What Litigators Can Learn from Actors
By Roxanna Augesen Manuel – August 27, 2015
“How did you memorize all those lines?” From Hamlet to Blanche DuBois, this is the No. 1 question asked of actors at audience talkback sessions after performance. The gracious actor answers that it takes a lot of time to commit lines to memory. But every trained actor knows there is a lot more to performance than rote memorization. A phenomenal amount of hard, and sometimes mundane, work goes into creating what looks to the audience like sheer inspiration. The more the actor works at her craft before she ever walks in front of the audience, the more intuitive her performance seems. She makes it look easy, so the audience follows where she leads.
Whether arguing a summary judgment motion or pleading her case before a jury, the skilled advocate would never walk into court without meticulous preparation. You will know your facts and your law; you will have every exhibit at your fingertips. Preparing for your performance in the courtroom can be just as key to your credibility and persuasiveness. Make it look easy, and your audience will follow.
Prepare—Know What You Want and How You Will Ask for It
By the time she gets to performance, the actor knows everything there is to know about the story and her place in it. She knows what she wants and, just as importantly, how to go about getting it. She does this by what is called playing “actions.” For each beat of the story, she decides how she wants the other characters to feel about what she is saying, what she is trying to get from them. In this way, she obtains her objective in the moment, and in the overall story (unless the playwright has something else in mind for her).
The effective advocate should do the same work before she walks into the courtroom. Figure out how you want your audience—whether judge or jury—to feel about what you are telling them. Be specific. Break your argument down like a musical score, beat by beat. For example, when I describe my client’s injuries, I want my jury to feel sympathetic to, or protective of, my client. When I share the ways the supervisor touched and ogled my client, I want the jury to feel outraged by my opponent’s conduct. When I explain that there could be no breach because there was never a contract in the first place, I want the judge to feel involved in a situation that she alone can rectify. Be careful to let the emotional reactions be your audience’s and not yours. Histrionics—where the advocate feels and shows all the emotion—rarely work.
By breaking your argument down into specific bits, and assigning a value to each piece, you invite your audience to care, in a very real way, about what you are telling them. You give them that all-important emotional basis for following and supporting you.
Rehearse—Practice What You Are Going to Say and How You Are Going to Say It
You can spot the amateur actor in the rehearsal process. She’s the one who, when called upon to deliver an emotional moment, says “Don’t worry, I’ll do it in performance.” Nine times out of ten, she won’t be able to get there, and her performance will be hollow and unbelievable. Actors know—there is just no substitute for rehearsal.
As an advocate, you’ve planned your argument or your statement to the jury. You know what you want, and you have a roadmap of how to get it. Now practice saying it out loud. Listen to yourself, or have a (supportive) friend or family member listen. Record yourself if you have to. Are you speaking too fast? Most advocates tend to do so. Breathe and slow down. Your audience will stay with you; in fact, they will appreciate it. Breathing will send oxygen to your brain and help you concentrate.
Listen to your voice. Are nerves causing it to creep up in pitch? Do you sound nasal or whiny? Again, breathing will cause your pitch to drop back into your natural register. Start over and practice speaking in your normal, everyday voice. Let it resonate by paying attention to vowels. Relax your neck and throat and let your diaphragm do all the work.
Now listen for speech patterns. Do each of your sentences fall away on the last few words, or are they all delivered with the same speed or inflection? Nothing can lull an audience into distraction more quickly than a singsong vocal pattern. Break your habit by practicing your speech with different—even ridiculous—inflections. Go through your presentation and figure out which words are most important in each sentence—which words invite your audience to feel the reaction you want from them. Here’s a hint: there will only be one or two per sentence. If you have more, you’re probably overdoing it.
Warm Up—Do Not Underestimate the Mechanics of Performance
The trained actor is an athlete. Her body and her voice are the tools of her trade and can make or break a performance. She would never walk onstage without warming up first.
The advocate shouldn’t take these tools for granted either. Before walking into the courtroom, warm up your voice so you have your entire vocal range at your disposal. Sing a song in your car. Move your face and mouth around; practice some vowels and consonant sounds. Take some deep breaths while standing in the security line to get your blood flowing where it needs to go. Relax and shake out your limbs; loosen your spine so you can move freely. Not only will these actions warm up your voice and body, making you more expressive, but they also will calm your nerves and activate your concentration. You’ll be ready to ask for what you want.
The Tools Are There; Use Them
So the time has come and you are in front of your audience. You’ve loosened your spine so you can move freely. Now do so . . . but with focus. Stand on both feet. Don’t shift from side to side. When you are comfortable in your body, you telegraph that you are comfortable with what you are saying. Conversely, the more you move around without focus, the more it appears you are floundering.
Let your arms fall naturally to your side. Use simple, full gestures that guide your audience to what you believe is important. Describing your client’s upbringing? Go and stand beside him. Calling out your opponent’s bad conduct? Turn and look at her. Signal important transitions by taking a few steps to your left or right. Lean forward; if your audience is listening, you can be conspiratorial.
Don’t be afraid of silence. When used judiciously to emphasize or frame an important word or point, you will find it a most effective tool. Make your audience listen to you by directing and controlling the space. If you have their attention, they’ll wait for your next point.
Make eye contact. Really. Don’t just dart your eyes from one person to another. Really looking an audience in the eyes when you are speaking can be difficult and scary. After all, you are asking them to do something for you that they may or may not want to do. They, on the other hand, are captive; they have no choice but to sit there and (you hope) listen to you. The unnaturalness of the construct makes it easier to fake rather than make a real connection. But when you really look your audience in the eyes, they are much more likely to believe that you believe what you are saying, and to follow where you lead.
Respond—Be Ready for Whatever Happens
Anything can happen in performance. A prop may be dropped, a door may not open. Another actor may miss his cue or turn up in a different place on stage. But with rehearsal comes confidence—having practiced it all before, the actor knows she can trust the work she’s done to guide her through any rough spots. She can catch the ball and throw it.
You, too, have done your work. You know your facts, your law, your briefs, your evidence. You know what you want and you’ve planned how you’ll get it. But adding an audience brings another heightened level of awareness. So remember to breathe. Read the room. Be ready to move on if something isn’t working. If your eye contact is making a juror uncomfortable, move to another. Adjust your volume. Remember to invite your audience to care. Discover your arguments in each moment. Slow down; take a pause. Direct the room. Your confidence in the face of chaos, your ability to catch the ball and throw it, is key to your persuasiveness and credibility. And as the actor knows, with all that preparation behind you, you can relax a little and enjoy the performance.
Keywords: litigation, woman advocate, communication, trial skills, trial presentation, oral advocacy, speech, acting, actors
Roxanna Augesen Manuel is a founding member of Kupferstein Manuel & Quinto LLP in Los Angeles, California.