One Sure Way To Boost Audience Retention

We could debate for hours whether compelling public speakers are born with that gift or they achieve it through diligent practice. I suspect that, like many skills, it’s probably a bit of both. Few would disagree that everyone benefits from practice. Practice with honest feedback can be particularly helpful. This is why I’m a big fan of Toastmasters.

I think it’s probably also true that many speakers can sometimes make major improvements just by making a small tweak in the style, content, or both, of their presentation. Here I’m thinking about some advice I came across in Brian Johnson and Marsha Hunter’s recent book, The Articulate Attorney (2nd Ed. 2013). They discuss the difficulties we encounter in maintaining audience attention. This problem is crucial if your goal in speaking is anything other than pure entertainment because it is unlikely your audience–a jury, for example–will process and retain anything you say if they’re not paying attention. Johnson and Hunter write:

“Listeners pay close attention to the beginnings of presentations. Minds often wander in the middle, and retention drops. When the listener gets a signal that the end is near–‘In conclusion . . .’–attention increases once again. Primacy is the first thing listeners hear; recency is the last.” (Id. at 85.)

I have elsewhere heard a variation on this observation, with the attendant advice that one should structure a presentation so that the really important information comes at the beginning and the end. I suppose that’s better than nothing. But the logical implication is that the information that comes between the beginning and the end is less important, or not important at all. I don’t know about you, but I try to leave information that is less important or unimportant out altogether. And we can’t very well just have a beginning and an end with no middle, can we?

Johnson and Hunter offer a superior alternative. They urge speakers to “chunk,” or divide larger bits of information into smaller chunks, which is easier for the human brain to receive, process and retain. Additionally, rather than a speech which consists of one strong beginning, a middle and one strong ending, they urge speakers to create several rather discrete chunks, each with its own beginning, middle and ending. They write:

“Since beginnings and endings are good, create more of them. Rather than conceive your presentation as having one beginning and one ending, clearly delineate each topic area. Begin new topics with a headline (begin/primacy) and explicitly mark the conclusion of the topic with a wrap-up (end/recency). When your major ideas are demarcated in this fashion, your presentation will have many beginnings and endings. Each time a new topic is headlined and closed out, the daydreaming (or emailing) listener’s attention is refreshed.” (Id. at 87.)

So go on, be a “chunker.”

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Do You Use The Rhetorical “Rule of Three”?

Well, you should.

I’m referring here to rhetorical device of organizing and presenting topics, words or phrases in groups of threes. Sadly, I neither discovered nor perfected the Rule of Three. But I intend to learn it, practice it and perfect it. (See, I did it right there.)

The Rule of Three enjoys a long history. Writing in the November, 2013 issue of Toastmaster, Washington, D.C.-based speaking consultant Denise Graveline reminds us that the Rule of Three “grew out of the ancient oral storytelling tradition. That tradition is the way we shared information before writing it. Over time, storytellers found that they and their listeners could most easily remember stories structured in three parts, which is why so many fairy tales have triads in them (think three little pigs or three blind mice).” (Id. at 16-17.)

Andrew Dlugan has written extensively on using the Rule of Three in his popular blog Six MinutesHe discusses and gives examples of two special “triad” variants: hendiatris and tricolon. “A hendiatris,” Dlugan writes, “is a figure of speech where three successive words are used to express a central idea.” Examples? Consider these:

  • Veni, vidi, vici.” – Julius Caesar (trans: “I came, I saw, I conquered.”
  • “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.” – French motto
  • “Wine, women, and song.” – Anonymous

“A tricolon,” Dlugan tells us, “is a series of three parallel elements (words or phrases). In a strict tricolor, the elements have the same length but this condition is often put aside.” In addition to Caesar’s “Veni, vidi, vici,” Dlugan quotes advice Franklin D. Roosevelt gave to speakers: “Be sincere, be brief, be seated.”

