Justice Ann Scott Timmer speaks at the luncheon of the North Phoenix Bar Association, June 12, 2013.

Justice Ann Scott Timmer speaks at the luncheon of the North Phoenix Bar Association, June 12, 2013.

“Understand your audience” is a lesson that is often ignored by speakers, who may address attendees with all the particularity of a spam email. But when the lesson is taken to heart, great things can happen.

That was the case yesterday, when Arizona Justice Ann Scott Timmer addressed the North Phoenix Bar Association. Spammers—and bad public speakers—take note.

Justice Timmer’s topic was writing, and she titled it “Convince Me: Writing To Persuade.”

Supreme Court Justices are on-the-ball kind of folks, so I knew the event would be fine, just fine. But as much as I enjoy writing (and talking about it), I have sat through speeches on writing that were drafted for everyone rather than for the particular audience. Such talks are peppered with truisms that we’ve all heard since middle school, containing few if any lessons you can take to heart.

As the NPBA folks took their seats, I scanned the menu for the luncheon at the Marriott at Desert Ridge. Was the Tahitian Vanilla New York Cheesecake really going to be that good, or was it mundane and geographically confused (as speakers can be). Perhaps I could skip it and get back to the office sooner?

Justice Timmer opened with that most basic of suggestions, with which I began this post: Know your audience. The cheesecake began to look like it would be omitted from my lunch.

But then Justice Timmer continued. She took all of those writing do’s and dont’s that we already know, and extrapolated them into lessons vital for practicing lawyers to understand.

Clarity is all. (We know.) And your motion’s clarity may be improved by an appendix. (Hmmm.) But how should the appendix be structured? (Pens out.) What kind of appendix is most helpful to the judicial officer—you know, the decider? (Scribbling furiously.)

Justice Timmer offered not an agglomeration of good but tired writing pointers, but valuable takeaways for lawyers to understand.

The value-added talk continued. It included a discussion of:

  • What judges find helpful when counsel appear opposite pro pers. (If their motion is a jumble, judges really don’t mind when the lawyer restates and clarifies it in their own response. Help a judge out.)
  • Words to avoid ($100 words when simpler ones will do.)
  • Block quotes that undermine a pleading, as the readers’ eyes pass over them seeking the analysis and guidance.
  • Lawyer waste-of-space phrases, such as “undoubtedly” or “it goes without saying.” Those, said Justice Timmer, signal the judge that you probably have no authority for your proposition (although a wise member of the NPBA mentioned to me later that lawyers may believe the same of courts when they rest their decision on “the court’s inherent power”—touché).

And so on.

Besides specifics to improve our writing, there were larger lessons. Here are two that I took away from the luncheon:

  • The success of a talk may be directly related to how well it does not fit every possible audience. Or, stated less clumsily, the best speech is the one aimed at this audience at this time and in this place. It is not for everyman.
  • The goal of the writer—and of the lawyer seeking a judicial result—is to avoid the use of anything that distracts the reader (or judge) from your argument or position. Expecting that a neutral third party (or a busy blog reader) will invest the time to decipher your poorly wrought puzzle is folly. Misunderstanding or worse will be the outcome.

In case you were wondering, I stayed for the cheesecake and finished every bite (it was wonderful, and I tip my hat to the Tahitian New Yorkers, or at least the pastry chef). And for my remaining for that indulgence, I blame Justice Timmer and her adroitly delivered remarks.

Thanks to the North Phoenix Bar Association, and to its president, Pouria Paknejad, for alerting me to the luncheon. I often find that the most robust conversations occur when groups of lawyers gather, and the NPBA proved that once again.

At the luncheon, the bar association also tendered a donation to the Children in Need Foundation. Read more about their work here.

Attorney Pouria Paknejad, right, delivers a check to a representative of the Children in Need Foundation, June 12, 2013.

Attorney Pouria Paknejad, right, delivers a check to a representative of the Children in Need Foundation, June 12, 2013.

What advice would you give high school students who must stand and deliver behind a microphone?

What advice would you give high school students who must stand and deliver behind a microphone?

I know this will be a relief to you, but there is still time for you to lend me a hand.

As you read this, I’ll be putting the finishing touches on what I aim to be a great presentation on public speaking. At least, it will be that with your assistance.

