Be More Engaging by Avoiding “Seminar” Tone and “Speech” Tone
In Part 1, I definitively resolved the debate over leading with a joke when you have to speak in front of a group of people. For most of us, it is better to ditch the jokes and focus on making the presentation engaging. Merriam-Webster says “engaging” means “attractive or pleasing in a way that holds your attention.” In other words, you want people to pay attention to what you’re saying and to enjoy listening to you.
Step one to holding people’s attention is your tone. This is true whether you are a lawyer making an argument in court, a teacher in front of a classroom, or a pastor preaching from the pulpit. It is no accident that “tone” is also a musical term. It means the sound of your voice, apart from the particular words you are saying. Imagine someone who doesn’t speak your language listening to your speech or presentation. What would it sound like to that person? That’s your tone.
Fortunately, just as there are many different musical instruments that can sound good (or bad), there is no single “engaging” tone. But there are two common tones that are most definitely not engaging.
The first one is “Seminar Tone.” You’ve all heard it. It’s the tone that comes from someone trying to convey the impression that “I am a very serious expert in this topic addressing something very detailed and esoteric.” It is flat. It is monotone. It is uniformly mezzo-forte. It delights in acronyms, sections, and sub-sections. It’s what you would sound like if you had to read an excerpt from a textbook on a subject that bores you.
The problem with Seminar Tone is that it sounds like the adults in the Charlie Brown cartoons you watched on TV when you were a kid. Waa-waah-waa-waa-waaaah. What do kids do when adults talk? They tune out. And if you talk in Seminar Tone your audience will do the same.
The other common tone that most people should avoid is what I call “Speech Tone,” which sounds like someone giving a speech. Whereas Seminar Tone tries too hard to say “I’m a very serious person,” Speech Tone tries too hard to say “what I’m saying is very important.” It just doesn’t sound right when someone stands in front of a group of 20 people and speaks as if it were a political rally in a stadium. In 1956.
Don’t get me wrong. Speech Tone works for some people in some situations. But for those of us not named John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King, Jr., it is usually not very engaging. Even for politicians, these days Speech Tone doesn’t work that well. You need to talk loud enough to be heard, but there is no need to shout, especially if you are amplified.
Speech Tone is common in the courtroom, especially with less experienced lawyers. Perhaps younger lawyers are nervous and don’t want to come across as inexperienced. To compensate, they adopt a tone that is too stiff and formal. Even seasoned litigators can lapse into Speech Tone, although when they do so it is usually in the form of an overly aggressive, argumentative tone.
The problem is that Speech Tone—whether the stiff variety or the overly aggressive variety—tends to make the judge tune out. If the judge wanted to hear a canned presentation that repeats what is in your brief, she could just read the papers. And if the tone is too argumentative, it starts to sound like mere rhetoric. In an effort to make your tone more persuasive, you can make it sound like propaganda.
Try a different tone. As one of my mentors would say, look at a hearing with the judge as a chance to “talk turkey.” Rather than approaching a hearing like a high school debate contest where you try to rack up the most points, imagine that the judge walks into your office at the end of the day, sleeves rolled up, sits down and says “ok, tell me what this case is about and why I should rule in your favor.” It took me a while to learn this, but in most cases the judge is not asking herself “who can make a better argument?” but is asking “who can I trust on the facts and the law to tell me how to get this right?”
Lawyers and witnesses, please note: This does not mean you should be casual in the courtroom. There is a difference between informal and casual. Casual is how you talk to your friends at happy hour. Informal is how you talk when you visit your grandmother and she brings you a glass of iced tea and some cookies.
Strangely enough, this advice for the courtroom holds true for most kinds of public speaking, regardless of profession. It turns out the antidote for both “Speech Tone” and “Seminar Tone” is the same: adopt a conversational tone. Talk as if you are having a conversation with a friend about an important subject that intrigues you. Like who you should draft as your third fantasy football wide receiver.
If you want to make your tone even more engaging, then I invite you to graduate from a conversational tone to a musical tone. Borrow a concept from music and use dynamics. It’s no accident that people will rave about a “dynamic” speaker, even if they don’t really know what that means. A truly dynamic speaker has a tone that varies from loud to soft and in between. It has crescendos and diminuendos. Like a good Van Halen song.
Try this next time, especially if you have a microphone: When you get to a key point, instead of talking louder, build up to it and then state the conclusion very softly. I bet people will be leaning forward eager to hear what you have to say. This is just one technique. The point is to vary your tone to keep your presentation engaging.
Of course, a great tone is not going to help much if your content is frivolous or boring. You could read the phone book like a virtuoso, but it wouldn’t hold anyone’s attention. So you need to prepare content that is as engaging as your tone. Tune in to Part 3 to find out how.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at Zach Wolfe Law Firm. Thomson Reuters named him a Texas Super Lawyer® for Business Litigation in 2020 and 2021.
These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case. You can, however, rely on it as public speaking advice.