I’m not sure I ever gave the Rule of Three any serious thought before, though I recall my father, teaching me photography as a kid, talked about using patterns of three when composing a photograph. According to Dlugan, we can see examples of the Rule of Three at play throughout history: in religion (Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit), movies (Sex, Lies & VideotapeThe Good The Bad And The Ugly), politics (Executive branch, Legislative branch and Judicial branch of government; Declaration of Independence: “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”); sales or advertising (in real estate: Location, Location, Location). Of course we learn about triads in music theory, as well.

Even though I never gave much conscious thought to the Rule of Three, I think that, like most rhetorical conventions, it penetrated into my thinking and composition through the magical osmosis of reading good writing. Dr. Seuss, for example.

Whatever the source, I unconsciously used the Rule of Three when I created my dreaded “elevator speech.” As much as I think the 30 second elevator speech has no place in a normal conversation between people who have an IQ over, say, 50, you would be surprised how effective it is to have a well-crafted self-advertisement handy when you are at a business or networking event and everyone in the room is asked to introduce themselves and describe what they do. I find myself in these situations about once a week. My elevator speech, I’m not at all embarrassed (well , actually . . . I am a little embarrassed) to recite:

I’m Alex Craigie. I’m a Partner in the Los Angeles office of Dykema. My practice currently focuses on helping Southern California employers [1] prevent, [2] manage and [3] resolve employment disputes as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible.

An example of a hendiatris at work. I might vary parts of this to suit the audience. For example, if I’m working a room that doesn’t have a clue who or what a “Dykema” is, I might throw in that it is a “premiere Mid-West full-service law firm. ” No matter what, though, I always include my core description which centers around three verbs which describe what I do: I prevent, I manage and I resolve.

So think about invoking the Rule of Three.

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Repetition, Rhetoric, Dr. Seuss and Dr. King

Most writers who take their prose seriously have a few favorite rhetorical devices. When these are used well, they contribute to what is loosely referred to as style. When used poorly, they . . . well, I try not to think about that.

If you’ve read much of my blog, you probably recognize that I tend to heavily favor two such devices, alliteration and repetition. (It’s actually only one device, since alliteration is a form of repetition.)

Blatant, obvious, excessive repetition–at least in written form (rather than a speech)–is really only appropriate for a children’s book. Since I’ve been reading lots of children’s books over the past few years (two per night is the current average, though my daughter only let’s me choose one of the titles), I’ve come to really appreciate a writer who is not only a master of the children’s story, but a brilliant practitioner of repetition: Dr. Seuss (aka Theodor Seuss Geisel).

One of my favorite examples of Seussian repetition, probably among his most subtle examples, appears in And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street. The good doctor there writes:

“Unless there’s something I can fix up,
There’ll be an awful traffic mix-up!

It takes Police to do the trick,
To guide them through where traffic’s thick–
It takes Police to do the trick.”

Another fine example shows up in that perennial favorite graduation gift, Oh the Places You’ll Go!:

“But on you will go
though the weather be foul,
On you will go
though your enemies prowl.
On you will go
though the Hakken-Kraks howl.
Onward up many
a frightening creek,
though your arms may get sore
and your sneakers may leak.”

Perhaps the most famous, obsessive, blatant and brilliant example of Seussian repetition is found in Green Eggs And Ham:

“I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I will not eat them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them ANYWHERE!”

Lest you think this is all child’s play, repetition was a device of choice for a man who was unquestionably among the most compelling American rhetoricians of the last (or any) century, Dr. Martin Luther King. Even if many of us cannot recite from memory all of the details of Dr. King’s “dream,” his use of repetition has helped that speech and his message remain central in the (post) modern American consciousness. He said:

“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of “interposition” and “nullification” — one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today!

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight; “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.”

I have a couple of further thoughts. As I said, repetition in texts intended to be read, not heard, must be handled with kid gloves. If  you incorporate Seussian repetition into a brief (or a blog post meant for adults), readers will think: (1) you’re an idiot, (2) you’re making fun of them, or (3) both. Because I value the opinions of both judges and blog readers, I take great care to be judicious with my repetition. Like any rhetorical device, its potency recedes with overuse.

