Overcoming Opening Statement Stage Fright

I recently gave a presentation on public speaking skills to a Rotary club in the Los Angeles area. During the Q&A I was asked by an attorney in attendance what she could do about her speaking anxiety. She confessed that even after several years of courtroom experience, she still felt as though she would pass out before she got up to speak to the jury, and at times had forgotten key elements to her opening statement because she was so nervous.

What she described to the group is a classic case of stage fright, and it is one of the biggest speaking challenges a litigator can face. The stakes are high for both client and attorney and the pressure to deliver can feel overwhelming. Stage fright is a legitimate concern, especially when it impedes the impact of the jury’s ability to listen.

So what can be done about speaking anxiety? Well there is good news. First, let’s look at some of the causes of stage fright. According to a 1985 study done by Barrell, Medeiros, Barrell, and Price, there are five. They are:

1. I perceive or imagine the presence of significant others who are able to judge me.
2. I consider the possibility of my visible failure at a task.
3. I feel the need to do well to avoid failure.
4. I feel uncertain as to whether I will do well.
5. I focus on my own behavior and appearance.

As you read through the list were you able to see any familiar patterns in your own speaking history? Were you able to recognize a pattern within the sentences themselves? Perhaps some of you noticed that each of the sentences begins with the word “I”. This is a seemingly minor detail but it goes to the heart of why your pulse quickens and your palms sweat as you approach the jury box.

You experience stage fright because you are focused on yourself.

Read the sentences again.

-I perceive…
-I imagine…
-I consider…
-I feel…

What about the jurors? What do you want them to perceive, imagine, and feel? It’s natural to be focused on yourself, but when it comes to giving your opening statement, you can ill-afford such a selfish approach. Switching your focus from yourself to the jury also allows you to relax and block out any external distractions.

Here are three steps attorneys can take to change their opening statements from self-focused to jury-focused:

1. Be prepared.

Although this seems an obvious step, I have witnessed attorneys attempt to deliver their opening statements when they are woefully unprepared. Generally, lack of preparation is manifested through verbal clutter (ums and ahs), frequently referring to notes, and a convoluted message. There is no substitute for solid preparation, and practicing not only what you’re going to say but also how you’re going to say it.

2. Find an emotional connection to your client’s story.

It’s understood that the opening statements are a time for the prosecution and defense to establish the facts and circumstances of the case. Time and time again, however, I’ve seen attorneys give dry and dispassionate presentations to the jurors and waste the opportunity for them to connect to their clients’ cases. When I work with attorneys on delivering opening statements I have them view themselves as storytellers first and attorneys second. Framing themselves in this way allows them to instill emotion in what they are saying and maximizes the impact their opening statements have on the jury.

3. Have a strong need for the jury to hear what you are saying.

Think of the last time you spoke passionately about something to a friend or colleague. Chances are you weren’t feeling nervous or at a loss for words, and most likely you left little doubt about your feelings and position on the subject. When delivering your opening statement, create that same strong need for the jury to understand where you and your client stand. The stronger your desire is for them to listen, the less you’ll focus on yourself.

It’s important to note that being nervous before a trial can be a beneficial thing. It’s your mind’s way of preparing for an important engagement. By following the three steps I’ve described above, you will be able to redirect that nervous energy into a jury-focused approach and deliver a compelling and persuasive opening statement.

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