My mission: Present to a group of high school leaders at an ASU leadership event. I presented there last year, and, given the shortness of memory, they have invited me to return.

The group I’ll be addressing is comprised of high school students. They will be participating in something called the Asian LEAD Academy (co-sponsored by the Arizona Asian American Bar Association). You can read more about the program here.

Before I presented last year, I asked folks what public speaking advice they’d offer. I ended up getting some great responses, which I shamelessly stole and wove into my presentation.

This year, my part of the leadership program is an hour and a half. 90 minutes. 9. 0. Help a fellow out.

So I restate my queries to you that to which so many readers responded:

  • What is your strongest piece of advice for someone who is hesitant to speak in front of a group?
  • What was your biggest obstacle to public speaking, and how did you overcome it?
  • What is your worst public speaking disaster story? And were you able to right that capsizing ship, or to learn something from the experience?

And I add one question:

  • What format works best to convey public speaking lessons?

Thanks! I will report back on the lessons that I—and the students—learned.

Lawyers Talking article Jan 2013 by Brian K. JohnsonBefore January passes, I will pass on a few reading suggestions from the current issue of Arizona Attorney Magazine.

The first recommendation is an article by an accomplished expert who is not a lawyer himself. Brian K. Johnson, an award-winning author, instructs readers on how to communicate best with others on topics that may be complex. Titled “Lawyers Talking, Fast and Slow,” his article opens:

“When conferring with a lawyer, my brain is focused on just one thing: Help me figure out this thorny issue! Whether talking to my trust lawyer about choosing an executor, or the real estate lawyer who advises me about my 94-year-old father’s 40 acres of farmland with the problematic deed, my goal is the same. Has my money been well spent on sound advice?”

“Your clients most certainly share a similar desire. They need you to explain—clearly—an arcane or troublesome legal issue, and they want you to provide counsel on a course of action. Once the issue is fully dissected and understood, you and your client can figure out how to proceed.”

“Of course, all of that is more challenging than you might think.”

You’re not joking. The author is adept at setting out some lessons you wish were common sense but often are not.

Continue reading Brian’s great article here.

On Wednesday, I was asked to present next week on the topic of public speaking. Because I am foolish and enjoy getting out of the office, I said yes.

Upon reflection, however, it occurs to me that I could use your help. But first, some background on this Change of Venue Friday.

The group I will address next Tuesday will be comprised of high school students. So right off the bat, you know that they will be attentive to the musings of a middle-aged magazine editor. (Here’s hoping they even know what print publications are.)

I have some confidence about my audience, though, having had the chance to meet their cohorts last year in something called the Asian LEAD Academy, hosted by ASU. You can read more about the program here.

And last July, I wrote about the group’s work putting on a mock trial at the Phoenix Municipal Court. They were terrific.

So I suspect these will be great kids. But delivering an hour-long program on public speaking? Hmmm.

Public speaking is one of those things I’ve done a lot, but never taught about. But maybe I can draw on some experience I had this past month. In early April, I was tapped to emcee a portion of a nonprofit organization’s annual banquet. That portion was actually a talent competition. The five participants were incredibly talented, and my job was to keep things moving and to encourage the audience to contribute (a lot of) money to the envelopes on their tables.

Opera has seen better days.

Somewhere in the days leading up to event, I came upon the foolhardy idea of including a goofy get-up in every one of my “bits” between the acts. I figured that I had to keep the audience engaged and reaching for their wallets. And what can be better after a world-class opera piece than me in a Brunhilde helmet? (Well, quite a bit, probably, but walk a mile in my shoes.)

John Travolta is retaining counsel as we speak.

So that was fun, and raised a lot of money for the nonprofit group. But that still leaves my list of public-speaking suggestions pretty Spartan. Tools, man, I need tools to recommend.

I would appreciate your thoughts:

  • What is your strongest piece of advice for someone who is hesitant to speak in front of a group?
  • What was your biggest obstacle to public speaking, and how did you overcome it?
  • What is your worst public speaking disaster story? And were you able to right that capsizing ship, or to learn something from the experience?

Thanks! I will report back on the lessons I shared with the high school group—and the lessons they inevitably will teach me.

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