Public Speaking Tips for Lawyers and Other Humans: Part 5 – Improvisation


Focus the number of points in your presentation to leave room for interaction with your audience


Politicians and business leaders are taught to stay “on message” when speaking to the press. A client once explained it to me this way. Let’s say the CEO of a company wants to talk about elephants. A reporter or analyst asks her a question about bananas. “That’s a great question about bananas,” the CEO is supposed to say. “I’m so glad you asked about bananas,” she continues. “Now, let me tell you about some of the great things we’re doing with elephants . . .”

Staying “on message.” Good for politicians and CEOs (I guess). Not so good for lawyers and other public speakers who want to interact with an audience.

But why do you want or need to interact with your audience? Well, it depends. If you’re trying to bypass the press to get a message out to the public, then interacting is not your goal. But if you’re trying to teach or persuade your immediate audience, then interaction is important. Because teaching and persuading is not about you. It’s about the people you are trying to teach or persuade.

Whether it’s a classroom or a courtroom, interaction is critical

Has this ever happened to you? You are in some kind of classroom setting and the teacher is going through a typed outline of the 23 points he wants to make. Someone interrupts with a slightly oddball question or comment. The teacher says “yes, that’s interesting” and then quickly returns to his outline.

The same kind of thing often happens to lawyers in a courtroom. A lawyer is making his elegantly crafted argument when the judge interrupts and asks a question that suggests the judge is hung up on a different issue. “Yes, your honor, that’s our position,” the lawyer says, “but let me get back to the point I was making . . .”

In both scenarios, the speaker treats the tangential question or comment as an annoyance, a verbal fly to be swatted away. The person who asked the question then feels a little frustrated. “Why am I even here?” she thinks. “This guy doesn’t really care about my questions.”

Now imagine the teacher takes a different approach. When a student asks a question that goes off on a tangent, the teacher says, “I don’t know, what do you think about that?” The student starts talking about a personal experience, getting more animated. Another student jumps in and starts talking about a similar experience. A third student says she disagrees with the point they are making. Pretty soon a full-blow discussion has broken out. After 15 minutes the teacher returns to the outline. He runs out of time before covering all his points, but the students leave the class excited about the topic.

Don’t be annoyed when an unexpected question gets you off track. This is where the magic happens! You want to get the audience involved.

The same is true in litigation. Let’s reimagine our courtroom scenario. When the judge asks a question about a different issue, instead of getting annoyed the lawyer thinks “thank you for letting me know what you’re thinking.” He spends five minutes addressing the issue raised by the judge—and even hands the judge a highlighted copy of a case addressing that very issue!—before returning to the other points he wanted to make.

People call this “thinking on your feet,” and it is often said to be the key to being an effective courtroom lawyer. (In state court in Texas, we sit while questioning witnesses, so maybe “thinking on your seat”?) The point is that you need to be able to react to something unexpected that happens in the courtroom and turn it to your advantage. In other words, you need to be able to improvise.

Sometimes when people say “thinking on your feet” is important, the implication is that being a good trial lawyer is more about having a certain kind of personality than doing your homework. But the truth is a little counter-intuitive: effective improvisation requires more preparation, not less.

Preparation is the key to “thinking on your feet” in court

Jazz musicians get this. You can find improvisation in just about any musical style, but jazz raises improvisation to the highest level. Great jazz musicians don’t just get up there and play some random notes that pop into their heads.  They have developed an immense musical vocabulary from thousands of hours of practice. They know what every note sounds like played against every chord. When the bandleader says “Night in Tunisia,” they already know every chord change. It is only through years of preparation that they become master improvisers.

It works the same way in public speaking. Effective interaction with the audience requires greater preparation, in three ways.

First, you need to take the time to master the topic. This is the hardest part because it can’t be done overnight. But there are some shortcuts. Keeping up with recent developments will go a long way towards effective interaction. For example, I was giving a presentation on the Defend Trade Secrets Act when someone asked about injunctions. I didn’t have to read 100 years of injunction case law to have an answer, because I was able to point out a recent injunction case I had written about here.

When you do your homework, you’re ready for anything

Second, you need to anticipate concerns your audience is going to raise and plan specific responses. Don’t spend all your time on the points you think are important; think strategically about the questions that are likely to be important to your audience. I had a trade secrets trial where opposing counsel was cross examining my client and asserted you couldn’t find a certain kind of industry information just by Googling it. On re-direct, I handed my client a stack of printed Google search results that showed precisely the opposite. Admittedly, it was part luck, but it was also preparation.

Third—and this may be the most important point—you need to narrow down the number of points you plan to make. Then, instead of hurrying back to your outline, you can relax and take time to interact with the audience. Instead of the Attempted Comprehensive Survey, opt for the Deep Sample (see Part 3). Instead of packing more bullet points into your PowerPoint (see Part 4), think about which points are most important to persuading or teaching your audience.

Even if that means you have to talk about bananas instead of elephants.


Zach Wolfe ( 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, 2021, and 2022.

This is the fifth and final part of his public speaking series. 

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