Public Speaking or Reading Out Loud? Kenneth Feinberg, Michael Millikin, and Mary Barra, on the Hot Seat

by Marsha Hunter

120px-Chompchomp_GMCWho spoke persuasively at yesterday’s Senate hearings on the GM ignition switch scandal? There were plenty of lawyers in the room and on the hot seat, so you’d think the level of public speaking would be impressive.

Sad to say, that wasn’t so. Michael Millikin and Mary Barra of GM are not very good at reading out loud, which they decided to do instead of public speaking. That it wasn’t impressive is no surprise, of course, since none of us are very good out-loud readers. Yesterday they testified before a Senate committee investigating the ignition switch recall scandal, and they arrived with prepared written remarks which they were allowed to read as opening statements.

But is reading poorly really a good idea? Does robotic delivery advance their case? Or does it make them look like what they are trying to avoid: slightly bored, uncaring corporate overlords who are enduring another grilling from Congress.

Rodney O’Neal from Delphi and Anton Valukas from Jenner & Block also testified, and read opening statements. Think about this: does anybody really need to read a heartfelt apology? Who among us cannot devise the following sentence off the cuff? “Before I begin, I want to say to those who lost loved ones, and to those who were injured, I am deeply sorry. I know we as a company, and I personally, have a responsibility to make sure that this never happens again.”

Or this difficult one: “Again, thank you for this opportunity to testify here today.” If you have to read that one from a script, you shouldn’t be GC of anything. How did you get through law school?

Below is a link to their testimony. Skip to the 51st minute to watch their introductory statements, read with all the expression of the wooden chairs they sit in. If you want to hear the Senators read their statements, begin at the beginning. They have indignantion on their side, and have somewhat more expression in their reading. Watch for the moments when passion makes them look up from their written remarks and address the room with focus and purpose.

But Kenneth Feinberg, who testifies first, speaks extemporaneously—and does so extremely well. He sets the standard for everyone else, making the rest look like high school students. If you have something important to say, don’t read out loud. Practice your remarks thoroughly, and then speak from your deep knowledge of the subject, as Feinberg does. And don’t forget to gesture. Observe how it helps him speak.

Feinberg, Barra, Milliken GM Testimony, U.S. Senate July 17, 2014

After their opening (read) statements, they answered questions. Feinberg is again the exception, speaking with expertise and authority and without notes. Listen, if you have time, to how fast the others speak as they answer. Without moments of pausing to think, we hear, “um,” “I mean,” “and,” and other filler thinking noises. While it isn’t a total disaster, it could be so much better! Inhibiting their gestures, or tapping on the table with a pen, doesn’t help.

One last comment. Please, could someone help them adjust their chairs? They look like Lilliputians sitting at a giant table. But maybe the Senators enjoy feeling like Gulliver gazing down on the little folks. When you are at a size disadvantage, everything needs to be bigger: gestures, expression, and vocal energy. If you have ever testified in front of Congress, let me know what it felt like. And if you could have adjusted your chair.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

The Music of Your Voice: Walking Down the Steps

by Brian K. Johnson

“May it please the court?” Is it a question?

Or is it a statement? “May it please the court.”

Legal writing guru Brian Garner offered a helpful historical analysis of this introductory utterance in an ABA Journal article last year. He set out to determine whether it is a question or a statement. Here’s our take.

The problem with inflecting your voice upward in your initial statement, as if asking a question, is that it often leads to a series of utterances that are inflected as questions. A rising inflection at the end of a statement is variously labeled “uptick” or “uptalk.” We describe it musically as the “questioning curl” because the pitch of the voice curls or slides upward on the final word of the sentence, as in, “Huh?” Say that aloud once or twice, slowly, exaggerating the musical pitch sliding upwards. “Huuuuh?” Hear how your voice curls up? This is the inflection we use for “Right?” or “True?”

The opposite inflective pattern is when your voice descends in pitch, as it always does at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance when you say:

“…with liberty and justice for all.” (Period.)

Say that phrase aloud and hear your voice descend downwards. We call that inflective pattern “walking down the steps.” As audible punctuation, it is the sound of a sentence coming to an end, with a period. It makes for a conclusive and certain ending.

When you stand to address the court, this is what often happens if your first utterance sounds like a question:

“May it please the court? My name is Michelle Figueroa? I am counsel for the plaintiff? Acme Industries?”

By starting with the questioning inflection, you establish a pattern that continues through your name, the name of your client, and beyond. Sometimes that questioning sound continues into the first substantive sentences, as in, “There are two issues before the court today?”

Your first impression on a judge or a jury is what? It is the opposite of confidence and certainty. You sound as if you are questioning what you are doing, who you are, and whom you represent.

Brian Garner believes that historically, “May it please the court” is not a question, but a statement, almost an incantation. He makes a useful comparison to these statements:

“May the force be with you.”

