14 Public Speaking Lessons from the United States Supreme Court

I am a lawyer (both a barrister and solicitor), and a member of the Law Society of Upper Canada. I began my legal career with Fasken Martineau, one of Canada’s oldest and largest law firms. There, I specialized in corporate commercial litigation and environmental law.

In 1998, I left the private sector in order to do international law in Geneva, Switzerland. In Geneva, I worked for the United Nations, the International Organization for Migration and the World Health Organization before deciding to become a professional speaker.

Given that I am now a professional speaker, it should come as no surprise to learn that one of my favourite things about practicing law was making oral arguments before courts, administrative tribunals and UN bodies. For me, being able to stand up and advocate a position in a manner that is logical, precise and compelling is a touchstone of what it means to be a lawyer.

Public speakers can learn a thing or two from lawyers when it comes to speaking. The best litigators have honed their craft of oral persuasion to a fine art. But even they had to start somewhere. So where does one look?

One excellent source of advice is the Guide for Counsel in Cases to be Argued before the United States Supreme Court. Prepared by the Clerk of the United States Supreme Court, it is necessary reading for any lawyer who is going to plead a case before the Court, especially for the first time. However, it also contains sound advice for any speaker.


The United States Supreme Court

Many sections of the Guide are not relevant for the average speaker. For example, matters such as logistics, courtroom seating, the decisional process and court documents can be safely skipped. But when it comes to oral argument, there are several nuggets of advice that would benefit anyone. I have selected some and listed them below. In each case, I quote the language of the Guide from the Supreme Court and follow it with a comment.

1. “It has been said that preparing for oral argument at the Supreme Court is like packing your clothes for an ocean cruise. You should lay out all the clothes you think you will need, and then return half of them to the closet. When preparing for oral argument, eliminate half of what you initially planned to cover. Your allotted time passes quickly, especially when numerous questions come from the Court. Be prepared to skip over much of your planned argument and stress your strongest points.”

Comment: Do not try to cover every possible aspect of your topic. Many presentations break down when speakers try to do too much. Your audience will not remember most of what you said. Focus on your key message(s). If your topic is complex, say so and direct the audience to where it can find more information or provide a detailed handout.

2. “Turning pages in a notebook appears more professional than flipping pages of a legal pad.”

Comment: Presenting without notes is by far the best option, so prepare accordingly. However, if you need to use notes, be discreet. Ideally, your notes should be key words to remind you of what to say, not the exact words verbatim.

3. “Know your client’s business.”

Comment: Know the subject matter of your presentation.

4. “Your argument time is normally limited to 30 minutes. You need not use all your time.”

Comment: Manage your time. And remember, nobody ever complained about a speech being too short.

5. “You should speak in a clear, distinct manner, and try to avoid a monotone delivery. Speak into the microphone so that your voice will be audible to the Justices and to ensure a clear recording.”

Comment: Speak loudly and clearly enough to be heard and understood. Use vocal variety.

6. “Under no circumstances should you read your argument from a prepared script.”

Comment: If you are just going to read your notes or slides, you can save us all a lot of time. Just email us your presentation. We can read faster than you can speak. Talk to us and engage us.

7. “You should not attempt to enhance your argument time by a rapid fire, staccato delivery.”

Comment: Don’t speak too quickly. Remember to pause.

8. “Exhibits can be useful in unusual cases. Be very careful to ensure that any exhibit you use is appealing, accurate, and capable of being read from a distance of about 25 feet. Be sure to explain to the Court precisely what the exhibit is.”

Comment: Props can be very effective in helping you get your point across. Props should be visible and understandable. For more advice on using props, see here and here.

9. “Be careful not to use the ‘lingo’ of a business or activity. The Court may not be familiar with such terms, even if widely understood within that business or activity. For example, you should not say ‘double-link connector’ or ‘section 2b claims’ unless you have explained what those terms mean.”

Comment: Don’t use corporate jargon, especially acronyms, unless you first take the time to explain to the audience what they mean.

10. “Strunk and White warned us to ‘avoid fancy words’ when writing. The same is true for oral argument. Counsel used the word “orthogonal” in a recent case. This caused a minor disruption that detracted from the argument. Counsel could just as easily have said ‘right angle.’”

Comment: As Winston Churchill said, the simple words are the best words.

11. “Expect questions from the Court, and make every effort to answer the questions directly. If at all possible, say ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ and then expand upon your answer if you wish. If you do not know the answer, say so.”

Comment: Questions are an inevitable part of public speaking. Be prepared for them. If you don’t know the answer, don’t bluff. However, offer to find out and follow up with the person asking the question.

12. “Anticipate what questions the Justices will ask and be prepared to answer those questions.”

Comment: When your presentation is ready, ask yourself what you would want to know if you were in the audience. You can anticipate many questions. Also, if you are using slides, after your final slide, add two black slides and then as many back-up slides as you like. You might be able to use a back-up slide as part of your answer to a question.

13. “Never interrupt a Justice who is addressing you. Give your full time and attention to that Justice—do not look down at your notes, and do not look at your watch or at the clock located high on the wall behind the Justices.”

Comment: When someone asks you a question, give that person your full attention. Listen actively. It is the respectful thing to do.

14. “When a Justice makes a point that is adverse to you, do not ‘stonewall.’ Either concede the point, as appropriate, or explain why the point is not dispositive of your case and proceed with your argument.”

Comment: If someone raises a valid point with regard to your presentation, acknowledge it. If the point is not a favourable one but you can distinguish it in some way, do so. If you disagree with the point being raised, say so and explain why.


About John Zimmer

International speaker, presentation skills expert, lawyer, improv performer
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