Legal Presentation Skills Guide
Presentation skills are core life skills, but they are doubly important if you wish to practise as a lawyer. You will use presentation skills in a variety of different ways, including:
- to persuade
- to get a message across
- to prove
- to sell
- to win
Within a professional context:
- in an interview
- in court
- in a lecture room
- in a meeting or conference
- to win
About this resource
This resource will help you develop effective presentation skills in a legal context.
Work through the material and exercises and you should be able to:
- develop appropriate learning strategies to enhance your presentation skills
- learn and apply the three key rules of presenting
- use presentation skills effectively in advocacy and questioning
- Not just words
- Preparation, preparation, preparation
- The rule of three
LEARNING PRESENTATION SKILLS
Unfortunately sitting there listening to a lecturer all day will not render you competent at presentation. Like most other skills, presentation skills are acquired through practice, and practice is most productive if accompanied by good preparation and followed by honest evaluation and feedback.
Try it yourself! Get together with one or more other students and try this:
- Without letting anyone else see, one of you sketches a picture of a scene, for example, a road traffic accident or a crime taking place. (Time allotted: 5 minutes).
- Now, the sketcher helps someone else to recreate the same scene, including as much detail as possible without showing them the original sketch. This requires good descriptive and presenting skills. (Time allotted: 10 minutes).
- Compare the finished sketches.
- Repeat the exercise with someone else sketching a different picture. This time, you may share the original sketch while the second person tries to recreate it.
- Discuss how the results differ. What have you learnt about effective presentation?
There are three essential rules about presentation:
Words are not the only (or even the best) tool
Research shows that when presented with information, we take in 55% of it from visuals, 38% from spoken words and 7% from printed words. So, just like the old adage, “a picture paints a thousand words”, try to use visual aids whenever possible. This is why lawyers use exhibits in documents and in court to help them prove points.
Preparation, preparation, preparation
Been to a play where the actors had forgotten their lines? What was your immediate impression? That's why preparation is so important.
Some of the most memorable speeches in history have been the best prepared ones. Winston Churchill spent six weeks preparing, refining and rehearsing his maiden speech to the House of Commons in 1901, and then wowed his fellow MPs with a prefect memorised delivery on the day.
Good preparation involves:
- knowing the contents of your presentation
- having a well laid out plan
- refining and rehearsing the presentation before the real event.
The rule of three
People cannot remember too much information at any one time. Most of your audience will only remember three key things from your presentation, so plan for what these will be.
- Julius Caesar's “Friends, Romans, Countrymen, lend me your ears…”
- “Location, location, location” when buying property
- Churchill's “I can promise you blood, sweat, toil and tears” (usually quoted as the “Blood, Sweat & Tears” speech).
Top tip: Remember, the rule of three when it comes to presentations is:
- Words are not the only tool
- Preparation, preparation, preparation
- The rule of three.
Try it yourself! Think of a presentation you will need to make in the near future. Prepare for that presentation using the rule of three.
PRESENTATION SKILLS IN A LEGAL CONTEXT
Essentially an advocate's task is one of presenting, as they need to:
- be heard (engage and maintain the audience's interest)
- get the message across (select the right contents and emphasis)
- persuade the audience to accept the view advocated.
Aristotle identified three elements of persuasion:
- Ethos: the speaker has to convince the audience that he or she is credible, trustworthy, genuine and believable.
- Pathos: the speech must appeal to the emotions, so that the audience is psychologically inclined to accept the arguments.
- Logos: the arguments must be reasoned, and supported by law and fact.
Advocates must consider these key points when presenting:
Addressing the audience
Whether your audience is a judge, a jury, a group of lay magistrates or the Lords of Appeal, you always need to be clear and convincing. Consider who your audience is and tailor your presentation to make sure they will follow all your nuances and inferences.
Make sure you have prepared well, and have a structured and organised argument. Use notes and mind maps as prompts if you need them but remember that you will lose voice projection and eye contact if you are read from a speech. Presenting is not a test of fluency of reading. You should conduct yourself as an advocate, not a newsreader.
Everybody presents in a slightly different way and should find a personal style you are comfortable with. Try to be honest, sincere and authoritative (though you do not always need to be right). Try not to be pompous or arrogant. Ultimately, be yourself, an accomplished advocate, rather than an automaton.
Cultivate the art of fine speaking and the power of persuasion. Make sure you use appropriate and simple language (complex language can obscure the message) and keep your role and audience in mind. Where appropriate, use active language rather than passive phrases and make use of questions, emotion and repetition. Consider the pace of your presentation and include pauses for effect if required.
Be sure to consider your appearance, posture and performance when you are presenting. Different stances can communicate confidence or make you look like a bag of nerves. Think about how you interact with other people in the presentation, and the signals your appearance and behaviour may be sending.
Try it yourself! In no more than five minutes, try and persuade a friend to do something which they have never done before. How easy did you find that? What tactics worked well?
Questioning is the process by which the advocate elicits evidence from witnesses. It is used in two main situations:
- Keep your questions simple, even if the witnesses are familiar with the facts. This is especially relevant if there is a jury. Try to avoid the use of open questions unless you are questioning your own witness or an expert witness and you know they are reliable. You should be careful to avoid prejudicial effects or digression.
- Leading questions are forbidden in examination-in-chief, unless the advocates agree that the points are not contentious e.g. a name. This is to avoid bias, the suppression of other evidence or the chance of hearing something not delivered in the witness' own words. In cross-examination, however, nearly all questions are leading questions.
- Avoid using a rigid list of questions, though you should have a structured plan, and make sure you listen to the answers while you consider your next question.
- The most important rule is not to ask a question of which you do not know the answer!
Examination-in-chief questions are now commonly written. If you pose them in court, make sure they are not too lengthy. You should structure your witnesses and their testimonies clearly. A chronological approach is the norm, though you can sometimes structure by topic.
Top tip: Examination-in-chief questions are the ‘W’ questions, where, what, who, when, why?
Remember that your witness will be cross-examined by the opposing counsel when you have finished your examination-in-chief and the judge may also question them.
Cross examination aims to test the vigour of opposing witnesses and obtain fresh evidence that is favourable to you. You should take an organised approach, without being too rigid and consider whether to structure your questions by topic or the chronological events.
Cross examination gives you an opportunity to attack the credibility of witnesses, both in general and related to specific issues. You should consider whether you wish to confront the witness at the start of your questioning, or lead them through a train of questions. However, if you discredit the witness in general you should be careful not to destroy your case.
Try to keep your questioning brief and finish on a conclusive point.
Top 10 tips for presentation success:
- Make sure you have prepared well, and have developed a clear, structured and organised argument.
- Consider who your audience is and tailor your presentation to their needs.
- Focus on three key messages that you want your audience to understand and remember.
- Don't try to be somebody else. Find a personal presenting style you are comfortable with.
- If you must use notes, do not read your presentation directly from them.
- Use images, charts, physical signals and pauses to help get your message across. Not just words.
- In examination-in-chief, focus on the ‘W’ questions, where, what, who, when, why?
- When cross-examining, develop a structured plan but avoid using a rigid list of questions.
- Make sure you listen to the answers while you consider your next question.
- Don't ask a question unless you know the answer.
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