“May the wind be always at your back.”

Use that inflection to introduce yourself to the court. Walk down the steps and say:

“May it please the court.”


Hat tip to Garner’s historical analysis. http://www.abajournal.com/magazine/article/what_judges_really_think_about_the_phrase_may_it_please_the_court/



by Marsha HunterMJ Tocci

Two weeks ago we lost an exceptional teacher and tireless mentor for women lawyers, M.J. Tocci. She died in hospice after a years-long battle with cancer. Friends and colleagues have been remembering her inspiring assertiveness, so I’ve updated an article I wrote ten years ago while on assignment for Women in Aviation magazine. For all lawyers, women and men, who must speak up in a noisy world, this is for you from M.J.

 Note: Assertiveness training in aviation is part of a well-developed field called Crew Resource Management. The flight deck structure is a chain of command where it is essential for junior officers to speak openly and assertively about safety issues to their superiors. My aviation credentials include a commercial pilot’s license and a Master’s of Aeronautical Sciences with a specialty in Human Factors.
Several years ago I observed a daylong Crew Resource Management course at a major airline. I was writing about CRM, and had been invited by the head of the Human Factors department to attend the class for new pilot hires.

One portion of the morning session focused on assertive language during flight emergencies, with participants suggesting appropriate responses to different scenarios. The class discussed how to speak to an authoritarian captain, how to convey different levels of urgency, and how to disagree while preserving the chain of command.

While on the subject of interpersonal communication, the instructor paused to interject that the airline did not tolerate racist or homophobic comments in the work place. “Is that clear?” he asked, implying that this ironclad rule needed no elaboration. Then he added, “And I’d steer clear of politics, too.”

The forty men and one woman in the class nodded and shifted in their seats. There was nervous laughter at the thought of politics on the flight deck, but guidance about handling offensive remarks in collegial conversation was not in the curriculum.

At the lunch break we adjourned to the cafeteria. The new hires were eager to make friends, and I was welcomed easily into the group. I sat across from a pilot fresh from cargo operations in Asia. We discussed the aircraft he’d flown, the weather challenges in the southern hemisphere, and in general made polite pilot small talk.

Then he said, “I’ll really miss Asia. Prostitution is more accepted everywhere, and great sex was cheap.”


My interesting day had been rudely interrupted by a shocking, juvenile, stupid comment. In spite of my expertise in teaching public speaking, I was at a loss, totally speechless, and caught in a non-assertive mode.

My jaw dropped. My eyes got wide, my heart rate increased, and my breath got shallow. I became aware that my hands were shaking. My perception of time slowed dramatically. Sensing some type of threat, my body had dispensed a small adrenaline rush. While I could have punched the guy in the nose with all that energy, I was unprepared to respond verbally, so I didn’t. I felt profoundly silly.

The episode came back to me recently when I was subjected to a racist joke. As a writer, I spend a fair amount of time working alone, so I am not always prepared for the extremes of bad social manners. But the racist joke—again, my response had been woefully inadequate—inspired me to seek out a technique for coping with offensive and inappropriate language. Clearly, I needed advice from an expert.

I turned to my friend M.J. Tocci, who spent sixteen years in a district attorney’s office as a prosecutor, trying tough cases in the San Francisco Bay area. M.J. has seen and heard just about everything. Next to the word “assertive” in the dictionary, there’s a picture of M.J. I was sure she would have sage advice, so I gave her a call.

M.J. was thrilled to talk about it. “This is my favorite subject! Women lawyers cope with this issue all the time, sometimes overt, sometimes subtle.” She herself had recently been told that she had made “a lovely contribution” to a seminar in which she had been the only woman on the faculty.

M.J. laughed her low, cunning laugh as she told me about it. “’Why, thank you,’ I said, ‘but I hope I also contributed substance.’

“The guy was horrified; he hadn’t recognized his implication that I was the fluff, the skirt, the high heels. I said it in a nice way, but seriously enough to let him know I was offended.”

M.J. told me that her way of coping evolved over her career. As a young prosecutor, she wanted to fit in, to show how tough she was. She laughed at rude jokes to be one of the boys. She swore and wisecracked with the best of them.

“But,” she said, “I paid a price for playing along, because ultimately I felt cheap and demeaned for condoning their behavior. When you put up with it you feel complicit, an accomplice.”

M.J. reminded me that she had just turned 50, a liberating age. She sees more clearly than ever the importance of trying to make the world a better place, and the drawbacks of going along to get along.

“At 50 I don’t have to buck up and smile at things that are not OK. I no longer change the subject when I hear something offensive. Instead I do a speedy analysis: what is my relationship here, and what is my goal in responding?

“When I respond, I name the offense. I say, ‘That’s racist,’ or ‘That’s offensive.’ Name it unconditionally. Avoid saying, ‘That offends me,’ which qualifies the offense as being somehow unique to you.

