Public Speaking Tips for Lawyers and Other Humans: Part 3 – Fluff and Stuff

Public Speaking Tips for Lawyers and Other Humans: Part 3 – Fluff and Stuff

Try the “Deep Sample” Instead of the “Shallow Survey”


In Part 2 of my series on public speaking, I explained how to make your tone engaging. But how do you make your content engaging?

Let’s use an example. If you’re a lawyer, you have probably seen presentations on the duty to preserve electronically stored information (ESI) for litigation. If you’re not a lawyer, count yourself lucky.

ESI was a hot topic in legal circles—until lawyers got sick of it. But it is still an important topic, because failing to preserve ESI can result in sanctions for “spoliation” of evidence, and that is a trial lawyer’s nightmare.

So let’s say you are assigned to talk about preservation of ESI for 45 minutes. How would you make your content engaging?

  1. Substance vs. Fluff

First, you want to strike the right balance between substance and fluff. People often complain that seminar speakers sound like they are just reading their papers. You could easily give a 45-minute summary of the facts and legal holdings in five key cases on spoliation of evidence. This might be engaging if everyone in your audience is fascinated by spoliation law, but for most people that would be too much substance.

Or you could spend 45 minutes talking about your law practice, how e-discovery has taken all the fun out of litigation, and why preservation of ESI is really important. Tell a few war stories, show some cartoons about e-discovery, and maybe throw in a photo of Hillary Clinton with a caption about deleting emails. If you are actually funny (see Part 1), you might hold the audience’s attention, but they will leave the presentation feeling like there was too much fluff, not enough substance.

The best presentations expertly manage to entertain and inform at the same time. Most of us are just chasing this ideal, but once in a while you will run across someone who does this just right. Take a lesson from that person and strive for the right balance of substance and fluff. Cover some key points of spoliation law, but illustrate them with memorable stories.

  1. The “Deep Sample” vs. the “Shallow Survey.”

Selecting the topics to cover and the amount of detail to devote to each topic is critical to making your content engaging. Many speakers go wrong by trying to cover too many topics and covering each one with either too much or too little detail.

For simplicity, let’s assume that the subject of preserving ESI consists of these topics:

  1. The Zubulake cases
  2. Other notable spoliation cases
  3. Key Texas cases on spoliation
  4. Federal rules on spoliation sanctions
  5. How to issue a litigation hold
  6. Technical issues with preserving ESI
  7. Ethical issues concerning spoliation of evidence

Given 45 minutes, many speakers would try to cover all seven topics, devoting about six minutes to each topic. The result would be a relatively shallow treatment of each topic, the “Shallow Survey.” Graphically, it looks like this:


Here’s the problem with the Shallow Survey: Unless the subject is totally new to your audience, they probably won’t learn much they didn’t already know.

On the other hand, some of you may share with me an almost obsessive compulsion to be comprehensive and detailed when covering a topic. You try to pack a treatise into a 45-minute presentation. I call this the “Attempted Comprehensive Survey.” Graphically the plan looks like this:


The problem, of course, is that you are going to run out of time. That’s why I call it “Attempted.” You feel rushed and get stressed. When an audience member asks an interesting question, you brush it aside so you can get back to your 75 bullet points. When the moderator holds up a sign that says “5 minutes left,” you’re not even half way through.

Instead of doing the Shallow Survey or the Attempted Comprehensive Survey, try the “Deep Sample.” It looks like this:


Pick three of the seven topics you find most interesting, and cover them with enough detail that you are teaching the audience something they didn’t know. (TexasBarCLE gives similar advice in this helpful video.) Then you can relax and cover each point as fully as you want. You might even have time to interact with the audience (more on this coming in Part 5). Don’t worry about the points you didn’t cover, especially if they are in your paper.

By the way, the Deep Sample can also work in the courtroom (more on this coming in Part 4).

  1. Concrete vs. Abstract

There is a danger in making a presentation too concrete. For example, in spoliation law there is a seminal series of cases called Zubulake. If you want to impress your date at a cocktail party, just say stuff like “yeah, Judge Scheindlin got it right in Zubulake IV, but she just took it too far in Zubulake V.”

Anyway, if I spent 45 minutes explaining the facts, holdings, and reasoning of the Zubulake cases, it would certainly be concrete. But it would be missing something critical: general lessons.

You need to connect the dots and tell your audience the key “takeaways” from the presentation. Try to boil this down to three or four important things to remember. These lessons will necessarily be abstract, but that’s the point. Imagine someone in your audience goes back to his office and is asked, “so what did you learn from that presentation?” If he struggles to know what to say, you didn’t do your job.

