After almost 40 years as a reporter, I’ve noticed that attorneys and judges are speaking faster, police officers and various law enforcement personnel are chewing their words more, and the record in general is suffering for it. Of course, it’s always been a challenge to punctuate the spoken word, but, seriously, who would have thought the English language would become so unrecognizable?
For many years – and maybe even from the beginning – I wondered if there were a class in law school teaching the appropriate way to make a record. After much consideration, I’ve decided that those soon-to-be attorneys toiling away to grasp the law completely missed their evidence class, indeed, along with being educated in making a good record.
Motor mouth does not even come close to today’s speakers. The new words are speed talking. Who said that was okay? I certainly didn’t get that memo. What makes all this worse is that today’s lawyers are actually proud of themselves when no one can understand what they said, and their record reflects it. I’ve been known to stop attorneys to say, “I can’t even hear that fast!” What’s a reporter, committed to producing the best record possible, to do?
Recently, I read an article by Diane DiResta, who is the author of the public-speaking best-seller, Knockout Presentations: How to Deliver Your Message with Power, Punch, and Pizzazz. It was entitled “Six Sloppy Speech Habits” and was addressing how to get ahead in the interviewing process in today’s employment scene. As I read it, I was astounded how well it could be adapted to attorneys.
I’ve always felt that part of my job was to teach and train people in making a clear and concise record. I decided that a message available for attorneys was a good use of their time while waiting in court for their case to be called, so I’ve been handing the following out when the opportunity arises and have them available on counsel tables to be perused. Feedback has been positive. See what you think, and while you are, think about all those reporters coming after you who will appreciate a little positive training of attorneys, not to mention the newbie lawyers you could reach.
SPEAKING WELL ON THE RECORD
Here are six common language mistakes and how to keep them from sabotaging your presentation in court:
1. Non-words: Filler words such as um, ah, you know, ok, or like tell the court you’re not prepared and make you sound like a Valley Girl (or Boy). A better strategy is to think before you speak, taking pauses and breaths when you lose your train of thought. Everybody utters an occasional um, but don’t let it start every sentence.
2. Up-talk: A singsong or rising inflection at the end of every sentence creates a tentative impression and makes it sound as though you’re asking a question instead of making a definitive statement. You need to speak with conviction when selling yourself in an argument. Bring your intonation down when ending a sentence to avoid talking up.
3. Grammatical errors: You detract from your point when you use incorrect grammar or slang. Expressions such as ain’t, she don’t, me and my friend, and so I goes to him aren’t appropriate. Be sure you speak in complete sentences and that tenses agree. Court is not the venue for regional expressions or informality.
4. Sloppy speech: Slurring words together or dropping their endings impairs the clarity of your message. To avoid slurring and increase understanding, speak slowly and distinctly. Make a list of commonly mispronounced words, and practice saying them when preparing for the hearing. Some common incorrect pronunciations include aks for ask, ath-a-lete for athlete, wif for with and dree for three.
5. Speed talking: While everybody is a bit anxious in court, you don’t want your information to fly by like a speeding bullet. A rapid speaking rate is difficult to follow, and speed talkers are seen as nervous. Slow down your racing heart by doing some breathing exercises before the hearing. To avoid rushing, when you finish a sentence, count two beats before continuing. Don’t be afraid of silence. Pausing is an effective communication technique. The judge and parties need a few seconds to process what you just said anyway.
6. Weak speak: Wimpy words modify or water down your conviction and in the end your position. When you pepper a conversation with hopefully, perhaps, I feel, kind of and sort of, the message you convey is a lack of confidence. Use power words such as I’m confident that, I take the position that, or I recommend. The language you use gives the listener an impression about your level of confidence and conviction.
THE BOTTOM LINE
You don’t have to study elocution to speak well. Simply slow down, take time to pronounce all the syllables and leave slang at home.
The more record conscious you are and the better record that you make will go a long way in making you stand out as a lawyer, and will certainly endear you to judges and court reporters as well.
JCR Contributing Editor Vicki Hartmetz, RPR, CMRS, CRI, CPE, CLVS, is an official court reporter from Centennial, Colo. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The list of suggested tips for speakers is adapted from Diane DiResta’s book, Knockout Presentations: How to Deliver Your Message with Power, Punch, and Pizzazz.