“It’s very important that you don’t worry about what happens next. Don’t feel badly about the pregnant pause that follows a verbal confrontation. Let silence happen. Don’t jump in like women tend to do, filling in the uncomfortable seconds with conciliatory language.”

During that pause when you are feeling uncomfortable, give yourself a silent pep talk: Don’t give in! Hang tough! “Then you can raise your eyebrows and change the subject,” M.J. advised, “or you can let him (or her) apologize.” (By the way, when the shoe is on the other foot and you realize you have offended someone, apologize immediately and gracefully.)

As I knew she would, M.J. had suggestions about exactly what to say after that pregnant pause. Among her ideas:

“That is an inappropriate thing to say.”

“Did I just hear you make a racist remark?”

“How appropriate is that?”

“I don’t think we need to talk about this anymore.”

“Is that something you really feel is appropriate to discuss with a colleague?”

Practice this type of “parachute line” aloud. Have them on the tip of your tongue. Practice by disagreeing with your radio or TV. Talk back to politicians on the radio. Experiment with different attitudes.

You do have a responsibility to find the right tone for the circumstances. M.J. suggested trying a light tone. “It is OK to laugh – but make it clear you are laughing at them. Call an offense for what it is, with humor or lightness if necessary, but call it.”

What if you are dealing with your boss or another superior?

M.J. still suggests hanging tough, but tempering your language with due respect. “When someone is above you in the food chain, don’t be afraid to show that you are articulate, that you can be clear, and are able to set boundaries. Don’t be a straw in the wind, coping with other people’s inappropriate standards. Your job is not to make everyone happy and comfy.”

The next time I’m surprised by an offensive conversational remark, I plan to take an assertive breath before I begin. “Did I just hear you describe your patronage of Asian prostitutes? How appropriate is that?” During the pause that follows, I’ll raise my eyebrows and wait for the pregnant pause. And the world will change, if only a little.

Public Speaking at Its Finest: Actor Peter O’Toole’s sublime vocal legacy in less than two octaves

by Marsha Hunter

Peter O'Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Wikimedia Commons

Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, Wikimedia Commons


Actor Peter O’Toole died a few weeks ago at 81, leaving the world a less mellifluous place. His distinctive voice now can be heard only in film and audio archives. It will not ring out again from the stage of any theater, reverberating in listeners’ ears, sending spines tingling and raising hairs on the backs of our necks. Such sounds, uncontaminated by amplification, are the purest form of spoken communication.

That’s why I’m a big fan of great actors who make a beautiful noise. Spoken language is the heart of what makes us human. O’Toole’s grand speeches from Lawrence of Arabia, The Lion in Winter, and My Favourite Year will always ring in my ears, in all their eccentric glory. O’Toole snarled, bellowed, howled, barked, and sang, an extravagant antihero shouting and cooing his way through a tumultuous career, with almost two octaves of rat-a-tat-tatting vocal fireworks.

That voice is what fascinates me, though many who have written about him since his passing are absorbed by his glamorous, reckless life. I grew up watching him in movie theaters, and I know his sexy, enigmatic persona was alluring. But the sound of his exquisite diction is what drew me in and exposed what The Economist’s Prospero referred to as, “the aural architecture of [Shavian] dialogue articulated with the full rhetorical clash…that besides its musical values had a quality of sheer ecstasy that Mr. O’Toole possessed to a degree greater than any other actor of his time.” He showed us what a beautiful voice can do.

Aural architecture and rhetorical clash. Musical values and ecstasy. How did O’Toole do it?

To say that he was well-spoken is a gross understatement, naturally. British actors are to the manor born in the speech department; throw in Irish blood and you have some of the purest elocution DNA possible. Peter Seamus O’Toole was surely born to speak beautifully—all he needed were teachers to show him how to hone his skills. He claimed in an interview that he carried Shakespeare’s sonnets with him everywhere, and had them all memorizedListen to this short link to the very end, as he fishes for that last couplet. You can hear the actor thinking, using muscle memory to dredge up the words.

Aural architecture is the sound of words as they create a world. To construct his worlds, O’Toole used consonants and pace, elongated vowels and reverberation. Sometimes he lingered on sounds, and took his time. Sometimes he galloped along, words churning out in a waterfall of speech, thought, and action. There’s your rhetorical clash.

Musical values and ecstasy? Rapture is unleashed in the music of a great actor’s voice, and O’Toole was a model of abandon. The tunes he played, the high notes that echoed, the warmth of lower tones, all combined for the feel of each character. O’Toole’s agony and euphoria had certain sounds that are now part of our collective consciousness. Watch only one or two of his films, and you’ll know that voice anywhere. Its distinctive soundprint is instantly recognizable—and overflowing with emotion.

