8 Great Bold, Stern and Wise Presentation Tips from the Supremes

You want to get ready for prime time as a persuasive speaker?  Then read these instructions to lawyers, issued by the Supreme Court, on how to address the Justices.  The rules are highly relevant for any business speaker who is addressing a group of senior decision makers.

Speak to be heard

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

Sameness is the enemy of a speaker–sameness of tone, pitch, speed, volume or emphasis. Use your voice to bring out the meaning in your message.  A lively voice is more persuasive than a dull one.

Know your content

“Under no circumstances should you read your argument from a prepared script.”

Aha! They want to hear you think aloud. There is something electric in speech freshly minted from the mind. And if you can’t explain your argument without the aid of a script, you don’t really know your argument.

However, this doesn’t mean you have to memorize your talk.  You only have to internalize it (although I like to memorize my beginning and ending.)

Pause now and then

“You should not attempt to enhance your argument time by a rapid fire, staccato delivery.”

Rushing makes you look like–well, like you’re over-eager or nervous or that you feel you are not worth listening to and you’re trying to get off stage as fast as possible.  However, going at a deliberate pace and pausing between phrases lends you gravitas.  Make your words count.  And controlling your speed will help the audience follow what you’re saying.

Look people in the eye

“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.”

Show respect by looking at the individual asking the question. However, do not nod.  Keep your head still.  You do not want to signal that you agree or disagree with the point of view of the questioner.  Keep your eyes focused on the questioner all the way to the end of the question, and take time to think before you respond. It’s not the fastest answer that wins: it’s the best.

Leave out extraneous information

“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 than a ‘waiver’ was involved. The distinction was irrelevant, but the comment generated more questions and wasted valuable time.”

A formal presentation to a decision-making body is a social occasion.  You do not want to make anyone look bad in front of others during your talk.  Nor do you want to strut your vocabulary muscles. Mind your Ps and Qs.  Don’t quibble with your audience.

Keep calm and carry on

“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.”

If someone 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 the point is valid.”

Avoid lingo

“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.”

Don’t say, “URL,” when you could say, “Website.”

Don’t go for the laugh

“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 I argued when I clerked here.'”

When you are speaking to decision makers, you are in service to a group of people who want to make a wise decision. Your job is to give them valid information and your recommendation based on that information. You do not do yourself any favors by trying to create intimacy that does not in fact exist.

There is plenty more strong presentation advice in the court’s instruction to lawyers. Go to this url to read more.

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