Attorneys, Use Your Words to Stand Out


Before I became an attorney, I had another life: I was a speechwriter. I wrote many, many speeches for executives, narrations for slide shows, presentations, and scripts. Then came law school, which led to working as a litigation attorney. In that role I’ve drafted oral arguments for hearings, opening and closing statements, webinar presentations, and arguments for appellate courts. What do these writing tasks have in common? They’re communications that people will hear, rather than read.  They all involve writing for the ear rather than for the eye. Yes, there is a difference, and yes, it matters.  

Granted, oral arguments, openings, and closings typically aren’t read from scripts. Most of us sketch out drafts of such arguments to use in practicing prior to important appearances. Practicing with techniques that adapt your message and argument to the listeners, rather than readers, can sharpen your argument and make it more memorable.  

Here are some of the techniques the speechwriting pros use, and you can too:

(1) Use words that draw pictures for your audience. Writing for the ear doesn’t preclude long words, but it does require conversational words; words that reach the listener. Vivid words work, of course; short ones are usually preferable (e.g., “use” rather than “utilize”). Look for words that will resonate with your audience.  

Example: Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, wrote a speech for President Franklin Roosevelt that contained the line, “We are trying to construct a more inclusive society.”  When he delivered the speech on the radio, Roosevelt changed this line to, “We are going to make a country in which no one is left out.”  Much stronger.

(2) Use rhythms to create momentum. It’s been reported that President Obama’s speechwriters obsess over rhythm and cadence. Think about the effect of rhythms in music, and how they can invigorate or calm us. Example: Here is the rhythm created by Obama in the opening of his victory speech at the 2008 Iowa caucuses:

“They said this day would never come.“They said our sights were set too high.“They said this country was too divided, too disillusioned to ever come together around a common purpose.”

“But on this January night, at this defining moment in history, you have done what the cynics said we couldn't do.”

The rhythm here is created by the parallel sentence structures, repetition of words, and the “they said … they said … they said” overall structure, which sets up the listener for the rebuttal, “But on this January night, at this defining moment in history … .”  Simple, yet elegant and effective.

(3) Make your sentence structure clean and clear.   When you write for the ear, good news: sentence fragments are just fine. Not so fine: sentences with too many clauses.  Clauses work on the page because the eye can absorb the words that come before and after. In spoken language, they tend to interrupt the flow of meaning.  Example: Compare “I once had a farm in Africa” to “I once had a farm, where I tried unsuccessfully to grow coffee alongside a volcano, in Africa.”

Spoken sentences can be long if they are clear. Connected ideas that might be just fine in one written sentence can be strung in logical sequence by using clauses or fragments that start with “And…” or “But….”  If qualifying information is absolutely necessary to a sentence, put it somewhere the listener won’t get confused by it.  Example: don’t write “Will Rogers, the famous humorist from Oklahoma, once said …;” write “That famous Oklahoma humorist Will Rogers once said … .”  

(4) Use repetition.  Repetition of the right words in the right circumstances can be extraordinarily powerful.  Example: Here is Winston Churchill shortly after his election as Prime Minister, speaking to Parliament on May 13, 1940:

"You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory. Victory at all costs. Victory in spite of all terror. Victory, however long and hard the road may be, for without victory there is no survival.”

(5) Use the devices you learned in high school English to make your meaning memorable.  Metaphors, similes, analogies work especially well in oral communication because the mind understands and retains them so much better than abstractions and analytical exposition.  Use parables, too; oral traditions use parables because they are easy to remember and give us deeper understanding of experience.

(6) Know where you’re going, and tell your audience when you get there. Once you have a clear statement of your main theme or message, the classic formula for organizing sermons is a pretty good starting point for oral arguments or presentations: highlight what you’re going to tell them, elaborate on the topic, then reiterate what was said.  

Just be sure to end big – a concise and memorable sound bite, a return to an idea and expression you used in the beginning, a call to action – whatever will bring a sense of completion for your listeners.

(7) You’re not quite done. There’s one more thing you really, really need to do. Read your work out loud. Yes, the whole thing. You can test-drive portions as you go along, but before you get up in front of your audience you should read it out loud, to yourself. No matter how well you think you’ve written it, when you read it aloud you will find awkward spots, unclear phrases, and words that on reconsideration you will find are difficult for a live audience to absorb or a speaker to say.

Fix the bumps, whisk out the lumps, make it smooth, and make sure you are within your time limit. I find it is particularly helpful to use my office-mates Diesel and Maisie as a test audience. They are Rottweilers, thus very task-oriented, and they are unfailingly attentive so long as no squirrels run across the deck while I’m reading to them.

A great way to learn more about writing for listeners rather than readers is to spend some time reading speeches by the masters. Churchill is a good start (no one ever used oratory to greater effect for higher stakes than Churchill).  As I wrote this piece I looked back at several of his speeches, and some give me chills to this day.  Speeches by JFK, Obama, Martin Luther King, and many other masters of the craft are on the Internet.  Another great source is Vital Speeches of the Day, a bare-bones publication that has been publishing for decades, presenting speeches by folks they describe as “thought leaders” internationally and across walks of life.

Just remember: even if you don’t have an audience of Rottweilers or other attentive listeners, read your own work aloud before the big day. You’ll be glad you did.

Melissa Brown is a Litigation Attorney with 18 years of practice for major law firms in Michigan and Illinois. She has previously researched, briefed, and argued matters in the Sixth and Seventh Circuits Courts of Appeals.