O’Toole was a tenor, with high notes galore. Early last year I watched two of his movies while sitting at my piano to check his range. Becket, from 1964, also stars Richard Burton, whose bass-baritone was a contrast to O’Toole’s higher-pitched Henry II. The musical contrast was fascinating. O’Toole never descended into the low notes of Burton, and Burton never came close to the ringing high C’s of his co-star. In fact, in my several weeks of research on actors’ vocal ranges, nobody matched O’Toole’s high notes, not even the great Laurence Olivier, who had a similar timbre.

The impetus for delving into actors’ vocal ranges was a lecture I’d heard on legal communication which claimed that engineers use a two-note range when they speak, lawyers use four, and actors use two full octaves. I suspected that these surprising “facts” were invented, and decided to investigate. Having read an ill-informed article in 2012 stating that many women have a much wider range than men—several octaves—I have decided now to fight these wild misconceptions with data. The idea that actors, women in general, or any speaker ever encompasses two octaves is absurd. The human voice doesn’t work that way, as the data makes obvious. The data is musical pitch, which can be written down.

It is fairly easy to obtain data about voices with a piano and a decent sound system connected to your TV monitor or computer. With an ear for music, some pianistic ability, and a basic understanding of musical notation, a large, if unscientific sample can be taken. Coincidentally, while I was comparing vocal ranges across famous actors, Beyoncé lip-synched “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the inauguration, and a friend commented on Beyoncé’s “amazing four-octave range.” Our national anthem is a two-octave song. Beyoncé did not add two extra octaves of melodic ornamentation! Exasperated, I continued my research, expanding to singers as well as speakers. Here are my results.

First, let’s define the data I was seeking. I wanted to discover the musical ranges of voices. Musical ranges are defined by intervals on a musical scale. Musical scales in Western music are comprised of seven notes: A, B, C, D, E, F, and G. The eighth note, or octave, begins the scale again. A pitch that is one octave higher than another is the same pitch, but eight notes above it. Likewise, a pitch one octave lower is the same note but deeper in pitch.

Most people can sing songs that range across one octave. Two octaves cover sixteen notes, repeating the standard musical scale at different pitch levels. Most of us have difficulty singing songs that range across sixteen notes. We don’t have the vocal range. This is why it is so hard to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and why we are impressed when a professional singer nails it.

Speaking and singing ranges of humans encompass monotone (one note) on the extreme low end, up to two octaves plus two or three extra notes for trained opera singers. A few freaky voices in operatic history have stretched to three octaves, all of them sopranos. No human has a vocal range of four octaves, but some celebrities have press agents who claim they do. These press agents are a) willfully lying or, b) ignorant, or c) both.

Monotone voices are rare. I’ve taught one or two in all the years I’ve coached lawyers. Here is what musically notated monotone looks like:  Monotone

Monotony is another matter. Speakers with a monotonous delivery suffer from something other than musical limitations. They may speak too softly, fail to emphasize key words, lack confidence, or be unfamiliar with the material they are presenting. Monotonous speech has a limited musical range, usually three or four notes. Here is what a limited musical range of speaking looks like:  Limited Vocal Range

The notion—from that lecture that got me thinking about this—that engineers use only two notes is ridiculous. I’ve spent my life with engineers, pilots, and other geeks and wonks who may be judged by some as sterotypically “dull” speakers, but they all use more than a limited range of two notes. I had coffee last week with a dear friend who spent a career engineering radio communications for flight operations, and I guarantee his range of speech is more than two notes. My estimate of his normal range is around six notes, reaching to an octave with occasional outbursts about politics or college tuition. My engineer friend Bob usually speaks within this range:  Normal Vocal Range

When I’m not hanging out with aviators, I spend my working days talking to lawyers. Like engineers and other non-actors, lawyers speak in a predictable range of about six notes, with flights of exclamatory vocalizing that exceed an octave. I obtained this data from the many video clips I make of lawyers in my daily work.

Now to actors. Stage actors need a wider range because they generally are not speaking into microphones, though in more and more theaters they are now amplified. TV and film actors do not need a wide range because the quiet, close-to-the-mike speaking techniques they use define the modern style of video and film acting. To see and hear TV actors cope with Shakespeare using their more limited vocal range, I heartily recommend 2012’s Much Ado About Nothing directed by Joss Whedon. It is delightful, but acted without the vocal chops of stage performers whose muscular voices must project with audible resonance to the back row of a cavernous theater.

Classically trained stage actors like Peter O’Toole use a wider vocal range than most people, but not all the time. They, too, range over about six notes for most expression, but they have strong high and low notes in reserve. They can drop down low in their range for effect, or sing out top notes for drama. This is true for female actors, of course. Meryl Streep, Janet McTeer, Dames Harriet Walter or Judi Densch—have speaking ranges of an octave and a half. In all my research, I heard not one actor use two octaves. It is beyond the reach of their speaking voices.

