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By: Bob Davidson

After reading an insightful comment Bob posted recently in our TPS LinkedIn group on the topic of public speaking, I knew he absolutely HAD to write an article about public speaking for us to post on The Paralegal Society. (Okay, he didn’t really HAVE to, but he so graciously acquiesced after being private-e-mail-stalked by the founder. Ahem.) So today, Bob is here to offer an array of incredibly helpful tips for that next speech …or perhaps the first one you’ll ever give. Print this one off and tuck it away for safe keeping. You’ll be glad you did. 

Presenting to Group

This article is not intended to be a primer on speech making or speech writing. Books, courses and groups, such as Toastmasters, abound on the subject. Instead, this article will suggest a few thoughts on the very notion of public speaking. It will offer ideas for preparing to speak and giving a speech, along with a little psychology and common sense about speaking before an audience.

In preparing this article, I have drawn upon my nineteen years in radio. A broadcaster may be in the studio entirely alone or with a control board operator, but in reality he or she is speaking to a large audience. I have also drawn upon my aviation experience and, of course, my paralegal experience.

Paralegals as Speakers.  Paralegals give speeches far more than they realize and never even think about it. You may have given an in-service training lesson to your team or the entire firm. Did that make you nervous? Probably not – you knew your team and it was eager to hear what you had to say. But consider that you have given other speeches. Meeting with clients and explaining aspects of their cases is speaking. You were prepared to speak to them because you had worked on their files. That didn’t bother you because you meet and speak with clients regularly.

Certainly, being asked to speak before a larger gathering, such as a paralegal group, is enough to freak out anyone. But if you apply the same principles you have used for smaller groups and are well prepared, and realize your audience wants to learn about you and hear what you have to say, you will find you can speak to larger gatherings just fine.

PREPARATION. Be Prepared! Great advice for Boy Scouts that absolutely applies for speakers.

Of course, the first step is to research the subject of your speech. Thorough research is essential, even if it is a subject you know intimately.

Some people try to wing it. Not a good idea, in my opinion. Think about your favorite morning radio show. It may sound as if your favorite morning radio personality or tag team is winging it. Not hardly – radio personalities put a lot of time into preparing their shows. In fact, for many radio personalities and especially talk show hosts, preparation is ongoing. In my opinion, if radio personalities prepare their shows you should prepare to speak – if you think about it, speaking to a group is a form of show.

Some people speak well with an outline or notes to prompt them. Others are less comfortable ad libbing from notes and do better reading off a script. My suggestion would be if you are not comfortable working off notes and you don’t have a great gift of gab, you prepare a script. As you become more comfortable speaking you will find you will rely less on your scripts.

Consider the purpose of your presentation and how best to present it to your audience.  Some material lends itself well to a chronological presentation. Other material is better suited to a topical presentation. Or you can mix and match the two. If you are giving a CLE, you could prepare a lesson plan.

A lesson plan is a specialized outline. There are many lesson plan formats. One format I like is in the Federal Aviation Administration’s Aviation Instructor’s Handbook and follows this format:

  • Lesson Objective. The subject or task to be taught during the training period.
  • Completion Standards. The standards that constitute satisfactory knowledge or performance of the subject or task that was taught during the training period.
  • The subject or task broken down into individual pieces. Included would be an introduction to the subject, explanation of the subject and a conclusion. Your conclusion would be a reiteration of the subject or task that was taught.

Add to that format Instructor’s Actions (you lecturing and taking questions, etc.) and Student’s Actions (your class of fellow paralegals thirsting for your knowledge listening to your presentation, taking notes and asking questions).

Your speech should consist of an introduction, body and conclusion. In your introduction you will set the stage for your subject matter. Some people suggest opening your speech with a story to break the ice. The body is your speech’s content. In your conclusion you will summarize the speech you just gave. You can also touch on points not set forth in the body of your speech.

If you’re drafting a script, follow the example of good radio news writers and the Great Communicator, Ronald Reagan: Use easily understood, common words and write short sentences. Short sentences won’t leave you gasping for breath. Short sentences are easier for your audience to take in and comprehend. Radio newscasters have only one chance to communicate information to listeners, so it behooves them to write plain, short, simple, punchy sentences. In my opinion a speech is no different – members of your audience cannot interrupt you and ask you to repeat the last sentence. So keep those sentences plain, short, simple and punchy.

If you need to time your speech, a rule of thumb radio news writers use is ten to fifteen seconds equates to three lines of printed copy. Your reading rate may vary. I strongly recommend double spacing your copy and using a larger font.

—>  You have prepared an outline and notes and/or have written your speech. Good! But you’re not finished with your prep. Now it’s time to practice your speech. Take your outline or notes and start speaking. The words should come relatively easily if you thoroughly researched your subject. If not, reorganize your outline or notes. You may need more research in your subject.

