With the beginning of the new Supreme Court term and the opening of moot court season in law schools, this is an opportune time to study techniques for listening to yourself. By recording yourself giving a practice speech or oral argument and then studying the tape, you can greatly improve your effectiveness as a speaker.

But watching yourself speak can be challenging. First, there is the hurdle of . . . just watching yourself speak. For many, it’s a painful experience. If you can get past the discomfort, forcing yourself to watch tape can reveal distracting unconscious behaviors that you can then begin to curb.

The analytical content of a presentation may be more difficult to deconstruct by watching tape. Seeing your nonverbal behaviors on tape may prevent you from focusing on the content. And hearing your own speech again may actually reinforce the content in your mind, rather than helping you recognize gaps and weaknesses.

To listen to yourself and engage deeply with your own content, you need to listen specifically and critically. One innovative and powerful method for doing so is demonstrated in a wonderful Brain Pickings post here. In the post and embedded video, presentation guru Nancy Duarte breaks down Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Her visual analysis deconstructs the speech’s rhythm and rhetorical components. The post and Duarte’s embedded videos are well worth your time for so many reasons.

For lawyers working on a particular speech or oral argument or presentation, Duarte’s methods could be extremely useful. To listen to yourself using Duarte’s method, consider using audio as she does. This eliminates the distraction of seeing yourself. And it frees up your brain to think about the key issues she is focusing on: the segments and breaks in the speech, and the type of content delivered at different times.

Listening to yourself speak

1. First, find the natural breaks in your presentation.

Working from the transcript of your practice presentation, insert hard returns where you paused. This technique reveals the shape of what you are saying. Duarte organizes Dr. King’s speech on a timeline running across the page and inserts the breaks vertically. But you could do it horizontally on a regular typed page to obtain many of the same benefits.

This method by itself can help you hear whether the speech on paper is actually appropriate in spoken form. If you have an overwhelming eight-sentence paragraph in your draft speech, you’re going to have to insert more breaks. This method also can help you hear whether the pauses are coinciding with what you want to emphasize—or, as is sometimes the case, you are hesitating to pause at all.

2. Code your content, and examine proportions and patterns.

The second step in Duarte’s method is to color-code the material to show its proportions and patterns. Duarte uses a coding system appropriate for studying Dr. King’s speech within the rhetorical context of the civil rights movement. Lawyers using Duarte’s method to work on an oral argument or CLE presentation would obviously want to modify the color-coding system to fit the situation. The content you would code for varies by context, but here is a possible idea for coding a practice opening statement:

  • Duarte coded repetition in light blue. In listening to an opening statement, a lawyer might use light blue to code the theme of the case. (Ideally there would be some repetition of the theme. This method would reveal how often and when the theme cropped up.)
  • She coded metaphors and visual words in pink. A lawyer might use pink to code vivid descriptions of the testimony to follow.
  • She coded songs, scriptures, and literature in green. A lawyer might use green for cultural references (although whether to even use cultural references in a jury setting is a topic for another blog).
  • She coded political references in orange. A lawyer might use orange for legal standards and references to the role of the jury.

Duarte appears to have used some sophisticated software to generate the timeline and graphic components of the speech. But with a transcript and a simple word-processing program that allows text highlighting, lawyers could apply the same method. Speech-to-text applications such as Dragon Dictation could make this process even easier.

The benefits of Duarte’s method are not limited to speeches and formal presentations. Lawyers and law students practicing for oral argument could apply the same method to break down the way they are answering questions and managing the argument:

  • Are your answers transitioning from defensive content into more positive, affirmative arguments? [Color-code red for defensive statements and green for affirmative statements.]
  • Are your answers bringing in legal support? [Color-code yellow for facts and green for law.]
  • Are your answers lingering too long on answers or, conversely, are they so concise as to seem clipped or not fully supported? [Color-code orange for the answer to the question and purple for the return to the main argument.]

[Aside on the topic of writing: Breaking down your writing through color-coding for specific content is just as effective when the writing is intended to be read, rather than spoken. Mary Beth Beazley popularized this method for teaching legal writing in The Self-Graded Draft: Teaching Students to Revise Using Guided Self-Critique, available from the Journal of the Legal Writing Institute here. Duarte’s presentation on “I Have a Dream” shows this type of method is not just for beginners confronting a new genre such as “IRAC.” It is revealing and productive for the most sophisticated writers and speakers among us.]

Of course only the rare and gifted orators can even come close to the achievement of “I Have a Dream.” But everyone who prepares and delivers speeches and oral arguments can benefit from practicing and really listening to what that practice reveals. We can then critically examine what we are doing and how to make it better.

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