I am in my first week of Trial Advocacy, and this Professor keeps repeating that I should “look good.” The way to do that is to know the story inside out, and to present it in a convincing way. To practice, he gave us the infamous State v. Alexander case. The first assignment is to give the opening statement, and I am the Defense Attorney. Now that I have analyzed the fact pattern and established my strategy, I should be able to better tell my side of the story. Uh, in my imagination only… because I am petrified every time I speak in public. No matter how prepared I am, I still feel that knot in my stomach that won’t go away until after it is all done. I googled some techniques on how to overcome my fears of public speaking, and many articles popped up. I will mention only the following tips, but there are many more. (Spoiler: it won’t involve imagining talking to people in underwear.)
Discover the Cause of Your Anxiety
Anxiety can be caused by many things: stress, lack of experience, low self-esteem, negative thinking, fear of embarrassment, etc. Once you know what triggers your anxiety, work to break down those stronghold(s) and practice overcoming them. If you only think of how you will mess up, you are setting yourself up for failure. If that is your mindset, and you actually do mess up, you will end up using that experience as evidence that you are not good at public speaking. Thus, you should change your perspective and encourage yourself to do better. That may seem like a lot of work, but it is possible. Take the Couch Potato to 5K challenge for example. For those unfamiliar with the challenge, this is when you aim at running a 5K after sitting on your couch for so long. The strategy is to start slow, then increase the intensity and the repetition. Set up small goals (e.g., speak for 3/5/10 minutes without looking at your notes, project your voice, look at one person until you feel comfortable to look at one section of the audience with the ultimate goal of facing the whole audience). Pat yourself on the back every time you achieve your goal(s).
Preparing for the opening statement of the Alexander case, I outlined what I wanted to say: what my theme would be, and what my theory would be. Unfortunately for me, our Professor strongly advised us not to use any notes. It was a conversation between me and the Jury. I rapidly became aware of them (the Jurors) and had a hard time to focus on telling my story. I had practiced in my head, and on the way to class, but while I was standing there, I felt out of place, like an imposter. I uttered a few of sentences to tell my side of the story. I had to remember why I was standing, and did focus on my goal and work to achieve it.
Know Your Topic
The more you understand what you are talking about, the less likely you will get off track. When you know your topic, you will know when you go too far and be able to quickly redirect the conversation to where you want it to be. In his book “Trial Advocacy: The Art of Storytelling,” Professor Hatcliffe explains how to legally and factually analyze all elements of a case to devise your theory. The analysis itself is a long and tedious process, but it is the best way to know what is going on, to determine the strengths and weaknesses of a case, and to eventually work those strengths and weaknesses in your story.
Time is of the essence, but lack thereof should not be an excuse to cut corners. When you take the time to understand your topic, you avoid the fear of being embarrassed when someone asks you a question for which you should know the answer. In addition, keeping a rapport with your audience is essential. When shuffling through your notes for answers, you may unintentionally break the rapport you managed to create with that audience. If the question is challenging though, you should not be afraid to say, “I will check and get back to you.” Just be sure to get back to that person.
Most presenters should master their topic before a speech or presentation. In a trial, the topic might be something you have never heard of. A bit of quick research can give you basic knowledge. However, leave the expert testimony to the experts.
Know Your Audience
Knowing your topic not only means knowing the substance of your presentation. It also means knowing your audience. Talking to 4th graders is not the same as talking to same-age colleagues or talking to professionals. Adjust your presentation to your audience. In the mock trial we did in trial advocacy, the case was about a fatal accident caused by a boom lift arm getting in contact with high voltage power lines. We went through our direct and cross examinations while the jurors had no idea what a boom lift was. This was eventually corrected when the presiding judge pointed this out to all counsels. To avoid the fear of “losing” your audience, make sure they stay engaged and understand everything you say.
When talking directly to any jury, always remember to evaluate their demeanor to make sure they understand everything they are hearing. A jury is composed of people from different backgrounds, different age ranges, and different education levels. In our legal writing classes, we are taught to write so that a seventh grader could understand. As an advocate, the same rule should apply when presenting our case. Present your case in a way that middle schoolers could understand every element of the case. When you see your audience engaged, your fear of embarrassing yourself might turn into you having fun with them.
As the Couch Potato to 5K challenge takes weeks to complete, overcoming your fear of public speaking will not happen overnight. You need to break down your goal in small steps that will make the challenge less intimidating. As the Couch Potato to 5K challenge requires equipment, planning when and where to schedule the running sessions, your support system, etc., you need to completely prepare before making a presentation: ahead of time, carefully plan out the information you want to present, including any props, audio or visual aids. The more organized you are, the less nervous you’ll be. The most common tip would be to use an outline on a small card to stay on track. Eventually, toss the card. Knowing your topic also means preparing how to successfully tell your story
If possible, visit the place where you’ll be speaking and review available equipment before your presentation. With the pandemic, most courtrooms now have more access to technology than before. But in the rare case that it does not, adjust your props, audio or visual aids.
This step is essential, and also the most awkward one. One of the exercises we had in class was to record a closing argument. I did not realize how much I “danced,” looked up and down, made faces, etc. when talking. It took me a few times before I got it “right.” Practicing in front of a full-size mirror will also help see your body language and adjust when necessary.
Once you feel a bit more confident, you can practice in front of people you are comfortable with and ask for feedback. If you feel even bolder, you can do the same in front of people you are unfamiliar with. Take in those constructive criticisms and adjust your presentation. Chances are, your audience will have the same questions, concerns or attitudes as your mock audience.
Practice in your head, in the car, when taking a shower – practice so much that you get tired of what you are going to say.
In Trial Advocacy, your coach will make you practice through different drills. The drills are helpful techniques that should make you feel more comfortable with what you should say. Doing it in small groups with classmates also helps with public speaking as your audience is in the same boat, and will encourage you to do your part.
Control Your Breathing
Controlled breathing is a practice that allegedly brings health benefits such as better brain function, increased energy, and a feeling of calmness. Focusing on your breathing pattern will help you whenever you feel nervous or afraid. Stress naturally triggers a “fight-or-flight” reaction from the body. Controlled breathing will activate a “relaxation” response. Focus on yourself instead of others, and on what and who you are. That can help you refocus on what you are going to say.
Controlling your breathing will also help you focus on things other than your “scary” audience. It is as relevant in working out as it is when talking in public. When exercising in general, you should be mindful of your breathing, or you will run the risk of being out of breath. Meditation or yoga are recommended techniques or disciplines to release the tensions in your body, because you have to deeply inhale/exhale throughout the sessions. Before making a presentation, you can also practice some breathing exercises. It will help you relax and project your voice a bit further, so that everyone can hear you tell the side of your story.
In the end, pat yourself on the back if you were able to present your case. Mistakes happen all the time, and just learn from them.