Actors singing musical comedy roles fall somewhere below the two-octave range. When any of us take a big breath and launch into a song, we are capable of a larger melodic range than our speaking voices can provide. Still, there are few musical comedy roles that require a range of two octaves. Composers know better than to write for too wide a range. Too wide a range, and they cannot cast the show. Listen here to Hugh Jackman using less that two octaves as Curly in Oklahoma. It is a wonderful performance, but not because of the range of pitches he sings. It is warm, appealing, interesting, true to the composer, original, and well-sung.

At the extreme—opera—singers must produce about two octaves in performance, but no more. To hear an opera singer using two octaves, listen here. Like Jackman’s performance, it has many fine qualities. A four-octave range doesn’t happen to be one of them.

In opera and musicals, data is easily available because composers write it down for us, artists make recordings, and all of it is quantified. Music is data.

Let’s loop back to vocal ecstasy. Peter O’Toole thrilled us with the sound of his big voice, on stage and film. He could reach into high notes that made us feel his joy, fear, anger, sadness. That generous sound of his, or any actor with a beautiful voice, is a tool in his kit to convince us, to persuade. O’Toole carefully nurtured that sound over a lifetime.

I love big beautiful voices. I’m always on the lookout for them amongst lawyers. My own speaking voice is not particularly pretty, though I pride myself in being loud enough to be heard by audiences. Voices like O’Toole’s remind me of my untapped potential.

What about you? Are you using vocal sound to persuade, counsel, or instruct? What voices do you love?


Thanks to Cori Ellison, Dramaturg at Glyndebourne Opera in England, for a lively discussion of vocal ranges in opera.

Peter O’Toole filmography

Obituaries for Peter O’Toole: The New York Times    

The Guardian

What Words Would You Emphasize in The Gettysburg Address?

by Marsha Hunter

Read this speech out loud. Which words call out for emphasis? Read it again. How do you feel while reading it? Read it again.

          Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons


We recommend Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, by Gary Wills


The Landscape of Argument: Gestural-Rhetorical Templates for Public Speaking

Cicero denouncing Cataline
John Leech, A Comic History of Rome via Wikimedia Commons

Cicero in John Leech’s A Comic History of Rome,     Wikimedia Commons

When people ask me what I do for a living, my stock reply is, “I teach lawyers how to talk.” They laugh, and then we may engage in a more substantial conversation about attorneys, public speaking, persuasion, or language. Never has anyone observed, “Ah! Rhetoric!” The study of public speaking has roots in ancient Greece, and even though I spend all my work days listening to style, structure, words, and delivery, I can count on one hand the number of times discussion has turned to logos, ethos, or pathos. Rhetoric, like its cousin elocution, has fallen away as a central unifying idea of public discourse.

Teaching at Glasgow’s University of Strathclyde LLM program brought it to my attention in a new way. Rhetoric was the topic of the Dean’s lecture during the first session of the course. And as always, my Scottish and English faculty colleagues had an enviable and self-assured grasp of language. Do they absorb the principles of rhetoric early on? It left me determined to learn more about an idea that had almost completely passed me by.

Unsurprisingly—and disappointingly—most books on rhetoric are really pricey textbooks. I take pride in being an author who is devoted to writing and selling reasonably-priced books, and thus constitutionally unable to fork over $187 for a single volume. Paying that much, I fear, would open the floodgates of high-end book-buying, leaving me with massive credit card bills and overflowing shelves.

Thus did I purchase a reasonably-priced The Essential Guide to Rhetoric, by William M. Keith and Christian O. Lundberg, an 83-page introduction to the topic. And read it I most certainly did, in a paper-bound volume.

“Aha!” I said to myself frequently as I read through this useful little volume, yellow highlighter in hand. Some techniques of Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero are alive and well in the modern world, partly due to human instinct and partly, no doubt, from study. Others are ripe for revival.


For example, I now understand why all top-ten tips for public speaking include the platitude, “Know your audience.” (Seriously, this advice popped up on my Twitter feed as I sat down to write today.) It has been handed down through the ages as a crucial step in planning to deliver the spoken word. Whether an ancient Greek or Roman came up with this idea or not, I’ve always taken it a self-evident given, and neither Brian Johnson or I teach it as a key point. Who wouldn’t consider the audience as part of the planning? It seems too obvious to state. Still, in an era when the media is actually discussing whether it is OK to dress up for Halloween in black face, I shouldn’t assume people anticipate any such thing as audience point of view. By all means, consider your audience.

