Book Review: The Articulate Attorney: Public Speaking for Lawyers

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Brian K. Johnson and Marsha Hunter, The Articulate Attorney:  Public Speaking for Lawyers (2d ed., Crown King Books, 2013), 186 pages.  ISBN:  978-0-9796895-9-8, $24.99, paper.

Sweaty palms, stammering speech, stilted gestures:  for many of us, these are the hallmarks of public speaking.  With decades of experience teaching lawyers communication skills, Brian K. Johnson and Marsha Hunter present a very readable, comprehensive how-to volume that will help you cope with our common speaking foibles.   Even strong speakers at ease in front of any crowd will likely pick up some useful pointers from this book.

A change in title from the prior edition helps to explain the authors’ objectives.  The subtitle previously read:  “public speaking for corporate lawyers” (emphasis added).  As the publisher explains, the speaking skills presented apply not just in the corporate world but “in all types of settings that lawyers find themselves in – whether it is talking to colleagues at a firm, clients, board members, etc.”  (The authors also write The Articulate Advocate, dedicated to the separate subject of trial techniques.)

In short, the authors present methods for becoming a “more self-assured, compelling communicator.” Chapters discuss how to best use the body, the brain, and the voice, as well as how to practice.  As an example of thoroughness, the chapter on “Your Body” travels up the body – outlining what to do with your feet, lungs, hands, and face.  The authors typically offer quite specific directions– here’s an example explaining “subway knees”:  “The knees do not bend as in a crouch, but adjust enough to flexibly absorb the forward lurch of the train as it pulls out of the station.”  Readers are frequently encouraged to stop and practice, giving an interactive feel.

The authors offer clear explanations, often tying their techniques to scientific concepts.  In one particularly interesting example, the authors draw on the work of several psychologists to explain the importance of natural gestures—their innateness, their role in audience content comprehension, and their contribution to remembering a planned speech.  This discussion takes up less than two pages, but it crystalizes the rationale for the authors’ message—and therefore the speaker’s actions.

Each chapter ends with a narrative summary and a section called “Talk to Yourself,” similar material in bullet point form.  In addition, the appendices present a “Speaker’s Checklist,” essentially a longer summary, as well as a “Video Self-Review Checklist,” which functions much like yet another synopsis.  This level of repetition seems a bit much, but it does permit a reader to refresh the memory at various points and offers a choice between more specific or more comprehensive reviewing.

Aside from the title, there are few major changes between editions.  There are about thirty pages of additional material, much of it slight expansions of prior material.  The authors have also rearranged or rephrased some advice.  “Don’t use a mirror” became “practicing with a mirror.” 

Two commendable changes merit notice.  First, the index is more nuanced.  For example, the first edition index contains no subheadings under “face,” which now has four.  Second, the illustrations have much improved.  The first edition showed concepts with human figures made out of slinky toy squiggle shapes.  As a result, it was difficult to see the movements, gestures, or expressions the authors sought to depict.  The new edition presents sketches of human figures instead, allowing for more detailed approximations that are much easier to understand.  In any case, illustrations only go so far in presenting a three dimensional activity; an accompanying DVD or link to web videos would be helpful. 

Although the publication press release tells us the book “addresses the distinctive communication skills expected of attorneys,” these “speaking solutions” do not seem unique to the world of law. Other professional speakers would very likely benefit from the techniques presented here.

Nevertheless, the book remains a very useful, practical guide. Your palms may still get a bit sweaty, but with Johnson and Hunter’s advice, your speech and gestures should be much more fluid, your audience more appreciative.

Best suited for law firm libraries and public law libraries.  Also valuable to law schools libraries, seeking to prepare practice-ready graduates.

Susan Azyndar is a reference librarian and adjunct professor at the Moritz College of Law at the Ohio State University.

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