Imagine this: Your success as an attorney or a witness requires a painstaking dig into the fine points of securities trading. Or offshore corporation taxation rules. Or design criteria for inventory-tracking software. Or the minutia of a construction timeline. Or a patent claim for an electronic switch. Or...you get the idea. Legal cases aren't always celebrity murders or dramatic injury stories. Often, the case itself is dry and requires jurors to attend to details that are abstract, technical, and quite divorced from their daily lives.
Alternately, imagine this: Even when the material itself holds some potential appeal, the witness or the lawyer delivering it does not. They might have a flat and monotone voice, and a lack of emphasis, emotion, or dynamism. That dry style carries the likelihood of turning information that is at least potentially interesting into information that is a chore to follow and to digest.
The question is what to do about it. There are limits to how much you can change the nature of the case. Even with selective emphasis on the most interesting parts, a case is going to have its dry moments. And if an attorney or witness has a somewhat restricted range of communication, then there is a limit to how much that person can change their own style without looking and feeling artificial. The answer is to find a way to compensate. In this post, I'll share seven ways to add interest when the details or the delivery of those details would otherwise be dry.
1. Vocal Emphasis
Tone of voice is a big part of what listeners attend to. One aspect of delivery that can be altered, even by those who naturally have a restricted presentational style, is to add vocal emphasis. Pick one or two words in a sentence and give them greater volume. Note the difference between a sentence where every word is given equal emphasis (e.g., "The timeline matters") and a sentence where one of the words is 'punched' ("The timeline matters" or "The timeline matters"). It is like putting a highlighter on part of the sentence. Making that a natural part of your speech can make a dry speaker more emphatic, and can make it easier for your audience to take in the details.
Another delivery feature that is relatively easy to adjust is the use of gestures. In a witness box or at a lectern, it is easy to look and to feel constrained, formal, and stiff. Research, however, has shown that using your hands often improves communication, influencing the speaker as well as the audience. The audience has a more dynamic focus for their attention, and the speaker has an outlet for some of their own nervous energy. As long as gestures are somewhat linked to speech, used to emphasize or to illustrate, and are not repetitive or distracting, then the movement allows for a more interesting and conversational presentation.
This one should be obvious, but in my experience, it still isn't used enough. When you're feeling that the information is just too boring, the answer is to create more demonstrative exhibits. Our own visual persuasion study showed that it leads to better attention and comprehension. It more fully occupies listeners' attention by allowing them to operate on both an aural and visual track, it gives a reason for a witness to be able to step out of the witness box and identify aspects of the graphic and, most basically, it creates novelty, an opportunity to change things up.
Humor relieves tension and can humanize yourself and your case. At the same time, the courtroom can be a tricky place to use it. Due to the formality, a joke can feel out of place or can just fall flat in front of a judge or jury. That is why I emphasize humor, not jokes. By that I mean that a speaker should not rely on canned lines, but should cultivate a style that is relaxed enough to lighten the tone, and if a spontaneous moment for some levity presents itself (as it often does in a courtroom), don't shy away from it.
The analogy or metaphor isn't just a seasoning for language, it is one of the more useful tools of communication. It serves as a bridge, linking the new to the known, and as a filter, highlighting some features of a situation. While no metaphor is perfect -- it wouldn't be a metaphor if it was -- the effort to relate the content to something that is simpler or more familiar helps an audience handle the otherwise dry material. There is also evidence that the metaphoric thinkers in your audience don't just benefit from the metaphor, they actually require it.
The most fundamental way to add engagement is to tell a story. Even if the speaker is bland and the material is technical, if the content is framed as a story and follows a narrative structure, then we want to see what happens. That story can be broad in the form of an overarching template for your whole outline, with setting, character, conflict, and resolution. Or it can be just a single narrative moment, an illustration or an example to support a specific point. Either way, it breaks up the monotony and provides a familiar and simple way for the listeners to follow.
When the material is dry and hard to follow, then the holy grail is for your target audience to not just watch and passively absorb, but to participate in some way. If you could just have a conversation with your jurors, that would be ideal from an engagement standpoint, but of course, that isn't allowed. The next best thing is to embed the interaction into your own presentation or examination. Anticipating and calling out what the likely reactions and questions would be is inherently more involving for your target audience. Asking and then answering rhetorical questions also has the potential to create a kind of implied dialogue between you and the audience.
If you have ever sat through a trial where you were just watching -- not arguing, questioning or answering, but just sitting and taking it in -- you know that maintaining attention can be brutal. Remember that feeling. Do what you can to compensate for that as often and in as many ways as you can.