The New Rules on Public Speaking: 6 Tips for Success

WisBar

Lawyers are public speakers. This article includes some new rules on public speaking. No fig leaves gentlemen, and ladies too.

Joe Forward

Joe Forward, Saint Louis Univ. School of Law 2010, is a legal writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. He can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6161.

women speaks to an audience

Aug. 17, 2016 – As a lawyer, your words matter. From the courtroom to the boardroom, from conferences to cocktail parties, words tell a story about you, and potential clients want to know your story. Are you credible? Are you a power player? Are you a leader?

Lawyers generally understand the fundamentals of public speaking: be prepared, be confident, be sincere, know your topic, and practice. But public speaking is broader than formal presentations. Public speaking is speaking in public, anywhere that may be.

“You and I are judged in three ways: how we look, how we sound, and what we say,” said Deb Sofield, who teaches public speaking at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. She also holds elected office in Greenville, South Carolina.

In this age of social media and instant online news, how we look, how we sound, and what we say is highly scrutinized. Remember Howard Dean? His “Dean Scream” helped torpedo his 2004 presidential campaign. Last week, U.S. Gymnast Gabby Douglas was accused of being “unpatriotic” for her demeanor on the medal stand in Rio de Janeiro.

And there will likely be academic studies on how public speaking and social media impacted the current presidential election, when all is said and done.

But even in the confines of Wisconsin’s legal community, what lawyers say and how they say it can dramatically impact the business they are trying to create. People develop first impressions immediately, Sofield says, and word-of-mouth travels quickly.

In addition, in more formal settings, such as conferences or client presentations, learning how to capture and keep an audience’s attention is much more challenging.

“The last time I checked, your audience’s attention span was 14 ½ minutes,” said Sofield, an author, speaker, and presentation coach for politicians, corporate leaders, and even Miss South Carolina. “It used to be 16 minutes, which is a sitcom without commercials. You have to be brief and keep your presentations short.”

Sofield, who spoke at the State Bar of Wisconsin’s Annual Meeting and Conference in June, explored the new rules for public speaking. This article discusses six of them.

“Probably the most important rule you and I can follow is what I call WHAM – what here applies to me,” she said. “That’s what our audience is thinking when you stand to speak. I will tell you what applies, it’s the rules that make people stop and pay attention.”

1. Lighten Up

How’s your resting face? Can you maintain a pleasant expression, even when you are just listening to someone? Even when you aren’t speaking, perceptions matter. Again, Gabby Douglas took heat for not looking more cheery during the National Anthem.

“We do not do business with angry people. In politics, I can tell you, they don’t elect angry people anymore, especially on the local level,” Sofield said. “The reality is, we give a huge impression within 7 to 24 seconds. First impressions count.”

And if you want people to listen when you speak, don’t exude anger or contempt, even if the bottom just dropped out before taking the stage or walking into that meeting.

“If a picture is worth a thousand words and you look angry, I’ll find someone else to do business with,” she said. “I know you spend a lot of time on content, and I agree that’s important, but it’s not going to matter unless they are listening, and they aren’t going to listen unless you lighten up and keep a relaxed face.”

Fear of public speaking is the number one phobia in the nation, yet there is probably no business skill more important than the ability to speak to an audience. Nationally-known speaker, author, and coach Deb Sofield shares three tips to help you to rise to the occasion and communicate effectively. Visit her website, www.debsofield.com.

2. Have Your ‘Glad to Be Here Line’

It’s tempting to start your first remarks with, ‘thank you, and I’m so glad to be here.’ Are you really? Think twice, especially if you are the third or fourth speaker, Sofield says. If your first words are boring, you might lose them before your presentation even begins.

“We’ve got to break through the dull sound,” she said. “Our brain is a very powerful instrument, and what we have found is that it will check out unless it hears something different. We are so used to hearing the same introductions. We just tune it out.”

Before delivering your ‘glad to be here line,’ show the audience you are glad by delivering something special, something interesting. What if you started with a startling statement, something your target audience would be very interested in knowing?

“That can break down a lot of barriers, and it can make people be drawn toward you if you’ve got something that is useful and true and different,” Sofield said.

3. Use Your Credentials

It seems pretty obvious that you would tell people your credentials, but it will be more powerful coming from someone else. Thus, write your introduction down and let someone introduce you at formal presentations, Sofield says. Let them brag about you.

But there’s more to it. Learn how to drop your credentials within conversations. Sofield says people are reluctant to do so, for fear of sounding boastful. Stop worrying, she says. Weave those credentials into regular conversations, through stories.

“The reality is, you do amazing things every day,” she said. “And you never tell anybody because it sounds like you are bragging. Learn to drop your credentials into conversations so people know you as a leader. Make them glad to know you.”

