June 1, 2011

Plain Speaking Outside the Courtroom

Jason Cohen, Rutgers School of Law (Camden), has published Attorneys at the Podium: A Plain Language Approach to Using the Rhetorical Situation in Public Speaking Outside the Courtroom, at 8 Legal Communication &Rhetoric 73 (2011). Here is the abstract.

The general public typically has the unrealistic expectation that all lawyers are effective and persuasive public speakers who, when called upon, have the innate ability to say “just the right thing.” In fact, not all of us have that innate ability. And even though we may have some level of legal genius swirling around in our minds, that genius is sometimes poorly communicated in speeches that ultimately don’t meet audience expectations or needs. Certainly, law school has taught us how to think and write like lawyers, but the ability to effectively communicate orally isn’t as frequently emphasized. This lack of emphasis on effective public speaking is unfortunate because lawyers are frequently forced to engage in some public speaking outside the courtroom, including speaking to lay groups about various matters of legal controversy; making appearances before legislatures, city councils and municipal boards; presenting at bar association luncheons; making client pitches; or participating in media interviews on behalf of clients. All of these occasions require the attorney-speaker to organize content, consider the audience, and deliver the most effective message possible.

Understanding the rhetorical situation - a theoretical concept with huge practical implications - before crafting the response helps the speaker meet these crucial components to effective speaking. Rather than focus merely on the mechanics of speech delivery or the flourishes of theatrical speaking, the speaker should first identify the rhetorical situation, which will force the speaker to concentrate on specific content for the speech.

The good news for those attorneys who want to become more successful public speakers is that if they understand the rhetorical situation, they will be better able to meet audience expectations. This is true because their analysis of the situation gives the attorney-speaker the tools to understand the environmental context of the speech (what is happening in the world outside the speech) and the audiences affected by this context. Together, these understandings ultimately permit the speaker to craft a speech that can aid, persuade, or satisfy those affected.

This short article first introduces the theoretical definition of the rhetorical situation. Translating the theory into plain language, it then offers a checklist for the attorney in preparing for any speaking scenario. These steps embody the rhetorical-situation analysis. Finally, the article illustrates the recommended approach by guiding the reader through an analysis of the rhetorical situation surrounding President Reagan’s Challenger speech.
Download the article from SSRN at the link.

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