Even in a speech, there is a real danger, if you get too cute with repetition, that your audience will think: (1) you’re an idiot, or (2) you’re an idiot who thinks he’s MLK.

Judiciously used, however, repetition in a writing or a speech can add impact, reinforce your message and make it memorable.

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The Art of Planning to Forget What You’re Planning to Say

Do you share my occasional fear, when addressing a large group, whether it be a jury or a room full of potential clients, that I will forget what I’ve prepared to say? Go ahead, admit it.

Well, I’ve been wrong all of these years to be afraid of forgetting. According to Brian Johnson and Marsha Hunter, authors of The Articulate Attorney: Public Speaking for Lawyers, it’s not a question of whether I’ll forget, but rather how will I recover when I forget. Turns out that forgetting is inevitable.

“That you will forget periodically while speaking under pressure is a given. Think how easily you can lose your train of thought when conversing with your friends. You pause and confess, ‘I lost my train of thought. What was I talking about?’ If this happens regularly during casual conversation, it’s bound to happen during more formal presentations. The obvious solution? Plan to forget. Know that it is going to happen, and be prepared.” (Id. at 81.)

The authors offer a couple of intelligent strategies to plan to recover when you’ve forgotten. First of all, get comfortable with silence. This will not only make your recovery smoother when you forget, but I believe it will make you a better, more compelling speaker overall. If you’re comfortable with silence, you’re less likely to rush to fill empty, silent spaces, and more likely to use strategic pauses for dramatic effect. Whenever I see a skilled public speaker at the top of his or her game, I’m always impressed with their pacing and liberal use of pauses to maintain the audience’s interest or build dramatic effect.

If you become comfortable with silence, I suspect you’re also more likely to relax and remember what you think you forgot. The authors write, “pause long enough in silence to make sure you really can’t remember what you wished to say. The next thought may not quite be on the tip of your tongue, but it is almost certainly somewhere in your brain. Give yourself a moment to find it. ” (Id. at 82.)

Of course, if you really can’t remember, don’t sweat it. Give yourself a moment to review your notes. In this regard, the authors suggest making a “transitional utterance.” For example, if you’ve completed a thought and just can’t recall what’s next, perhaps say “Let’s move on” and consult your notes. “You are moving on, so it makes sense to refer to your notes to see what is next. Or, you can use the same line simply to stop and think.Your audience will understand what you are doing. You have announced that you are moving on, and they see that you are thinking.” (Id. at 81.)

If you can’t remember a precise fact, such as a date or dollar amount, the authors recommend handling it this way:

“Now the date the contract was signed [you suddenly can’t remember, so you say] . . . 

I want to get this exactly right [and return to consult your notes] . . . the date was September 17th.” (Id. at 82.)

The authors suggest that this strategy can actually enhance your credibility. When you review your notes, “[t]he audience sees such careful behavior as an indication of due diligence; it can even boost the speaker’s credibility.” Id.

So, next time you’re planning a presentation, don’t forget to plan to forget what you’re planning to say. (Do I sound like Dr. Seuss?)

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To Gesture Or Not To Gesture

“Some people cling to an old-fashioned, post-Victorian belief that gestures are inappropriate for public speaking. Law students and attorneys are often told to place their hands on the lectern or at their sides, because gestures distract the listener.” This observation comes from Brian Johnson and Marsha Hunter, in their recent book, The Articulate Attorney: Public Speaking for Lawyers (at p. 25).

I know I’ve received conflicting advice on this topic. And I’ve been on the receiving end of speeches in which the speaker gestured so freely and wildly that it was distracting and he came across like a crackpot. On the other hand, a speaker who remains so unnaturally still and wooden appears to lack both passion and conviction and, in most instances, will utterly fail to engage the audience.

Assuming you want to engage your audience, whether it is a jury deciding your client’s case, a panel of appellate justices, or a room full of potential clients, it’s a good idea, then, to make an earnest effort to not only use gestures, but to use them effectively. Lucky for us, Johnson and Hunter’s new book offers some valuable guidance in a section entitled “What Do You Do With Your Hands?”

