“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.Follow @azatty