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Teaching Presentation Skills as a Core Competence

Whether the situation calls for a young associate to explain the applicability of a new statute to colleagues, a partner to present a client proposal or an industry group chair to deliver the keynote address at a conference, all lawyers must be able to deliver an effective group presentation. Indeed, the ability to prepare for and deliver a compelling presentation should be considered a core skill for lawyers at every stage of their careers. Does your firm offer presentation skills training?

Begin with the Fundamentals of Communication

PresentationI recommend that any presentation skills program begin with a review of the six communication fundamentals developed by Barbara Miller. Barbara is known to many in the legal industry, having trained hundreds of lawyers at dozens of law firms over the course of her successful career. Barbara’s six fundamentals:

  1. People listen for their own reasons. Who is your audience and what do they want to learn or know at the conclusion of your presentation? Knowing your audience is a critical first step in designing a presentation that will be well-received.
  2. People support that which they help create. I am a HUGE believer in audience participation. No matter the size of the audience, successful speakers find ways to engage their audience in meaningful ways. Engagement also is one of the best ways to direct audience attention away from the competition—their smart phones.
  3. Everything communicates. Ours is a visual society. Numerous studies confirm that, on average, 55% of a message is non-verbal, 38% is vocal and only 7% are the words themselves. So while you may have a powerful message to share, many will remember what they see and less of what they hear. Dress appropriately and practice your delivery.
  4. The message is the message received. Every individual in your audience receives your message through a complex set of personal filters and biases that further shape your message, sometimes in ways unintended. Look for cues from your audience.
  5. Rapport leads to trust. Rapport is critical to overall success and reflects an ability to establish an emotional and intellectual connection with the audience.
  6. Practice with feedback is critical to success. Practice your presentation, out loud, in front of a live audience. Even one practice session will reduce the level of anxiety attendant to most every speaking situation.

A Training Program that Works

In my experience, both as a college speech instructor early in my career (before law school) and later in my work with lawyers, speech training programs works best when they adhere to the following:

  1. Work with a small number of participants and allow time for live, interactive practice. Six to ten participants seems to be the right number for a one-day program.
  2. Expect the participants to come to the training prepared. Their presentations shouldn’t be a “first time” practice. Ask participants to work on existing presentation opportunities such as an upcoming CLE, keynote address or prospect pitch.
  3. Video record presentation performances. There are few experiences more memorable or valuable than watching oneself on a video recording. Training programs should include time for both immediate feedback from the group and a more intimate, one-on-one feedback session with the instructor while observing the video.
  4. Include time to discuss a number of critical support topics. The training should cover:
    • Audience dynamics and analysis;
    • Content design, structure and flow;
    • Openings, transitions and closings;
    • Visual aids;
    • Confidence, delivery and channeling anxiety;
    • Rehearsal strategies; and
    • Q&A and audience participation;
  1. Create follow-up opportunities. Training participants should know how to avail themselves of support when a “real” presentation opportunity occurs.

All lawyers need these important presentation skills, and many (if not most) will dramatically improve with effective training. Follow these fundamentals and you can create a training program that will help lawyers across practice areas and experience levels.

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