First, they point out that “[g]esturing is not emotional or theatrical, but logical.” Id. at 27. “Gestures suit, or fit, the words being spoken, and the words logically fit the actions of our hands.”  Id. To achieve this logic, they advocate careful formulation of the first sentence of your speech. Even if you improvise much of the rest, it is a good idea to choose and practice the words with which you will begin, then practice fitting gestures to these words until you settle upon those that are most suitable. This allows you to “jump-start” the style of gesturing you will employ for the balance of the speech. As Johnson and Hunter write:

“At the very beginning of a presentation, the instinct to gesture can be as dead as a car battery at twenty below zero, frozen by self-consciousness, anxiety, or the erroneous belief that gestures are distracting. To jump-start your gestures, think of your brain as the energy source. Connect the metaphorical jumper cables of conscious thought to your instinct to gesture and turn the key. Deliberately gesture at the beginning, and suit the action to the word. Make sure your gesture engine is running.” Id. at 28.

Johnson and Hunter also advocate a style of gesturing that uses large gestures, involving the entire arm, which “move or flow through an area in front of the body called the ‘zone of gesture.’ This zone is a large space approximately two feet tall by four feet wide. It extends vertically from the waist to the nose.” Id. at 29. These larger, whole limb, gestures “avoid a common pitfall of nervous speakers: gestures with just wrists or forearms.” Id. at 31.

Finally, they address the question of what to do with your hands when you are not gesturing. Rather than the awkward crotch-blocking “fig leaf” position, in which the arms are fully extended, or the frigid, white-knuckled gripping of the lectern, Johnson and Hunter suggest we use what they call the “ready position.” Hands are “loosely touching at waist height. Hands and forearms are energized and ready to go, not pressed against the abdomen. The position is loose, not tight. A little bit of space separates the forearms from the abdomen.” Id. at 33. A principal advantage of this “ready position” is that, when you are not actively and intentionally gesturing, your hands become “invisible to most observers.” Id. at 35.

If none of this sounds particularly revolutionary, that’s probably because it’s not. As noted by Johnson and Hunter, that marginally famous writer Bill Shakespeare, speaking through the title character in Hamlet, instructed the players to “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.” Id. at 27. Makes sense, doesn’t it?

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Recognizing Your Limitations As An Orator (Admit It, You’re Not Cicero)

I’ve discussed here and here the wonderful primer on trial advocacy Lee Horton gifted to me before he retired. In his discussion on opening statements, he says this:

“In making our opening statement, don’t try to be something you are not. While it helps, you do not have to be a great orator to give an effective opening statement. Practice giving your opening statement until you can closely track your written statement with only a few strategic notes. Emphasize the key points with voice inflection and, where appropriate, by the use of an exhibit, reading a small portion of a deposition, showing a video excerpt or drawing a diagram. Most importantly, be sincere and to the point. If the jury finds you make your points and sit down, they will listen to you because they will grow to expect that the points you make will be important.”

I find this to be solid advice for two reasons. First it acknowledges a truth: that many trial lawyers are not naturally gifted speakers. We obviously come to the profession from a variety of backgrounds, some of which might have included training and/or practice in public speaking. But many of us had only minimal training and experience in persuasively presenting information to an audience of 6-12 before we passed the bar.

The good news is you don’t have to have been born with the gifts of a Cicero, a Churchill or a Kennedy to effectively try and win cases. What is important is that you present the information in a way that both engenders trust and permits the audience–the jury–to follow along.

The other reason Horton’s advice is so valuable is because it highlights how we gain trust from jurors by making only the most important points each time we speak. There’s only a limited window that most of us will pay attention and follow a lecture. Don’t squander that window of time with facts that are not crucial to winning your case. As Horton notes, if you follow this practice from the start, the jury will trust you not to waste their time and attention. Again, “they will listen to you because they will grow to expect that the points you make will be important.”

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