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The Supreme Court Justice has co-authored a new book counseling lawyers. The advice will help business professionals, too
Few presentations have more direct impact on the lives of millions of people than those argued before the U.S. Supreme Court. That's why I was intrigued to read the new book by Associate Justice Antonin Scalia and editor-in-chief of Black's Law Dictionary Bryan Garner, Making Your Case, in which the authors outline their advice on crafting written and oral arguments to persuade judges. Although written with litigators in mind, Scalia and Garner's observations can benefit business professionals, too: chief executive officers, entrepreneurs, managers, salespeople, and small business owners. Here is what they have to say:
Know your audience. Learn everything you can about the judge—even his level of patience, the authors write. The same applies to pitching a potential customer. Learn everything you can about the customer's business, challenges, goals and, when possible, even his temperament. This will tell you what type of material to include in the pitch and how long the presentation should last.
Lead with your strongest argument. In journalism, I was always taught to lead with the strongest statement. Doing otherwise is called “burying the lead.” According to Scalia and Garner, the reason for opening with your strongest argument is that “First impressions are indelible.” Kick off a business presentation with your most compelling idea. Grab your listener's attention right out of the gate.
Communicate clearly and concisely. Scalia and Garner remind us: “The power of brevity is not to be underestimated.” If it takes you five minutes to make the same point you could make in 30 seconds, you will lose the attention of your audience. This concept applies to oral and written communication. When you send an e-mail, keep Scalia's observation in mind: “People tend not to start reading what they cannot readily finish.”
Close powerfully and say explicitly what you want your audience to do. A well-crafted pitch or presentation means little if it ends poorly, without a call to action. “Move the listener,” Scalia and Garner recommend. Whatever the goal of your presentation (to influence an order, to get a second meeting, to get a phone call returned), your desire must be made clear at the end of your presentation. If it isn't, you leave your customer wondering what to do next. One more helpful piece of advice—Scalia and Garner suggest you have the opener down pat so you don't have to refer to notes. I suggest you do the same with your closer.
Banish jargon. Jargon, write Scalia and Garner, adds nothing but a “phony air of expertise.” The legal profession isn't the only area where speakers tend to stray from using plain English. Every industry has its own jargon, much of which is unfamiliar to outsiders. They offer an effective idea to eliminate jargon, explaining the key is to “avoid words that would cause people to look at you funny if you used them at a party.”
Hone your public speaking skills. Speak at a moderate pace, purge your speech of “ums” and “ers,” master the pause, and be aware of the pitch of your voice. “A high or shrill tone does not inspire confidence,” write Scalia and Garner. For more, listen to my narrated slide show (BusinessWeek.com, 5/16/06).
Dress appropriately. Your listener forms an impression before you say a word, so dress appropriately. In front of a judge, that means you would not show up in a sports jacket. Of course, a sports jacket is perfectly appropriate for many situations. The point? Dress to expectations. (BusinessWeek.com, 3/23/06).
When you're not on your feet, you're on stage. Scalia and Garner believe it is disrespectful to shake your head, roll your eyes, or smile derisively when reacting to opposing counsel's argument: “Maintain a dignified and respectful countenance,” they write. This advice applies to every presentation, especially when your customer asks about your competition. Take the high road. Doing otherwise makes you seem petty and uncertain.
Look judges in the eye. This advice couldn't be simpler. It also applies to every personal or professional conversation.
Don't chew your fingernails. Even Supreme Court justices are annoyed by lawyers who drum their pencils on the table, sway back and forth, or yes, chew their fingernails. Avoid annoying and distracting habits.
Although Making the Case contains plenty more ideas for developing briefs and arguments to persuade judges, the 10 rules listed above apply to any business pitch or presentation where the goal is to influence your listener to take a desired action.