In Part II, “Rhetoric in Action,” the discussion of logos, syllogisms, and premises is especially pertinent to advocacy. In trial skills programs, whether at NITA or elsewhere, we on the faculty push students to begin courtroom speeches with a “grabber,” such as the famous “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” Most often, students fall back on simplistic, bumper-sticker-type phrases such as, “Desperate men do desperate things,” a statement true for many trials, but dull and bland. More careful thought could lead to well-crafted themes that state a situation more precisely, such as “She loved the man she knew, but she didn’t know the man she loved.”

By far the most interesting ideas about rhetoric focus on topoi. Professors Keith and Lundberg refer to topoi as “the general forms that arguments take, regardless of their actual content” (page 40). Topos means place in Greek, and topoi  is the plural places. Quoting the authors again from the same page:

“The Greeks thought that arguments were, in a sense, spread out in space, and if a speaker knew his way around that space, he would be able to find the ones he needed. The better the speaker knew the landscape of argument, the more easily he could create persuasive appeals. The study of rhetoric could make a speaker just as familiar with the inventory of arguments in politics, policy, and law as with more ordinary subjects.”

Bingo! Yesssss! Eureka!

This affirms what we have been teaching about gesture, and it is exciting. We encourage speakers to use their hands to lay out arguments in front of them, and then “refer” back to those ideas, in a specific location, with gesture. We ask speakers to become their own visual aid by using gestural templates to structure arguments. Many people do this instinctively, but it is also possible to plan for it without looking corny or over-rehearsed.

The Greeks are famous for devising mnemonic devices using visualization, and topoi are a logical extension of the visualization that can be enhanced with gesture. In one mnemonic (sometimes still used by waiters to recall an evening’s specials), the speaker envisions her own living room, and places things (appetizer, soup, fish of the day, etc.) on tables, chairs, sofas, or window sills, to be retrieved later when she recites the list to customers. She looks into her mind’s eye and “sees” the appetizer sitting on an end table, a bowl of soup nestled in an easy chair, the fish flopping on a sofa. It is a short hop from visualizing to gesturing, which is a literal reaching out for the next item on the list. This type of refined gesture is almost a pantomime. Since gestures are mostly peripheral, listeners rarely see them, making this kinesthetic mnemonic nearly invisible.

The speaker in the illustration below indicates that the negotiable terms are on his right, and the non-negotiable terms are on his left. He now has two locations, or topoi, where these contrasting terms reside. He may reach toward his right to speak about the negotiable terms, and his left for the ones that are not. Each location now also contains more detail, such as lists of terms that are acceptable or not.

Place ideas in space, then use physical locations to talk about each topic. These topoi (topographical idea locations) are kinesthetic mnemonics, helping you keep track of your structure. Copyright Crown King Media, L.L.C.

Place ideas in space, then use physical locations to talk about each topic. These topoi (topographical idea locations) are kinesthetic mnemonics, helping you recall your structure.

Try this now by saying and showing with your hands, “Some terms are negotiable…..others are not.” If it feels weird or unnatural, work on it until you get comfortable. You have shown such relationships, using your hands, thousands of times—you just never noticed. Start to use this gestural/rhetorical template in professional conversations. Notice when others use it.


Plato would be interested to learn that modern researchers refer to these hand movements as “co-speech gestures.” They work for all spoken structure, whether discussing logos, ethos, or hashtags. Best of all, co-speech gestures assist speakers as they search for just the right word or turn of phrase. Rhetoric exists in a landscape that is yours for the taking. Extend your hand to explore it.

Plato and Aristotle, by Raphael, Wikimedia Commons; gesture illustration by Barbara Richied, copyright 2013 Crown King Media, L.L.C. 

Goodreads Giveaway for The Articulate Attorney, Second Edition

Brian Johnson and I love language. We adore it! We love a beautiful turn of phrase, a thoughtful insight well-described, the law illuminated by the spoken word, the out-loud reasoning of a quick mind. We love it when speaking becomes an art. It makes us excited, eager to go to work each day and coach the next interesting lawyer with a unique presenting style.

We are excited to release the new edition of The Articulate Attorney on June 1. We wrote this book because speaking about the law—having it on the tip of your tongue—is not as easy as it sounds. Speaking clearly indicates a lawyer is thinking clearly, and speaking poorly indicates she or he is not. We are fascinated by the nexus of speaking and thinking, and amazed to watch how physical presence predicts fluent speech. How can lack of movement in hands and arms squash efficient word choice? Why does sustained eye contact with listeners make conversation easier?

We learn new things from our clients every week, if not every day. We gain insights into how language works at any given moment in history, or how the music of speech changes with the times. The more we observe lawyers speaking, the more we see nuances of how physical gesture connects ideas. Like passionate teachers everywhere, each year we streamline our teaching to get closer to the essence of instruction. How can we say something better, and get results faster? What objectives should we have for this person as opposed to that one?

