Trial lawyers afraid of public speaking?

A contradiction in terms or the truth?

Stuart Zanville
2019 February

One of my favorite words is paradox. In case you forgot, a paradox is a “seemingly absurd or self-contradictory statement or proposition that when investigated or explained may prove to be well founded or true.”

This column is about trial lawyers who are afraid to give an impromptu speech.

Now that’s a paradox if I’ve ever written one. Imagine trial lawyers, whose livelihood is dependent on their ability to communicate, being afraid to make an unscripted talk. While it sounds like a contradictory statement, I bet that a lot of the trial lawyers reading this column are nodding their heads in agreement. To many of them, the prospect of speaking “off the cuff” makes them anxious.

While many trial lawyers are comfortable speaking without notes to a jury, many feel just the opposite when asked to speak publicly. I see this all the time at CAALA meetings. To put it tactfully, some are better at speaking spontaneously than others; and some want nothing to do with the thought of being asked to speak without notes or without notice. They’d rather hide under the table than be called on to speak spontaneously.

These fears become problematic when trial lawyers are told that giving impromptu public speeches is an effective way for them to combat the negative public perception some people have of them and their profession. In fact, speaking to small groups in a casual setting is probably the most effective way for attorneys to communicate firsthand to the public. This can be done by reaching out to service clubs, grassroots organizations or chambers of commerce and offering to speak about legal issues and the civil justice system. Newsworthy legal issues are always a hot topic for members of groups such as Kiwanis, Rotary or a Chamber of Commerce. When you do one of those speeches, you not only get to meet members of your community, you never know who might need your services or who might end up being a part of your next jury pool.

But, what about you trial lawyers who aren’t comfortable speaking without notes or a script?

Last year I read a Wall Street Journal article (Dec. 4, 2018) by Sue Shellenbarger that talked about how you can overcome the fear of delivering an impromptu speech.

Shellenbarger asked her readers who are put in that position “Do you freeze on the spot? Ramble endlessly? Break into a nervous sweat?” Be honest, a lot of trial lawyers would answer those questions “all of the above.”

In her article, Shellenbarger quoted experts that “it’s easy to control anxiety over public speaking and turn it to your advantage.”

Shellenbarger compiled the research of the experts and provided some simple tips that can be effectively used by anyone (even a trial lawyer) who is afraid to make an impromptu comment or speech. Here are her suggestions.

• Assume you’ll be asked to speak and always be ready.

• Practice answering questions in informal settings, such as around the dinner table.

• Be aware of your body language under stress and avoid misleading tells.

• Treat your anxiety as a normal response and tell yourself: I’m excited.

• Focus on what listeners want and need to know, rather than on yourself.

• Speak in a conversational tone and avoid rushing.• Strive to convey information and meaning, rather than to perform perfectly.

Two of the experts quoted in the article provided advice that I think trial lawyers can use in the courtroom, not just when making an impromptu speech.

Lynne Waymon, CEO of Contacts Count, says, “You have to be prepared to be spontaneous. When asked to speak, strive for a warm emotional connection by imagining a string connecting each listener in the room. Strive to make the strings taut with excitement and positive energy.”

Traci Brown, a speaker and author on body language says, “like tells in poker, shifty eyes, fidgety feet or a wide, nervous grin can telegraph to listeners that you are nervous, or worse yet, that you’re lying.”

Now that you’ve overcome the terror of giving an impromptu speech, I’d like to give you some suggestions about the words you say when you make those speeches or comments. The suggestions aren’t mine, they were written more than 70 years ago by famed author George Orwell in an essay titled “Politics and the English Language.”

Orwell wrote that the “English language is in a bad way,” and wrote about the problems and solutions to what he saw as the decline of the English language. Orwell spelled out five rules that are as meaningful today as they were in 1946, especially for trial lawyers.

Here are Orwell’s five rules:

• Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

• Never use a long word where a short one will do.

• If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

• Never use the passive when you can use the active.

• Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

If you aren’t comfortable speaking in public, this column should make you realize you aren’t alone and that you can overcome those fears. As a trial lawyer, you face far more serious challenges every day.

Stuart Zanville Stuart Zanville

Stuart Zanville is the Executive Director of the Consumer Attorneys Association of Los Angeles (CAALA). Contact him at (213) 487-1212 or by e-mail:

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