On the other hand, the danger of making a presentation too abstract is obvious. It’s hard to learn from pure generalities. This is the very reason law schools typically use the case method: studying cases that show the development and application of general legal principles, rather than just reading treatises that summarize the general principles.

Imagine a presentation on spoliation law that consisted of reading the applicable rules of civil procedure. Not very engaging. It would be like trying to learn contract law by simply reading the Uniform Commercial Code. Truly understanding the general principles is difficult without names, facts, and stories.

Instead, find a way to make your key points concrete (again, TexasBarCLE has a nice video making the same point). There are many effective ways to do this. If you’re speaking on the duty to preserve ESI, you could use Zubulake as a case study, going over the specific facts and then drawing out the general principles. Or you could pose a series of hypothetical questions about ESI issues, with multiple choice questions for the audience to focus their attention.

Or, if you are writing a blog post about public speaking, you could make your points more concrete by using a specific example, like giving a presentation on the duty to preserve ESI.

See what I did there?



Zach Wolfe ( is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. His graphics designer had the week off.

Public Speaking Tips for Lawyers and Other Humans: Part 1 – Should You Lead With a Joke?

Public Speaking Tips for Lawyers and Other Humans: Part 1 – Should You Lead With a Joke?

First Ask Yourself This Question: Am I Funny?


It is reported that many people fear public speaking more than death. If you are a lawyer, I hope that isn’t true of you, because speaking effectively in front of groups is an important part of what you do. Personally, I love standing up in front of people and talking. On the other hand, mingling at a cocktail party where I don’t know anyone – now that scares me to death.

Even if you are not a courtroom litigator like me, at some point you will find yourself speaking to an audience, whether it is a client conference, a meeting with your law firm partners, or a presentation at a seminar. In fact, regardless of your profession, it is probable that at some point you will need to speak to an assembled group of multiple human beings. You need to be able to inform, to persuade, and sometimes even to entertain. And to do these things effectively, you’re going to need some advice.

What qualifies me to give this advice? Well, I do a lot of public speaking, whether it’s in a courtroom or at a seminar, and I listen to a lot of public speaking. But that’s not why I’m qualified. It comes down to the fact that I pay attention to what works and what doesn’t, and trust me, I have learned as much from what didn’t work for me as anything else. As Yogi Berra said, “you can observe a lot just by watching.”

So what works? First, don’t imagine your audience members in their underwear. That’s just weird.

Second, you have to decide whether you’re going to try to be funny. There is an intense debate over whether it is good practice to start a speech or presentation with a joke or a funny story. I will now settle this debate once and for all. To decide whether to lead with a joke, ask yourself: Am I funny?

If the answer is yes, then have at it, lead with a joke. There is probably no better way to break the ice, get your audience’s attention, and get them on your side right off the bat. If that works, keep the jokes coming (at least until you get to a serious point).

But if the answer is no, then don’t lead with a joke, and don’t try to be funny. There is no better way to stop the momentum of a presentation than to tell a joke that doesn’t get any laughs.

The problem, of course, is that every person thinks he or she is funny. How many people have ever said “no, I really don’t have a good sense of humor”? It reminds me of writer Dave Barry’s line that “the one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.”

Just as some of us are below-average drivers, not all of us are funny. In fact, very few of us are really funny.

So how do you know if you’re actually funny? Try this experiment. The next time you tell a joke in front of a group, observe the reaction carefully. (For more accurate results, your sample audience should not be drinking.) If there is laughter, is it the “polite laughter” that you get from a courteous audience when they know that someone just said something that was supposed to be funny? Or is it real laughter, the kind that comes more from the gut than from the head? The proof is in the pudding, and the difference is pretty obvious.

Chances are, you are not all that funny. If your ambition is to be a standup comedian, then this could lead to a major existential crisis. But if you are in some other profession, it’s ok, because once you figure out that you are not as funny as you thought you were, it takes some of the pressure off. Rather than trying to come up with something funny to kick off your next presentation, now you can focus on something else. For example, how about starting off with a somewhat provocative question to the audience that invites a show of hands?

And don’t feel bad. I’m not that funny either. True, my mom thinks I’m really funny, but she also thinks I should be the President.

Now, in fairness to myself, occasionally I might hit on something humorous that gets a few laughs. But generally, the things I crack myself up with in my own mind usually fall flat in front of an audience. Most of you are probably like me. So when you give a presentation, focus more on trying to be engaging than trying to be funny. If you’re interested, I will share some advice on that in Part 2.

Just don’t make me go to another cocktail party.



Zach Wolfe ( is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Follow @zachwolfelaw on Instagram to keep up with his latest shenanigans.

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.