When Brian Johnson first began coaching lawyers over 30 years ago, speaking was a denigrated “soft skill,” and there was a general belief that only defective lawyers couldn’t get the job done. Now, after decades of linguistic and attentional studies, sports psychology, gesture, brain, and human factors research, there is a vastly more complete picture of how humans think and speak. We know that it often requires deliberate nurturing to reveal a lawyer’s “natural” speaking abilities.

Speaking well is a teachable skill, but there’s nothing “soft” about it. This second edition of The Articulate Attorney: Public Speaking for Lawyers is more fully illustrated and has extensive revisions. We wanted to include the very best of what we’ve learned since the first edition appeared.

We’ve set up a Goodreads Giveaway for the new edition. You can enter to win one of ten free copies of the book by following the link below. And if you haven’t been to Goodreads, prepare to love this online community of people who love to read.


Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Articulate Attorney by Brian K. Johnson

The Articulate Attorney

by Brian K. Johnson

Giveaway ends May 30, 2013.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win

More on the Public Speaking Scourge of Teleprompters

by Marsha Hunter

An article in The New Yorker caught my eye after my post about teleprompters at the Republican and Democratic conventions. Having watched a few teleprompted speeches on my recent trip to the U.K., I dislike these “blasted contrivances” more than ever. (That was Herbert Hoover’s description; see “Rolling Rhetoric” in the magazine above. I was reading back issues on the plane to London.)

Depressingly, the teleprompter industry seems alive and well, surely preying upon the well-documented general fear of public speaking. An Internet search gave me 1,640,000 results on the topic, showing equipment, mirror-image equipment, free-lance so-called “prompters,” information about the patents, news articles about their use and misuse, and on and on.

Since I do not teach lawyers how to use these contraptions, I had no idea how they actually worked until I did some digging around. Once, on a tour of the Louisiana State Capitol in Baton Rouge, I saw one up close, though I’d assumed it was an antique. I’d imagined that modern teleprompters were mechanized, with the speaker in control of the rate of speech rolling past their eyeballs.

How wrong I was! A person, like the Great Oz behind a flimsy curtain, still rolls lines of words manually, by turning a knob. The speaker is not in control. This further explains why speakers sound mechanical and unnatural when reading off a teleprompter. They aren’t even controlling their own rate of speech!

A speaker’s pace and breath make them sound like themselves – authentic, real, and natural. Only when a speaker overcomes her adrenaline and finds her own talking groove can she settle into delivering an excellent presentation. It is a skill that can be learned, because there is theoretically unlimited practice time to improve. It is up to each speaker to decide how much work to put into the task.

With a teleprompter, though, rehearsal time is extremely short. It is expensive to include technicians and a free-lance actor turning a knob, partly because it often must take place in the actual space such as a convention center. The chances of making it all seem “real” become vanishingly small. Judging from this season’s political speeches on both sides of the Atlantic, the results are dismal.

In my previous post, I critiqued the fast pace of reading, the limited “baton” gestures, and the stilted vocal delivery of teleprompted speeches.

Let me add another shortcoming: speakers’ faces do not look quite right. Whether from concentrating on words passing in front of them (at someone else’s rate), or because of the facial reading “mask” that so many teleprompted speakers wear, they appear distracted and far away. They are far away – inside the teleprompter. If they had their speeches on a piece of paper in front of them, at least they would be masters of their own speaking destiny. When their minds are focused on keeping up with the scrolling knob, we can hear it in their delivery.

As teleprompted speakers lean toward the screens, they crowd the podium, leaving themselves no space for their normal gestures to assist the language. Thus, language sounds dull, its music monotonous. Teleprompters suck speakers into a negative gesture-language loop, where gestures inhibit language and language fails to stimulate instinctive gesture.

Teleprompters simulate reality. I’d rather have reality, so I can hear the real person I’m considering voting for. Our virtual teleprompted speaking world is far from satisfactory, and only serves to reinforce that politicians, their wives, and surrogates live in a parallel universe, where Oz controls the knobs and the Emperor has no clothes.

Judge Reads Disciplinary Hearing Results in Maricopa County, Arizona

Presiding Disciplinary Judge William O’Neil handed down the decision by the panel in the eagerly-anticipated case of former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and his deputy Lisa Aubuchon this morning. Both Thomas and Aubuchon are disbarred. Attorney Rachel Alexander has been suspended for six months for her role in whole mess.

Listening live, as many of us here in Arizona were, I was struck by the increasing outrage I could hear in O’Neil’s voice. Reading the 33 ethical violations and findings, he began with an even-handed tone. The first allegations included a few findings that there was not clear and convincing evidence of ethical violation. But it didn’t take long for the judge’s voice to take on harder attitudes: impatience, outrage, disgust, exasperation. The unanimous decisions piled up, as Judge O’Neil read, “We find that there IS clear and convincing evidence that Mr. Thomas violated that ethical rule,” etc., etc. By the time he read that Aubuchon was disbarred, we all knew that Thomas was next. The climax of the 18 minutes of findings was dramatic.

