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Not necessarily … and stop calling me Surely!

This “Ask the Expert” column appears in the latest edition of “Maricopa Lawyer,” the official publication of the Bar Association in the Phoenix area. I thought you’d enjoy it.

Cary Pfeffer offers a blunt talk about the best way to get your point across, whether to a jury, a client or a group of hungry reporters.

Q. What is the most common mistake made by people when they stand up to speak?

A. Most of us try to get too many ideas across in a short time. People want to know what time it is, not how the watch is made! The most effective communicators keep their message clear, straightforward and specifically geared to the audience in front of them.

A short story or anecdote can underline a critical point. It’s most important to make sure you are relating to the audience and understand what they are expecting.

The other key is preparation. Most speakers do no prep work, or practice in front of people who already know the material! It usually shows within the first twenty seconds. Get a “third party” to provide feedback or use a tape recorder or video camera. It can make a huge difference.

Q. What about the legal profession specifically? What presentation tips do attorneys need to remember?

A. The difficulty in ANY profession comes from those who feel they are “finished products.” Too often, if we stop learning about communication skills, it shows up in court or when dealing with clients. Training and regular critiques need to happen with the newest associates, but not JUST the newest associates. The competition for clients and new business is very real, and one of the easiest-to-control variables comes in making sure every presentation an attorney gives is outstanding. (Speaking of being a “finished product,” I was training a group of doctors once, emphasizing the need to keep your message to two or three clear points. One of the doctors raised his hand and said he would find that difficult because, “everything I say is important.” Clearly someone who felt he didn’t need to learn anything, he just needed to give others the advantage of his great knowledge!)

Q. What do attorneys need to remember when dealing with the media?

A. Remember the strengths and weaknesses in the system. The media has a hard time capturing ideas, thoughts and arguments. What it DOES do a good job is in capturing energy, emotion and personality. You can take time to explain an idea or an argument on behalf of your client, but you should also be prepared with a quote or sound bite that gets to the heart of your position. Don’t wait for the journalist to figure it out, because they may not see it your way. While it is sometimes scary to deal with the media, it also is a great way to level the playing field when the other side uses the headlines against you or to get out in front of an issue. Every major firm should utilize the services of a Communication professional to make sure they are prepared BEFORE a client ends up in the newspaper or on TV.

Q. How long does it take to get someone trained to be a better communicator, whether in front of an audience or in front of the media?

A. Who has time for training? Most firms and individual attorneys are very busy with all of the other things in their lives, so training sits on the “to do” list forever. (That’s actually good news for me because it means I most often work with focused, organized people.) Knowing time is short we provide half-day group sessions and then one-on-one training tailored to individual schedules. It’s the most efficient way to get the important work done while also dealing with everyoneÕs busy schedule.

Q. What background and qualifications should someone look for when searching for Communications training?

A. A good choice would be someone with my exact resume… Okay, seriously, look for a combination of professional and real-life experience. Someone who has only dealt with the media or audiences in a classroom environment cannot understand what it’s like to be in your shoes. Having recent media experience is helpful as is a track record of results in dealing with a diverse list of clients. While that may be pretty close to my exact resume I’m sure there are others out there who could do a good job as well.

“Ask the Expert” is reprinted with the permission of “Maricopa Lawyer,” the official publication of the Maricopa County Bar Association.