It is one of those factors of advocacy that is understood at a basic level, but not practiced at an effective level: Structure. Whenever you are verbally presenting — opening statement, closing argument, oral argument, CLE’s — organize your content into clear and discrete main points. Litigators know that, of course, since it was one of the central messages of your public speaking 101 class, and is reinforced in law school. Trial lawyers know they should be organized, but they don’t always know that this means conveying information in pieces — “chunks” in the vernacular of neuroscientists — that are obvious not just to the speaker but to the audience as well. If your judge, jury, or audience doesn’t know what your main points are, and doesn’t know when you are moving from one main point to the next, then you don’t have main points.
My experience is that if you tell this to the typical trial lawyer, they will nod in agreement. But if you watch that typical trial lawyer present, the content will most likely come across as a long chain of “…and another thing” facts, observations, or arguments. To communicate in ways that are most effective in leaving a sequence of thought that sticks with listeners, advocates need to see structure, not as an afterthought, and not as the icing on the cake that is your content, but as substance itself. Perhaps the most important thing you are conveying to your audience is a way to sequence their thoughts, so break it into chunks. Make sure that you, as the speaker, aren’t the only one who sees those chunks. Instead, make those chunks leap out at the audience so they cannot be missed. In this post, I’ll share some reminders for making sure the presentation isn’t just a stream of information, but is instead delivered in categories. And, practicing what I preach, I have seven chunks of meaning.
1. Use Numbers
Numbering your points, and verbally conveying those numbers to your audience, is the easiest way to say: “Here is a new piece, add it to your understanding, make a mental note or and actual note.” Letting them know that there are three reasons, or five parts to the agreement, or seven principles, and then numbering them as you go, creates an expectation, periodically regains attention, and makes the transitions obvious.
2. Make It Flat
Visually, a reader might understand the meaning and place of your point II.B.3 as a subdivision of a subdivision of a previous main point. But verbally, it is nearly guaranteed that your listener won’t. They’ll just hear another point without understanding the hierarchy. So to make it easy, make it flat. That means main points based on a single idea and less substructure. Litigators sometimes feel that “fewer points are better,” but that isn’t always true if it leads to points that, of necessity, are more abstract and substructured. The better rule of thumb: Simpler points are better (even if there are more of them).
3. Divide Your Story Into Chapters
Civil trials often have complicated stories. For a listener, that often means that attending to the story, with all of its detail from beginning to end, is a tall order. But what makes a story is its structure. There’s a reason that novelists will nearly always divide their novels into chapters. It is more meaningful and engaging when presented in bite-sized amounts, and the more complicated the material, the greater the advantage in making sure those chapters are short. So, in opening statement, go ahead and be explicit about the chapters you want them to understand. Label them.
4. Ask Questions
For more abstract information that doesn’t lend itself to the linear narrative, an effective chunking device is the question: What was the purpose of the contract? How did your client protect himself? How did your adversary breach? Each one of these creates a motivated envelope for the listener. It is easier to follow along because they know what they’re listening for — the answer. And each new question is a new opportunity to regain and refocus attention.
5. Make It Visual
Don’t just have a structure, show a structure. Do that by conveying your main points visually. You’ve probably seen too many PowerPoints, for example, that are just one slide after another, as if it is a deck of unrelated cards. Grouping the ideas and including title slides for each new main point, chapter or question, helps your audience see your sequence. And, if you have a flip chart and a marking pen, you can accomplish the same thing in old-school fashion.
6. Provide a Preview
The best way to make sure your audience knows there is a structure is to say to them at the beginning, Here is what my structure is going to be. Go ahead and lay it out. For the note-takers, that helps immensely. For everyone else, it sets expectations so they know the main points when they hear them again later on. Using the preview in oral arguments in front of a hot bench is also an excellent way of holding on to the floor. When you say, “there are three reasons that argument fails,” you are reducing the chances that you’ll be cut off after the first one.
Lawyers always want to end in a way that is powerful and pithy. But that doesn’t necessarily sum things up. A true summation should review the main points so that your listeners are reminded of what you’ve established. Your last few minutes should reiterate the main idea. That isn’t unnecessary repetition. Instead, that is providing a critical reminder to your audience: I haven’t just given you a big pile of information, I have given you some clear distinctions you can use as you organize the information in your own heads.
How far do attorneys need to go to make sure the main points are understood? My view: farther than they are currently going. Listening is hard. Listening to legal content is really hard. Your nonlegal audience doesn’t have the same analytical frame of mind that was pounded into you in law school; and your legal audience wasn’t there when you hatched your ideas, drafted your notes, and made your outline. So clarify your structure to the point where you think it’s obvious. Then clarify it a little more.