—>  If you wrote your speech, start reading your draft aloud. Reading it aloud will help you pick up awkward constructions, run-on sentences, lengthy sentences, extraneous words, misspellings, typos and other problems. Your copy should be easy to read aloud – it should flow and be easy to listen to. Keep polishing your copy until it is easy to read aloud.

Now rehearse your speech. Practice speaking (while incorporating any visual aids, etc.) until you are thoroughly comfortable – perhaps to the point of nearly memorizing your speech. Rehearse your speech until you can finish speaking without slips and fumbles. Then rehearse some more.

It has been suggested that speakers tape their rehearsals and replay them. Not a bad idea, except that you’re in for a shock if you’ve never heard your voice on tape. You may be then inappropriately critical of your voice and speaking patterns. Both can unnecessarily kill your confidence. Instead, have a significant other or friend critique your performance before you take it on the road.

Consider taking a test drive to the venue for your speech a day or two before if you’re unfamiliar with the location. Time the drive so you can back-time when to leave. Maybe you can actually visit the auditorium or meeting room and size it up.

Rehearse your speech at the venue, if possible. Look at the podium, if any. See if it has a step or riser, if you are short. Look for a public address system. Look for electrical outlets and determine if you will need extension cords for any visual aids. Last but not least, locate the, uh, facilities. Certainly visit the facilities before you speak.

Finally, get some rest the night before your speech and eat a good meal sometime before you speak.

GIVING THE SPEECH. Ahh, the moment when your thorough research on your subject, careful preparation and rehearsals come to fruition!

Arrive at the venue early. No matter how well prepared they are, even seasoned performers are at least a little apprehensive before a performance, and giving a speech is a performance. Leaving for the venue at the last minute can only worsen apprehension. So apply the same best practice you would use for a job interview and arrive early. You may have visual aids to set up before your speech.

Now, it’s show time!

Engage your audience by being yourself. Many speakers fear their audience will not accept them. Just consider that you were invited to speak. Obviously the person, group or entity that extended the invitation believes you are worthy of speaking – you have something to say of interest. So, from the moment you take the podium you are already on your way to engaging your audience.

Don’t worry about your voice. Some people have big booming voices that ring out like radio announcers. Some people have voices worthy of Shakespearean theater. Some people look like they should be radio announcers or Shakespearean actors but their voices are quite ordinary. No worries. Just speak. Don’t shout. An auditorium should be equipped with a public address system; if you’re not sure check into it beforehand.

Make eye contact and speak to one person. The first man to break the sound barrier, General Chuck Yeager, wrote that he gave many speeches. General Yeager wrote he was sure he was scared at first to speak. He wrote that a Bell Aircraft public relations person advised him to find the prettiest gal in the audience and speak directly to her. I like that idea. Even though you may be speaking directly to one person, each member of the audience will think you are speaking directly to him or her.

After your speech, you may want to take questions. Another opportunity for your preparation to shine through. Depending on time constraints, you may have time to take only a few questions.

One final point. Know when to stop speaking. Don’t be like Fidel Castro and orate for hours on end. Abraham Lincoln knew when to stop speaking: the Gettysburg Address consisted of but 272 words! Just remember the old showbiz adage: Leave them wanting more!

Your audience came to hear you speak. It wants to hear what you have to say. Your audience is on your side. It wants you to succeed. It is pulling for you. Think of speaking in those terms. This concept would be especially applicable if you’re speaking at a CLE. At the same time your audience’s interest in hearing you speak is not enough to overcome lack of preparation. You have to prepare. Last but not least, you must show enthusiasm for your subject.

As you speak, your thorough preparation will be apparent. Your enthusiasm will shine through. You will engage your audience and deliver a terrific speech. Don’t be surprised if you’re asked to speak again!

Resources Used for this Post:

U. S. Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Flight Standards Service, Aviation Instructor’s Handbook, FAA H-8083-9A (2008), p. 6-9, Figure 6-7.

See., e.g.,Richard J. Jensen, Reagan at Bergen-Belsen and Bitburg (2007), at 41.

General Chuck Yeager and Leo Janos, Yeager: An Autobiography 202-203(Bantam Paperback Edition 1986).

Bob Davidson has been employed in the aviation, broadcasting and legal industries. As a broadcaster Bob was recognized with Outstanding Journalism and other awards. In aviation Bob was recognized for outstanding volunteerism. In the legal industry Bob was employed as a paralegal in estate planning, probate and elder law, and in plaintiffs’ personal injury and claimants’ Workers’ Compensation law.


Have a speech to give? No problem! Just follow Bob’s fantastic tips and you’ll nail it like a pro.

We’ll see you soon, TPSers. Until then, may that cup of caffeinated happiness sitting deskside and your sanity overfloweth.  (Let’s hoist those beverages up loud and proud in a unified paralegal salute to the work week.) Carry on, legal soldiers, carry on…