Do you present well? – Elizabeth Cruickshank and Penny Cooper

Credit: hiddedevries

We can interpret this question in two different ways – how do you present yourself or how do you present your ideas? This article is not about dressing smartly and looking well-kempt, but about what you do once the neat and tidy appearance has been achieved. It’s not about making a presentation of yourself but about making presentations a.k.a. public speaking, which you might be asked to do:

– at an interview for a law firm summer vacation scheme
– at a training contract selection day
– when delivering a CPD seminar
– when pitching to a group of clients.

Even if you don’t want to be an advocate, you will find that public speaking is very much a part of legal life, from start to finish.

Do you think you are a good presenter?

In many ways it doesn’t matter what you think. However good, or for that matter bad, you think you are, it’s the audience’s perceptions that really matter. If the audience thought that you were boring or uninformative, then you were. If they thought that you were knowledgeable and persuasive then you were. You can’t make the audience think a certain way (unless perhaps you possess special hypnotic powers which would in any event be unethical to use without first getting their consent) but you can increase your chances of making an audience listen attentively – in other words of being a good presenter.

Caring and sharing

It helps to show that you care. You don’t need to adopt the admirable and sympathetic characteristics of a counsellor, social worker or nurse but you do need to:

– arrive in good time
– take care with the way you look
– do your research
– prepare and practise what you are going to say.


Take your time to look good! Credit: Thomas

However much time you have spent in preparing your presentation, don’t tell the people you are addressing how much effort you have put in. Your aim should be to appear effortlessly in control; if the audience is wrapped up in your fascinating talk they won’t stop to consider how many hours you spent on research and rehearsal and you should not invite them to speculate on it.

If on the other hand you arrive late, looking bedraggled and distracted with only a set of muddled thoughts to offer, the impression you will give is that you do not care enough either about your audience or the information that you are purporting to share. And it will be very difficult to stop the audience losing interest in you and your talk. Very fast.

Mutual respect

Successful presenters show respect for their audience. You may have given up your time (possibly masses of it) in preparing what you want to say, but remember that they may have given up something too.

– work time
– money – and remember that time is money for busy people
– an opportunity to do something else with their spare time

You cannot expect your audience to respect what you have to say if you have not shown them the respect that they deserve for giving you the opportunity to address them. And this is particularly true when you are presenting at assessment days or later when pitching to clients

First of all, make sure that your phone is turned off and, however tempting, don’t check it for messages or emails during your presentation; don’t check it immediately after your presentation either – it gives a “Phew I’m glad that’s over. I can’t wait to get out of here!” impression.

Engage with your audience as individuals by looking at all parts of the room and making good but brief eye contact from time to time as you speak; if you have practised beforehand you will be able to do this even if you are using notes. Ensure that you leave enough time for questions at the end or invite contributions as you go along. If you have asked questions at the beginning as an opening gambit, make sure that you answer them at the end.

Scary journeys and feedback

Have you ever arrived at a law lecture after the beginning or turned on the radio half way through a play? Unless you already know what it is about it can be hard to make sense of what is being said.
Most people like to know at the start of a talk what the speaker is going to say. Imagine that you are taking your audience on a journey and give them a broad indication of the direction of travel and what they might see en route. Brains are most receptive when there is some framework in which to process the information being received. The old adage, ‘tell them what you are about to say, tell them, and then tell them what you said’ is a good one. In other words create a route-map, take the audience on that journey, and then summarise where you have been.

A test for you – talking of maps, who said this?

‘Sometimes I get so anxious in front of large groups of people that I get a little nervous twitch. The twitch makes me feel embarrassed and ashamed inside. It becomes all I can think about. It makes me hate the fact that people are looking at me. It is called fear. And I am scared. Just a regular guy.’

The answer is Bear Grylls, the TV survival expert, in his book Mud, Sweat and Tears. Even an ex-SAS toughie will admit that public speaking can scare him. Inspired by the advice of the great actor Sir John Mills, Bear changed his style and his advice to us is, ‘Keep it short. Keep it from the heart. When we pretend, people get bored…stay yourself’.

To which we would add and Bear would surely agree, make that your best, most prepared self. There are plenty of good books on presentation skills. Borrow some from the library. Pick up hints and tips from others who have conquered their fears and come across well. Put what you learn into practice. Treat an invitation to speak to a group (especially if the thought of it is frightening) as a priceless opportunity to hone your presentation skills and, if you are very lucky, to get honest, audience feedback. After all it’s what they think that counts.

Professor Penny Cooper of Kingston University and Elizabeth Cruickshank are the authors of ‘All you need to know about being a Trainee Solicitor’ (Longtail, 2008) and together with Boma Ozobia of “The Survival Manual for New Wigs” (Odade 2010).

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