Another reason to keep your credentials front and center is to combat the audience’s ADDD, what Sofield calls “attention deficit disorder deliberately,” meaning, they don’t want to listen. But they will tune in to the person who is the expert on the subject. If you don’t explain your expertise, your special knowledge, they will never know.

4. Know Your Audience and Take Care of Them

If your audience is listening for what applies to them (see WHAM above), then it pays to know your audience. Can you get access to the attendance list? Can you Google the names of people you don’t know? How can you make this talk relevant to them?

“You’ve got to learn to talk about your audience. The mark of an effective speaker is to actually know who is there,” Sofield said. “Google is your friend, my friends.”

Sofield says a presentation that focuses on the audience is one of the best ways to keep them engaged in what you are saying. But be careful about direct conversation with specific audience members you know, if you don’t know them all.

“The problem is, I may know one or two people, and the others are like, ‘but I met her at dinner. I can’t believe she didn’t remember my name,’ and then feelings get hurt,” Sofield says. “If you don’t know everyone’s name, we don’t say anyone’s name.”

As a speaker, it’s also your responsibility to take care of the audience, Sofield says. Give them breaks, and help them weather the storms of conference life.

“I was in Florida one time doing a large presentation to a huge group when a ceiling tile fell. I wanted to go home,” Sofield said. “But what would happen if the lights flickered off and the speaker was gone. Would they really believe my message? That I care and want them to be Rock Star amazing? No, they would not believe that.”

Once that microphone is in your hand, it’s your responsibility to ensure the audience is comfortable and cared for. “You are the shepherd of the flock,” she said.

Want to Watch Deb Sofield’s Presentation, other AMC Programs?

Deb Sofield’s full presentation, “15 Rules of the Road: A Public Speaking Primer,” will be available via webcast on 9/12, 9/13, 9/29, and 9/30.

Other stand-alone programs from the State Bar of Wisconsin’s 2016 Annual Meeting and Conference (AMC) will be available via webcast starting in September.

Did you attend AMC? Miss a program? Your registration includes access to all recorded sessions. Check the marketplace calendar for other sessions, dates, and times.

5. Powerful People Take Up Space

Sofield coined this phrase (and trademarked it), underscoring the importance of commanding your presence within a room and exuding power and poise.

“I played basketball growing up. Actually, with five brothers, I played every sport,” Sofield said. “The reality is, in our world today, if you are not on the court, you are a spectator, and nobody pays spectators. You’ve got to get in the game.

“Understanding the value of your space and the power with which you reframe your situation will absolutely change the way people look at you,” she said.

How do you take up space? Use large gestures when you speak, stand straight and tall and speak loudly. Don’t hunch your shoulders. Make your presence known.

“For the ladies, let me remind you that many times when we were younger we were taught to be smaller, skinnier, softer, and basically told to just be quiet, she said. Those days are gone. When you learn to take up your space, people find a way to keep you in there. Don’t shrink up or you’ll be overlooked. You came to have a place at the table.”

Taking up space is also about body language and poise. “Your poise is an outward indication of your emotional soundness and inward control,” Sofield said.

“You don’t have to tell anybody that you’re nervous. Remember, you fake it until you become it. And at that point you have filled space. People will stop and listen. Why? Because your message will be enhanced by the feeling and emotion that you give it.”

How should I stand to take up space?

“Gentleman, I want you to stop doing the fig leaf [hands crossed over genital area],” Sofield said. “That is ridiculous. Ladies, don’t do it either. No fig leaf for anybody. And be careful about lacing your fingers, as if praying. That’s not a powerful look.”

Try the fist and glove, Sofield says, resting one hand inside the other. And don’t be shy about the fingertips, putting all the fingertips of one hand against all the fingertips of the other, which naturally extends your elbows outward and creates space around you.

“Fingertips might be the most arrogant gesture you can ever do,” she said. “But it can work in today’s environment. Fingertips gives you space in a crowded field.”

When Sofield ran for elected office in South Carolina, it was the fingertips that gave her space while posing for photographs among the other male candidates. “Suddenly, I was in the picture. Now, why did I do that? Because if you are not seen, you are a spectator.”

6. If it’s Not Funny, Don’t Use It

You are driving to the presentation and it hits you. Why not start off with a joke? Be careful, Sofield says. If it’s not funny, don’t use it.

“Everybody is waiting to be offended,” Sofield said. “It may be funny with my girlfriends Friday night, but it’s not funny Monday morning at the office. Your jokes should be about you, or something you might find in Readers Digest, or an AARP publication.”

Conclusion

These six tips are just some of the tips Sofield divulged at the State Bar’s Annual Meeting and Conference in June. She also talked about speaking with power, answering questions, telling stories, staying on message, and controlling emotions.

“It is your responsibility to be interesting,” Sofield said. “Practice. Be loud. Be bold. Put your stories in place. Build vocabulary. But be brief and keep your presentations short.”

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