To listen, go to:


Today’s video is already archived (bravo, Arizona Supreme Court!). Here you can also watch the proceedings from last fall’s hearings in all their lurid detail.

Listen especially to the inflection, clear voice, and tone of Judge O’Neil’s delivery. It’s an excellent example of reading with conviction.


Adrenaline Rush: Talking to the Supreme Court

by Marsha Hunter

The battle of the titans is on at the Supreme Court this week. Star advocates and celebrity justices argue behind closed doors, viewed by a lucky few in person. The politics of the health care hearings is hard to avoid, whether you turn on a TV, a radio, click into a news source, or find a newspaper at your hotel room door. Without video to show us what is happening (and video is long overdue at the Court), we rely on journalists and bloggers, or audio and transcripts. Audio from the courtroom allows us to hear through the politics and think about how the arguments unfold. What can we hear?

On Monday, we heard three advocates, Robert A. Long, Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli, Jr., and Gregory G. Katsas, debate the relevance of the Anti-Injunction Act. The first to speak, Mr. Long, was interrupted in the third paragraph of his initial statement after 90 seconds. That means he had a minute and a half to get his heart rate down and manage his adrenaline flow before Justice Scalia said, “Well, that depends…..”

Last week’s news reported on the amount of  preparation going on in Washington for these arguments. One implied that we were running out of lawyers willing to impersonate Supreme Court justices because so many moots were scheduled. Here are some of Monday’s real questions that those simulations were preparing for. They were just the type of inquiry to keep an advocate’s heart racing:

  • What kinds of cases do you imagine that courts will hear, on what grounds?
  • Are you asking us to overrule the Davis case?
  • Now, doesn’t that sound like an equitable exception to the Anti-Injunction Act?
  • I’m trying to get you to focus on that kind of argument.
  • Are you following me?
  • Isn’t the fairer statement…..
  • Doesn’t that just prove that…..

All three advocates stood their ground, answered succinctly or in detail when appropriate, and kept multiple questions in mind as they answered. They looped back to their own themes, occasionally with a polite apology about repeating themselves. It proved a decent warm-up for General Verrilli, who had two more grueling days ahead of him. Just listening to voices, his was the clearest, with the most air under the sound. His voice is a resonant baritone, with a pleasing quality.

When listening to arguments, pay special attention to the rate of speech of both advocates and justices. The ability to speak in deliberate phrases, without rushing, is the key to thinking and speaking in the moment.

For Monday’s audio, go to:


News reports after Tuesday’s arguments stated that General Verilli had sounded nervous. I was surprised, as he seemed confident on Monday. But sure enough, his first statement betrays a problem when listening to the audio that is not apparent in the transcript. Here is the transcript, with my observations inserted:

GENERAL VERRILLI: Mr. Chief Justice, and may it please the Court:
The Affordable Care Act addresses a fundamental and enduring problem in our health care system and our economy. Insurance has become the predominant means of paying for health care in this country. COUGHS TWICE, THEN REPEATS THE LAST SENTENCE, SO HE MUST BE READING. Insurance has become the predominant means of paying for health care in this country. For most Americans, for more than 80 percent of Americans, the UH insurance system does provide effective UH access. DRINKS WATER, AND WE CAN HEAR THE ICE CUBES TINKLE IN THE GLASS Excuse me. AS A LISTENER, I AM NOW BECOMING UNCOMFORTABLE, WONDERING WHAT IS WRONG.
But for more than 40 million Americans who do not have access to health insurance either through their employer or through government programs such as Medicare or Medicaid, BIG, AUDIBLE BREATH, the system does not work. Those individuals must resort to the individual market, and that market does not provide affordable health insurance. It does not do so because COUGHS SMALL STUTTER it — because the UH multibillion dollar subsidies that are available for the -UH the UH SOMETHING IN HIS TONE OF VOICE SIGNALS HE IS STRUGGLING, THAT HE IS STILL NOT OK employer market are not available in the individual market. It does not do so because ERISA and HIPAA regulations that preclude — UH that preclude UH discrimination against people based on their medical history do not apply in the individual market. That is an economic problem. And it begets another economic problem.

Here, at 1:44, Scalia asks the first question, in a quiet voice.

What happened to General Verrilli during that first minute and forty-five seconds? I’m guessing that he had “cotton mouth,” that odious condition resulting from adrenaline’s shutting down of the digestive system and robbing the speaker of saliva. It makes people clear their throats, need a drink of water, cough—all at the most important moment, the first-impression beginnings. In most public speaking situations, you can recover, but at the Supreme Court, your questioners may smell blood in the water. They will probably attack before you completely recover.

What do you think? Did General Verrilli recover sufficiently to argue effectively? How would you guard against this hazard?

For Tuesdays’ arguments: