The Attorney's Voice: How to Get off Autopilot and Take Control of Your Vocal Delivery

By Meg Bucaro

Meg Bucaro Communications

“A commanding, convincing, and engaging voice is essential in the legal profession because so much of lawyers’ work requires speaking to persuade.”[1] Regardless of number of years’ experience, it is important to ask yourself if your vocal instrument is successfully working for you.

Communication research tell us that we are in some form of communication for the majority of our waking hours. Because talking, demonstrating and interpreting nonverbal language, listening, and writing is something we do so often we are not always intentional about how we communicate. This tempts us to set sail on communication autopilot, thus decreasing our overall effectiveness.

Vocal delivery matters.

Harvard researchers conducted a study on tone of voice during patient surgeon interactions. “Ratings of surgeons’ tone of voice from very brief segments (four 10-second clips) of audio-taped conversations were associated with previous malpractice claims of surgeons…Thus, 40 seconds of surgeons’ speech distinguished between claims and no-claims surgeons, revealing the power of information communicated by voice.”[2] By listening to 40 seconds of audio, researchers could determine surgeons’ malpractice history.

Please note that the surgeons were not judged at how well they performed surgery, their success rates or overall patient satisfaction, they were judged by the tone of their voice in 40 seconds of audio clips and were judged accurately on whether or not they had claims of malpractice in their history. (Hint: Judgements focused on tone of voice that conveyed feelings of dominance or empathy.)

Tone of voice matters.

I have observed passionate arguments in court with great feeling, perfectly placed pauses and vocal variation to keep the distracted juror intrigued. I have also observed monotone, robotic verbal tone, pitch and pace that easily allow courtroom decision makers to lose focus, decrease their engagement and attention span.

Communication studies show that 90% of message transfer is nonverbal. This means that not only your body language matters but your vocal delivery, pitch, rate, tone, use of pauses and general energy in your voice significantly affects how others receive your messages. They then make judgements about your message and about whether or not they trust and like you. If your vocals say this much about you, why wouldn’t you want to think about how you sound to those whom you are trying to persuade?

In the article, “Techno-jury: Techniques in Verbal and Visual Persuasion,” by Gregory J. Morse[3], a trial is described as a series of impressions. And your voice sets the tone, literally. Have you recently asked yourself what type of impression your voice, alone, might leave on your audience? Are you leaving the use of your voice to chance? Do you practice vocal variation during opening, argument or closing?

Be the first example to your audience on how they should listen to you by utilizing the instrument of your voice. If you desire empathy or want to convey fear, lead with your voice. If you want to convey proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, lead with your voice. Or do you hope to convey this confidence without any feeling behind your voice? Be the example to your audience, with your vocal skills, what you want them to think and feel. Here are some questions to consider when analyzing your own vocal delivery:

· When was the last time you heard a recording of yourself while presenting?

· How aware are you of your vocal variation?

· Have you ever received feedback on your voice?

· Are you speaking on autopilot, focusing on just getting the words out instead of on how you deliver your content?

· Are you speaking without any vocal variation, sounding monotone?

· Does your tone reflect your authentic style?

· Can you hear the essence of “you” through your voice? How so?

Two Practice Exercises:

1. Say the sentence below in the following ways and see if you can hear the difference in meaning. Remember, the words do not change, just your vocal tone and thus the meaning behind the words.

“Of course, your Mother can move in with us.”

· sarcastically

· sincerely

· energetically

· monotonically

2. Record yourself telling a story. Any story. Play it back. What feelings are being conveyed through your voice? When does your tone rise? When does it fall? Do you speak in a quick or a slow pace? Do you end your sentences with a higher pitch (sounding like a question) or lower pitch (sounding confident)? When do you hear verbal or silent pauses? Remember, if this sounds different that your usual presentation voice, begin to examine the differences and reasons behind them.

We know that vocal delivery matters and it affects persuasive outcomes. Might it be worth spending a few minutes to purposefully focus on your vocal delivery and ensure it is successfully working for you? Reflect on the questions or exercises above and seek additional resources for improvement should you need them. There are many variables inside and outside of a courtroom or office that an attorney cannot control. Luckily you have full control over your own voice, but only when you choose to take it.

As a communication trainer and consultant, Meg Bucaro works with attorneys and law enforcement professionals to increase their success through customized communication skills training for high stake situations. Meg is coming to Georgia CLE for the March 19, 2020 program in Atlanta to discuss how to increase influence in the courtroom.

Connect with Meg on LinkedIn or learn more at

[1] Sounds and Images of Persuasion: A Primer by Steven Wisotsky published in Florida Bar Journal/February 2010.

[2]Surgical Outcomes Research: Surgeons’ Tone of Voice: A Clue to Malpractice History by Nalini Ambady, Debi LaPLante, Thai Nguyen, Robert Rosenthal, Nigel Chaumeton and Wendy Levinson).

[3] Techno-jury: Techniques in Verbal and Visual Persuasion by Gregory J. Morse. New York Law School Law Review Volume 54: 2009/10.



P.O. Box 725342, Atlanta, GA 31139

  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • Facebook
  • Instagram

©2020 by Georgia Lawyers Continuing Legal Education, Corp.