Public Speaking for Lawyers

There are three keys to public speaking: ethos, pathos, and logos. Ethos is achieved when the speaker is convincingly credible. Pathos is achieved when the audience is emotionally moved. Logos is achieved when the reasoning presented is reasonable. Note that none of these involve the mystical calling of charisma nor haughty concepts like truth. Public speaking is a skill involving elements available to all who work on them.


Before I move to these three keys, a word on development. Great speakers do not come naturally to the calling, but through testing. The speaker must test everything, observe effectiveness, and adapt. Give a speech and, to emphasize a point, clap your hands a few times. Was it effective? No: it communicated an infantile sensibility. Give another speech and clap once. Was it effective? More, but perhaps too aggressive. Give another speech and spread the arms wide. Was it effective? Yes, the audience paid attention. To become a great speaker, one must test and test often to determine what works, under what circumstances, and what fails.

Consider the stand-up comedian’s Netflix special. It is not the first time the comedian delivers the joke. It is a joke told over and over and over again, never the same until it is honed to perfection. It is tested for inflection. It is tested for pregnant pauses. It is tested for language. It is tested for content. It is tested for length. It is tested for body gestures. It is the product of tests. By the time you see the joke on TV, you are seeing the end product over dozens, if not hundreds, of iterations. All the fluff and stuff that doesn’t work has been thrown out. Only the most effective parts of the joke have made it through the sifter. The genius of the great speaker is in convincing you that it is genius. But it is, in fact, simply hard work.

If you do not have the time nor the inclination to test, then give up the ghost. Public speaking is not for you. Otherwise: Speak up in team meetings within your firm. Speak up at the partners’ meeting. Speak up at bar association conferences. Speak up at firm dinners. Speak up at weddings and funerals. Speak up in court. Speak up. The alternative is to fail to speak well.

Ethos Is A Projection

The speaker must project a physical presence. Observe Tony Robbins in this speech. Tony Robbins comes to mind as an exemplar. He is 6’7 and fills a stage. He stands tall. His chest is puffed up, shoulders back. No trace of a slump can be found in his demeanor. He does not shake and quiver. He is comfortable. He employs the superman stance: legs apart, hands on hips, straight back, neck raised, head slightly up. He is dynamic and takes up space. He spreads out his arms completely to the side or up. You know you’re in for a treat before he even speaks. You could mute the whole presentation and still know he’s giving a great speech.

Oprah is not nearly as imposing but she, too, fills a room in this speech. At 5’6 she is of average height. She uses her hands liberally and intentionally. She raises a hand, finger pointing up or at the audience, to accentuate a point. She opens up both arms, palms facing the audience, to build consensus. She employs the Clinton thumb, a closed fit with the thumb inside the index finger, to signify strength. These are intentional gestures of the body.

The speaker must be welcoming. Smiling is a universal welcome. But to do so all the time is fake. Excitement generates energy. But too much excitement projects wildness. The goal is credibility. Smile when smiling is called for. Be exciting when excitement is called for. Act according to how the audience expects when the message is delivered. Incongruity between behavior and content is devastating. Have you ever heard a person deny a serious allegation and laugh? Did you believe the denial?

By the way: there are no excellent quiet public speakers.

Pathos Is A Story

Abraham Lincoln was the “story telling president”. Think of a mediator you love and the stories told to you while waiting for the next offer. An audience will remember a presentation if they are moved. They will forget about their kids at home, the next lecture, the file nagging them, the mistress, the game, their back pain, the grocery list – if they are moved. They will be moved if they are told a story that has a loser and a winner, a problem and an answer, a victim and a rescuer, a villain and a hero.

Donald Trump is an exemplar. The villain is the dumbo, Crazy Joe Biden, Low Energy Jeb, Heartless Hilary, Slippery James Comey, Beautiful Ted, High Tax Schumer, Cuban puppet, Mad Alex, Crooked H Flunkie, Angry Democrat Thugs, et al. Each villain is presented with an undesirable trait. The story expands such that the villain with the undesirable trait will cause harm to the citizen. The hero, lacking the trait, and presented as the solution, is the speaker. Fear and anger are paths to pathos. And, combining both pathos with ethos, nothing could be more effective than to present oneself as the hero.

Empathy, compassion, and morality are equally strong movers of pathos. Martin Luther King Jr.’s I have a dream speech evokes the pain of racial discrimination and inspires the pleasure of peace and moral righteousness. Never underestimate the power of morality. Live free or die; sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me; money can’t buy happiness; these are popular phrases and embody the salve that morality has over pain.

Therefore paint your point in the palette of morality and the competition of life. Zero sum game or not, doing so sells pathos.

Logos Is Truthiness

It is not necessary to be right to deliver a great speech. Many a speech has been uttered with truths and disappeared into the ether. In fact the speech that succeeds is often one that allows for various interpretations. Who can play variations on a theme if the theme is well known and dull? Offer instead a slightly strange and new theme, and the ear is open to the experience.

And so dispense with the lawyer-talk. A sentence qualified with a qualifier is long winded. Jargon is erudite and risks opacity. Obvious points are not points at all. Strange points are not credible; slightly curious points are interesting. So the speaker must be a curator of common sense, to know what is obvious and what is not, to differentiate between what is strange and what is merely curious.

The deductive syllogism is true but boring. Avoid. If A then B. A. Therefore B. This is sleep-inducing.

The enthymeme – hiding a premise – is infinitely better:

I think, therefore I am.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire.

I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.

They’ve taken our jobs. They’ve taken our base. They’ve taken our money. And I love China. They get along great with me. I told you I have all these people. I do business with China. They agree with me. They can’t…

Metaphors and idioms are memorable:

But there are many mountains yet to climb.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

We could’ve had it all, rolling in the deep

These is bloody shoes

Persuasion is not the art of truth. It is the art of shining a light on the monster lurking in the dark.


Public speaking is a skill and not a talent. I have never met a great public speaker who did not prepare. I have heard it said that for every 1 minute of speech, one prepares 5 minutes. Add an extra 5 minutes for up to 100 in the audience, and an extra 5 for every 1000, and so on. Every great speech is tested for hours; every speaking opportunity a chance to test and adapt. Approach the task like one approaches any task requiring mastery. Do it, do it often, do it observingly, do it adaptively, do it with certainty. The finished product – the speech performed in front of its intended audience – and its reception is never a surprise to the accomplished speaker.


Rhetoric by Artistotle. You don’t need to read anything else.

Your body language may shape who you are, Amy Cuddy, TED Talk.

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Seminal book about cognitive biases.

Toastmasters. Test, test, test.

I had a dream. Watch and watch again.

Practice by Allen Iverson. Enthymemes.

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