I started in speech quite young. I competed in the speech circuit in Hong Kong in events including prose, poetry, and original compositions. In high school, I competed in oral interpretation and the duo interpretation speech events. And now as a law student, I coach speech at a local high school. I volunteer to judge speech tournaments where I observe speeches from students hailing from around the country in a variety of events. Apart from speech extracurriculars, I’ve been active in activities I consider highly related, including choir, musical theater, and debate.
I have always gravitated toward interpretation events, which involved picking and formulating a ten-minute speech based on a preexisting speech, book, play, movie, or TV show episode. But there are other speech formats as well. In spontaneous speech events, students pick a topic from three choices and have a limited amount of time to prepare and give a well-structured and persuasive speech. These events include impromptu, international extemporaneous speaking, and domestic extemporaneous. And in original speech events, students write their own ten-minute speech on a topic of their choice. These events include informative speaking, original oratory, and original spoken word. Each speech event is fun and challenging in its own way.
Lawyers are speakers and communicators. They speak to clients and generate business by networking. They speak, very artfully, to lawyers who are representing transactional counterparties or litigation adversaries. They also can communicate with clients on the other side, though usually indirectly. They advocate in front of experienced judges, or work to persuade non-legally trained jurors. Some lawyers even talk to the press and the public when acting as a spokesperson for their client. Lawyers not only speak verbally, but also with body language, and through the written word. For lawyers who don’t always appear in court, emails abound in their daily work.
With that all said, I would love to share three lessons that I learned from speech that are applicable to the law.
LESSON 1: Speak to your audience and engage them
Good public speakers know that while they may be very passionate about the subject, their audience may know little about it or are not that invested. For lawyers, think a judge who has as full docket of matters or a generalist decision maker who does not know the facts intimately or the specific area of law. In response, good speakers write their speech to engage their audience and make them want to care. That is why lawyers research their judge and engage jury experts to observe jurors. While student speech competitors cannot anticipate the identities of their judges in the same way, they use a similar technique by selecting speeches, topics, arguments, evidence, and rhetoric that have broad appeal and that include insights and takeaways that many people would appreciate. They also adjust based on viewing their judges’ reactions live. This is why during zoom tournaments it is critical that the judges keep their cameras on—I strongly feel that competitors feed off their energy and intuitive responses. Developing and honing skills will transfer well to a legal career.
LESSON 2: Organize well
Human beings have short attention spans. Excellent public speakers know how to organize their ideas in a way that helps their audience to follow their speech. Students’ speech competitions are not usually lectures conveying important information constantly, but more so aim to deliver big themes or arguments so they don’t want their audience to fall asleep or get bored. And for some speeches, the introductory thoughts build a foundation for information delivered later on in the competition. Organization is a key: roadmaps, signposting, topic sentences, transition phrases and paragraphs, even when done subtly, can go a long way to give a sense of direction. As a judge, I find that these seemingly small charges can really tie the speech together and leave a stronger impact. Unsurprisingly, lawyers also think about this, whether writing emails and legal briefs, or preparing for arguments or negotiations.
LESSON 3: Combining emotional and logical persuasion
I teach my students, and give feedback to competitors, that this is often the critical balance to delivering a powerful speech that leaves an impression. The content must first be strong and well-structured (as I discussed above), and also needs to be delivered in a way that is credible. While not every speech topic involves multiple emotions, when there is the ability to demonstrate the range of perspectives and feelings about a topic, this lays the groundwork for an especially rich listening and viewing experience. A more story-like experience will help your audience remember your message, even if it is a more technical one. As you can imagine, lawyers use the facts and circumstances at their disposal to present a story as they argue to a legal conclusion or a proposed resolution. Apart from logic, they must appeal to the human side of everyone involved. Students are getting great practice as they balance these components in their speeches, and recalibrate as needed.
As you can tell, I love speech for many reasons. I can be creative with selection and performance but need to be understanding of the audience. I push myself to be expressive and dramatic but also to be genuine and nuanced, by letting the emotions shine and focusing on character development. I am so grateful to have competed in speech, and to be coaching and judging young people who are passionate about writing, advocating, and speaking now. Speech is a big part of daily life, especially for lawyers. Speech competitors are well on their way to becoming effective and rousing orators.
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