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Presentation skills for the Supreme Court

As I was preparing a webinar on How to Speak to Senior Decision Making Bodies, I came across the Supreme Court’s instructions to lawyers on how to address the justices.  The rules are practical, elaborate, and daunting.

The document gets right into basic presentation skills.  The very first sentence reads:  “You should speak in a clear, distinct manner, and try to avoid a monotone delivery.”

Nothing controversial in that.  Delivery stands guard over content.  And voice communicates conviction, confidence, and belief in one’s point of view. Any presentation skills trainer will teach you that.

“Under no circumstances should you read your argument from a prepared script.”  Wow.  That’s a stunner.  They want to hear you think aloud.  They must know from experience that speakers who read scripts put themselves at a disadvantage and put the audience on edge.  After all, if you can’t explain your argument without the aid of a script, you don’t really know the bones of your argument.  And knowing what you want to say is a basic presentation skill.

“You should not attempt to enhance your argument time by a rapid fire, staccato delivery.”  In other words, don’t cram more words into less space.  Speak in a deliberate, thoughtful manner.  Pause now and then.  And do not bring the pyrotechnics of political rhetoric into the sanctity of the court.  When speaking to a decision making body, you are there to help your listeners make a wise decision.  Adjusting your style to the occasion is one of the basic presentation skills that we all must learn.

“Never interrupt a Justice who is addressing you.  Give your full time and attention to that Justice—do not look down at your notes, and do not look to your watch or at the clock located high on the wall behind the Justices.  If you are speaking and a Justice interrupts you, cease talking immediately and listen.” In other words, show some respect, some deference, and look at the Justice who is interrupting you.  Looking at someone while they are speaking is a sign of respect and a signal that you are paying attention.  The ability to look people in the eye is something we all have to master.  It, too, is one of the basic presentation skills, and something that is difficult to do when reading a script.

“Do not ‘correct’ a Justice unless the matter is essential.  In one case a Justice asked a question and mentioned ‘waiver.’ Counsel responded by stating that a ‘forfeiture’ rather a ‘waiver’ was involved.  The distinction was irrelevant, but the comment generated more questions and wasted valuable time.”  This suggestion points to the presentation skill of leaving out extraneous information.  A presentation is complete when there is nothing left to take out. And it sounds to me that the counsel who brought up the distinction between “forfeiture” and “waiver” was showing off his intellectual muscles.  Not a good idea when you’re trying to win people over.  Keeping things simple is yet another basic presentation skill.

“When a justice makes a point that is adverse to you, do not ‘stonewall.’ Either concede the point, as appropriate, or explain why the point is not dispositive of your case and proceed with your argument.”  So in business, when you speak to a senior decision-making body, and one of them points out an error on your slide, or questions one of your points, you either have to say, “You may be right. I will look into that,” or, “You may be right, but here’s why I think this point is valid.”

“Be careful not to use the ‘lingo’ of a business or activity.  The Court may not be familiar with such terms, even if widely understood within that business or activity.”  Similarly, senior executives are not often familiar with every aspect of a business.  Don’t say, “URL,” when you could say, “Website.”  Your presentation skills are appreciated when you speak in a language that everyone can understand.

“Attempts at humor usually fall flat.  The same is true of attempts at familiarity.  For example, do not say something like:  ‘This is similar to a case argued when I clerked here.’”  You are in service to the group of people who are making a decision.  Your job is to give them valid information and your recommendation based on that information.  You do not do yourself any favors by drawing unwarranted attention to yourself.  In fact,  you do well by demonstrating your sensitive, caring and empathic presentation skills, which require you, in this case, to be dispassionate and helpful.

There is more.  I urge you , if you are interested to go to this url to read more.  It’s really quite amazing how elaborate the traditions are, and how closely they adhere to the rules for effective business presentation skills.

 

November 6, 2012 Comments (None)