Too Much of a Good Thing Can Keep Your Presentation from Being Great
This Part 4 of my 5-part public speaking series is a little different. Parts 1-3 covered how to make a good presentation. This installment is about how to go from making good presentations to making great presentations.
I have seen many good lawyers (including myself) make presentations that were good but not great. The problem is somewhat counter-intuitive: the very things that make good lawyers good can keep their presentations from being great. Good lawyers are thorough, prepared, detailed, and knowledgeable. Because of these very traits, good lawyers often try to do too much of a good thing.
As George Harrison sang in 1969, “It’s All Too Much.”
- Too Many Words Too Fast
Lawyers today talk too fast. They do this even when the judge—or court reporter—interrupts them to tell them to slow down. Heed their advice and take your foot off the gas. This is partly because the court reporter has to get everything down. But the more important reason is that it is harder for the audience to follow your argument when you talk too fast.
Slowing down can also help you sound more confident, more authoritative, and more persuasive. I once listened to the recording of the oral argument from Gideon v. Wainwright, a landmark U.S. Supreme Court case from the 1960s. I was blown away by the stately cadence of Abe Fortas, the famous lawyer (and later Supreme Court justice) arguing for Gideon. He had you hanging on every word.
Shortly after that, I listened to an oral argument at today’s U.S. Supreme Court. It felt like I was listening to a New Yorker order a combo meal at a crowded McDonalds. This is partly due to the shorter time allowed for argument these days. Sometimes talking quickly is a necessity in order to get your points in. But going fast doesn’t make your presentation more persuasive.
- Too Much Repetition
Juries often complain about lawyers repeating themselves too much. “We get it, you don’t have to tell us so many times!” The problem for the lawyers, of course, is that we can’t turn to the jury and say “ok, do you get it now, so I can move on to the next point?”
Still, lawyers often spend too much time reiterating points that were already made in the papers filed with the court. Sometimes this is necessary because the judge hasn’t read the papers, or you don’t know how much the judge has read. But sometimes you can tell the judge has read the papers and understands the basic issues in the case. I watched a hearing where the judge repeatedly gave cues that politely indicated, “ok, I get it,” but the lawyers continued to hammer away at the same points they had packed into their PowerPoint presentations.
Which brings me to . . .
- Too Much PowerPoint
Don’t get me wrong. I love PowerPoint. I use PowerPoint. I get it. We are told you can’t hold people’s attention today with just words. You have to reinforce your points with visuals. Plus, to justify your hourly rate you have to show your big corporate clients how sophisticated and “tech savvy” your firm is.
But don’t make your presentation less effective just because you’re now expected to make it a certain way. Watching a recent hearing with top-notch lawyers, I couldn’t help feeling the whole PowerPoint thing has just gone too far. It’s a combination of several things:
- Too much PowerPoint instead of old-fashioned storytelling and teaching
- Too many slides consisting of traditional bullet points
- Too many bullet points on each slide
- Too many slides, period
Here is the key: PowerPoint slides should reinforce what you say, not distract from what you say. What is the audience supposed to do while you are talking and showing five detailed bullet points at the same time?
Try this: cut the number of slides in half, use visuals instead of the usual bullet points for half of them, cut the number of bullet points per slide in half, and make each bullet point half as long. I promise it will be more effective.
- Too Many Cooks
I’m a little biased on this one. In litigation, I like the philosophy “one riot, one ranger.” At my last jury trial, I sat at the counsel table with two clients while a third client sat behind us in the gallery with his wife. No other lawyer. No legal assistant. No expert witness. No “tech guy” running PowerPoint or Trial Director. I liked the contrast it presented with our opponents, who had a small army on their side of the courtroom. And guess what? We won.
Of course, some matters may require a larger team of lawyers. But when you go to court, there are two ways to decide how you are going to divide up your presentation time: what is best for the case, or what is best for the lawyers.
When a side divides its presentation time among three or four lawyers, it makes you wonder. Was dividing the time between that many lawyers the most effective way to present the case to the judge? Or was dividing the time necessary because all of the lawyers are very important people who need to get their moments in the spotlight? Would it have been more effective to cut the presentation time in half and use half as many lawyers?
To put it another way, if you’re coaching an NFL team, do you split time between two quarterbacks because one of them is a first-round pick with a big contract, or do you stick with the undrafted free agent who is on a hot streak and more likely to win the game?
I don’t claim to have all the answers, but these questions need to be asked. And questions like these arise in every litigation matter. Too often, lawyers staff cases based on the needs of their law firm rather than the needs of the case and the client.
- Too Many Points
All the problems above relate to a fundamental and typical mistake: too many points to make in too short a time. But I’ve already broken my own rule by trying to cover too many topics in this post. So tune in to the final Part 5 to find out how to focus your presentation to turn it from good to great.
Zach Wolfe (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation. His firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC has offices in Houston, Austin, and The Woodlands.
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.