Many speakers, whether they realize it or not, plan their presentations like a lawyer’s argument. They start by laying out the background, set out the evidence that supports their position, summarize it for their audience, and suggest remedies and next steps. Building presentations this way makes can be very effective, especially when you have lots of information to deal with or you need to overcome strong objections. It’s an approach that feels logical and familiar to both speakers and to audiences raised on courtroom dramas and CSI procedurals.
Unfortunately, like so many good ideas, this one doesn’t always work out as planned. If you withhold too much from your audience for too long they may feel confused, then resentful, about being there at all. Presentations should not be mysteries, I like to remind people. You’re not Agatha Christie. Get to the point before you lose them.
And sometimes you build a long, beautiful, air-tight argument only to find that no one wants to hear it. I know I’m not the only one who has prepared for an hour-long presentation only to have the executive I’m meeting with announce that they now have only 30 minutes for me. Or 15. Or 5. Sometimes their schedule has changed. Sometimes they’re just the kind of person who always wants the bottom line. Sometimes they’re just rude. It’s hard to plan for the rude people–they’re just too unpredictable. But spending a little time learning about your audience in advance can be a great investment if they turn out to be bottom-liners. Walking into a meeting and being able to say “I know we’re scheduled for an hour, but I’m only going to take 15 minutes of your time today,” can make a great impression.
And if you are a lawyer and you’re giving a presentation as momentous as appearing in front of the Supreme Court, it’s important that you’re so well prepared that you can recover when they cut off your carefully constructed argument and ask you to take a completely different direction.
That’s what happened to both sides at this week’s hearings on California’s Proposition 8. (You can read or listen to them here.) As Paul Clement and Ted Olson each started laying out their arguments, Chief Justice John Roberts cut them off. He didn’t want to hear the background of the case; instead he wanted both sides to address whether the plaintiffs even had standing to appeal. Luckily, both of these lawyers had the skills to recover. Ted Olson was even able to get a good laugh out of it. When Roberts interrupted by saying, “Mr. Olson, I cut off your friend before he could get into the merits,” Olson quipped, “I was trying to avoid that, Your Honor.”
A sense of humor is a good tool in a potentially frustrating situation like this. Flexibility is even better.