learn.
So who better to ask for advice than a team of lawyers? They say ‘courtroom confidence’ is the result of careful planning, and some well-honed tricks of the trade.
Life is never a structured, always predictable, series of events. And nor is work. So, if you find yourself in a situation where you need to ‘present like a pro’ and you’re not quite ready, then do your best to buy yourself some time. And then use it wisely.
The golden rule every lawyer adheres to before heading into a court room is ‘prior preparation’. And they’re fastidious, perhaps even obsessive about it. No matter how many times a lawyer has defended a drink driving charge and no matter how simple or seemingly straightforward the case may seem, they never skimp on preparation. Ever.
That translates to detailed research, analysis, knowing the subject matter, and to a certain extent, understanding your audience or opponent, aiming to anticipate their arguments and apply tactical pressure to win over the room.
When President Obama delivered his Health Care Reform Plan in 2009, the most important part of his speech was to find the arguments that the Republicans would think of and contradict them, before they were even mooted. You can use this trick too.
In the US, lawyers often conduct pretrial dry runs in order to see how their arguments might work against the opposition. It’s a form of rehearsing, and rehearsing should also form part of your preparation.
Structure your argument
Be clear and concise. Have a logical sequence to the information you want to present. Build your case, just as a lawyer would do when presenting to a jury.
The bonus of being completely prepared is that you can add a little flexibility to your arsenal. This is one thing lawyers and barristers are exceptionally good at– being able to make snap decisions about the timing of the information they want to get across, based on the how the case is proceeding. If you are well organised and rehearsed in advance, you can do this too, and it means you’ll be better able to communicate your message, emphasizing salient points at the appropriate moment.
In the UK, barristers are obliged to file ‘skeleton arguments’ with the court before a civil trial begins – and in some cases have to provide copies to these to the opposition. This complete transparency means no room for surprises, and in many respects, it minimises tense plot-lines in the courtroom. While drama may make for great movies, it don’t necessarily have a place in the courtroom. On fact, many judges prefer a case without theatrics, one which is clearly argued and which adheres to procedure.
The same applies to any business presentation. While some people think that throwing in a little bit of stage craft is a good way to garner attention, it’s not always the case, and you need to be very confident of your ability as a showman/woman to pull it off. A well-defined argument, backed up by adequate evidence, delivered articulately can certainly be engaging enough.
Read the room
Just take a moment, before you speak, to gauge ‘the mood’ of your audience. The team member you’re about to take to task over her time spent on personal phone calls might have just lost her cat. The board of directors you’re about to present to might have just looked over financial forecasts that look foreboding. Don’t make assumptions. Some studies suggest that around 50% of our communication is non-verbal, through facial expressions and body language, when we are both speaking and / or simply listening. Certainly, learning some body language basics can be helpful, but above all, just take a moment to quietly observe and gauge the room before you open your mouth to speak.
The art of persuasion
Convincing someone to adopt your point of view is an exercise in knowledge-sharing and patience and suggestion. To win someone over to your point of view, you really need to lead them gently. No one likes to feel forced, bullied or backed into a corner… Eventually, by learning the art of subtlety and persuasion, you’ll become so good people will almost believe that they came up with your idea themselves.
Be a word nerd
So few of us really take the time to increase our vocabulary, and yet it can be an exceptionally powerful tool in the presentation game. While you don’t want to bamboozle with big words, making sure you use the right word in the right context can make a lasting impression. Keep your communication uncluttered, sensible, concise and clear. For lawyers, words are currency, and they spend them wisely.
Don’t get emotional
Let your passion for the subject be present, but avoid emotion. The ability to remain calm, focused, objective, and in control, particularly in a situation which might be escalating into conflict is a unique skill, but one well worth learning and practicing until you’ve perfected it.
A strong emotional response makes it difficult to present a convincing argument and is also the quickest way to lose an argument. Becoming angry or displaying other visible signs of distress are sure fire clues you’ve lost your way and your argument is about to get irrational.
Keeping your cool is not easy. Ultimately it takes a mature understanding yourself and your own unconscious biases. Get to know your own trigger points so you can mentally short-circuit them and develop strategies that enable you to keep these emotions in check, and proceed in a positive way.
Tell a story
Storytelling, is a skill that pre-dates even the law. And there are many studies, and experiments that have found that compelling storytellers are capable of imprinting their own viewpoints onto audiences with ease. This involves clever appeal to the senses, imagination and emotions of your audience.
It’s often said that the best communicators are those who know how to listen. Lawyers are highly successful communicators because they know when to respectfully listen to their opponents, and when to bring down the hammer. Particularly during times of difficult conversations, debates and arguments, listening is not only considerate good manners, it can be the key to getting your own point across, and still making the other person feel validated at the same time. Fostering constructive discussion will always mean that you can debate and negotiate amicably.
Wear comfortable shoes
Of course, dress the part. But if those six-inch killer heels are hurting your feet, you’ll definitely be distracted. The same goes for the suits and ties. When you look the part, people will take you more seriously, but you also need feel on top of your game. Presenting like a pro requires laser-like focus, so make sure you put your best foot forward, in sensible shoes.
Sonia Hickey is a freelance writer, magazine journalist and owner of ‘Woman with Words’. She has a strong interest in social justice and is a member of the Sydney Criminal Lawyers® content team.