Tuesday, March 24, 2020
Like most parents across the country, I’ve been suddenly thrust into the rule of chief academic officer of my own home school in the past week. The degree of difficulty, on a scale of 1-10, is somewhere around 9.5. Let me gently suggest that the readers of this blog please hug a teacher whenever the scourge of this virus is past us.
The challenge of suddenly becoming a teacher for young children does, however, come with some readily identifiable lessons. And fortunately for the readers of this blog, many of those lessons are directly applicable to advocacy.
I’ll start by expressly disclaiming any suggestion that judges are like children. With that out of the way, though, parallel techniques are important for an effective presentation of material to any impatient audience, regardless of age and education level. This week has reminded me of some guidelines that are useful for lawyers to keep in mind when the world returns to its axis and we return to our courtrooms.
Whether teaching children or speaking to a court, the speaker must aim to simplify without pandering. Speak in terms too complex and your audience will gloss over. Speak down to your audience and they are liable to scream indignantly in response. The trick is to find the right balance between simplicity and pandering—the place where candor lives. Practice makes perfect, but in the short term, remember to remain flexible and change your approach in response to your audience’s reaction, whether than be a rudely interrupting question or a stomping march accompanied by a pouty frown.
To effectively present challenging material to any audience, the speaker must avoid creating an us-versus-them mentality. Your audience is not your opponent. The opponent is the difficult information you are presenting, which you and your audience hope to overcome together. Generating the bonhomie necessary to convince your audience that whatever point you are making is the best way to resolve the problem they face is a tremendous challenge. Again, achieving candor is crucial. And no matter how frustrated you may be by an audience that just isn’t getting it, never yell; it just builds a wall between you.
Engagement is everything. Lecturing just does not persuade. Instead, the speaker should present the audience with the opportunity to creatively resolve an important question, whether it be relatively basic arithmetic or a complex jurisdictional quandary. Putting the problem in a larger context is always helpful. If the audience believes the problem matters not just today, but in the weeks and months ahead, they will be far more receptive to the presentation.
Finally, the speaker must divide content into digestible chunks, keeping in mind their audience’s cognitive capacity. Don’t overload the audience with factual details they are unlikely to retain; simplify the details to just those needed to address the first piece of the immediate problem ahead. Then present the steps needed to solve that problem as concisely as possible, without detours and aside. Your time is as limited as the audience’s attention span. Condense accordingly
I hope this is a helpful, and maybe a bit lighthearted, distraction in the midst of the pandemic that is gripping our world. But more importantly, I hope anyone reading this is happy, healthy, and safe.