By Meg Bucaro
Meg Bucaro Communications
Your voice is the strongest communication tool you have. It reveals your attitude toward your topic. It reveals your interest or disinterest. Your vocal variation communicates your mastery of your content. Gerry Spence says in his well-known book, “How to Argue and Win Every Time,” that our “voice is an instrument…that reveals who we are and how we are more than the words we choose.”
If your voice may speak louder than the words you choose, how much effort do you exert on ensuring your vocal instrument is working for you?
After running into an acquaintance at a recent social gathering, I walked away realizing I barely understood a word she spoke. Granted, it was a noisy restaurant, but she spoke so fast, it was tough for me to keep up. This is particularly rare as I tend to fairly easily adjust in most communication situations to enable a sincere interaction. This unique situation caused me to further my research on speaking rates after questioning how others might be influenced by the rate at which I speak. I found that this is especially important for attorneys who speak solely to influence judge and jurors.
Right about now, you might be thinking, ‘My rate of speech has never been a problem.’ So you might be considering skipping over this article. But how do you really know that the rate at which you speak in court is positively influencing the courtroom decision makers? You might start thinking about your vocal variation or pace and determine that you do not need any additional insight into your paralinguistic communication.
When was the last time you rehearsed opening statement or closing argument, then recorded yourself and listened to the play back? How many words per minute do you speak? Are you consistent, even when adrenaline might be pumping throughout your body causing you to inadvertently increase your rate of speech? Research states that most people average a speaking rate between 100-150 words per minute. Where do you fall on this continuum? Is your conversational rate different than your courtroom presentation rate?
“Speaking rate seems to be one of the most reliable attributes when it comes to how people judge a person,” says Jennifer Pardo, researcher of speech communication and phonetics at Montclair State University. “In general people who speak a little slower tend to be perceived as more friendly or benevolent while we often associate things like competence and authority with people who speak a little faster. But there’s a certain sweet spot to it, if you speak too fast then you sound nervous.” “Is Your Voice Trustworthy, Engaging or Soothing to Strangers?” Published in The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/science/blog/2015/apr/16/is-your-voice-trustworthy-engaging-or-soothing-to-strangers
Susan Ward describes in her article, “Learn How Speaking Slower Could Improve Your Sales- Speak for Success Speech Lesson 4: Motormouths Don't Make Sales, “When you speak too quickly, you literally “blow away” your listener, preventing them from mentally keeping up with you and will quickly stop trying. While a small part of your message may get through, most won’t. When you speak too slowly, your listener has too much time for processing, and the mind either locks on how irritatingly slowly you’re speaking or wanders off to more interesting things.” https://www.thebalance.com/speak-for-success-speech-lesson-the-problem-of-pace-2948546
Experts agree there is no absolute perfect pace, however, we do know that how quickly you speak in front of a judge and jury can communicate something of importance. Do you speak too fast and sound nervous? Do you purposefully pace your speech to sound friendly and trustworthy, particularly during voir dire and opening when first impression judgments are most likely?
There are many things you do not have control over during a trial, however you are in complete control of your own voice. Why not focus on how your rate of speech can influence a desired outcome?
Where to begin? Consider these three simple steps:
1. Take inventory of your speaking rate. Record yourself and listen to the recording. Determine areas of improvement. Do you need to slow down? Speed up? Pace yourself more effectively?
2. Speak in chunks. Brian K. Johnson and Marsha Hunter suggest, in their book, “The Articulate Attorney,” to speak in chunks, using phrases and small gaps of silence between them to allow time to think. Even if you think you don’t need time to choose exact wording during small gaps, your audience does. Johnson and Hunter explain, “Listeners need signals- audible punctuation- to mark when chunks start and stop… if there is no silence… confusion ensues.” Juror confusion is something we easily can avoid by paying attention to your speaking rate.
3. Practice. Try the Pledge of Allegiance exercise, from “The Articulate Attorney.” We usually recite the Pledge in chunks with small pauses after every few words. I pledge allegiance (pause) to the flag (pause) of the United States of America (pause)…and to the Republic (pause)… for which it stands…
Now, compare this to your vocal rate in court. While you do not want to sound choppy, prepare your notes to account for chunks of information and pauses (small breaks) you’ll need to keep your audience engaged.
In any communication situation, the audience should not have to work too hard to comprehend the speaker. Think about the struggle to stay attuned to a fast-talking supervisor or to stay engaged with a slow talking professor. Your job is to make it easy on the audience to listen and understand. When you speak too fast, you are making your audience, judge and jurors, work too hard. If this keeps up, they will likely tune out to take a quick mental break. If you speak to slow, you risk looking like you are unprepared or bored. What is your sweet spot rate?
Is your opening statement and closing argument rehearsed, planned out and intentionally well paced? I cannot encourage you enough to take the time to practice and rehearse. Recording yourself and paying attention to the rate at which you speak will only help improve your communication skills and thus, increase the likelihood of success in court.
As a communication trainer and consultant, Meg Bucaro works with attorneys and law enforcement professionals to increase their effectiveness through customized communication skills training for high stake situations. Meg is coming to Georgia Lawyers CLE for the March 19, 2020 program in Atlanta to discuss how to increase influence in the courtroom.