A Win or a Loss: Your voice and body language can give you a competitive edge

Even in the finest law schools across the country, there are few classes on effective communication. A good deal of time is spent learning what to say, but very little on how to say it. Unless a litigator is a naturally gifted storyteller who instinctively knows how to keep an audience’s attention, many attorneys don’t know how to use voice and body language to win the jury’s favor. When so much is at stake, the very real edge that strong presentation skills offer can make the difference between a win or a loss. The attorney that is comfortable and confident, who uses the voice in expressive ways, and who makes a connection with the jury, is very likely to have an advantage over the less expressive one.

People form judgments about us the moment we open our mouths, and juries are no different. Voice quality can draw a jury in or push them away. A warm, authentic, intelligible, compelling voice will typically get a jury on your side. But problems can arise when vocal quality is strident, harsh, or nasally; when words are not clear; when the volume is too low or too high; when speech rate is too slow or too fast; when body language and gestures obscure the message; or when a regional accent confuses the listener or draws attention away from the message.

Whatever the communication issue, it can be eliminated with training. This article, the first of two about compelling story-telling, specifically addresses issues with the voice.

Training Your Voice

You aren’t stuck with the voice you think you were born with. By learning a few basics about how the voice works, and with practice, you can make substantial changes in how you sound and how a jury responds to you.

As a trial lawyer, you have a difficult job. You must get the jury on your side. You must engage, impress, and convince them. You want to make them feel fear, empathy, sadness, grief, or outrage. This is not easy – for anyone. You will spend multiple hours and many days researching, writing, constructing, and even rehearsing your argument in order to ensure success. You probably won’t spend much time thinking about your voice. Instead, you’ll just hope that your voice comes along for the ride and does what it needs to do.

Think about the best litigators you have seen and heard – the “litigator from heaven.” What about their voice makes them expressive and compelling? Things that come to mind might include strong volume, clear and articulate words, warm and confident quality, vocal variety, and strength with ease.

The expressive voice is an integration of a number of systems in the body that work together. Each system can be trained to perform at a higher level. Barring accident or extreme illness, we all have the same equipment for powerful and clear speech.

Let’s look at how we can train the component parts of the voice: the body, the breath, the resonators, and the articulators.

The Body

Our body can suppress or release the voice by how much tension it carries with it. Expressive speakers know that releasing habitual tension is the first step. Tension anywhere in the body affects the voice. Tension in the head, neck, shoulders, rib cage, hips, knees, and feet can radiate to the vocal folds and dampen the voice. A small, high voice is caused by tension; a constricted husky sound is caused by tension. Mumbled and mushy voices are caused by tension.

Stretching and shaking major body bits can release habitual tension that you don’t even know is there. Isolation of body parts is a simple release exercise that relaxes and energizes the body.

Start with the feet: make a circle with each ankle and then shake out each foot. Soften the knees; locked knees will destroy ease and presence as well as block deep central breathing. Make a circle with your hips, like the hula hoop days of your youth. Stretch each side of your rib cage. Move your shoulders in a circle. Gently release your head and neck. Gradually relax your body to improve your voice.

Breath

Breath is the power source of the voice. In fact, breath is voice. What you hear and recognize as human speech is breath that moves out the lungs past the vocal folds, which vibrate against the breath flow hundreds of times per second. If you don’t have enough breath, you don’t have powerful, energized sound. If you have trouble breathing deeply, centrally, and efficiently, there are a number of exercises that can help. Some can be found in the book Her Voice in Law (see link below).

Resonators

The resonators are the body’s natural amplifiers. Think of your mouth as your megaphone. If you mouth is small and tight, your voice will be small and tight. Massage the jaw hinge, clean the inside of your mouth with your tongue, do a big open-mouthed yawn. Intentionally make more space in your mouth and your voice will be louder and warmer.

Articulators

If you have been told that you can’t always be understood, you may have an articulation issue. For any number of reasons, our articulators may be lazy, we may leave out parts of words, or drop final consonants. A helpful exercise is “every part of every word.” Practice your speech at a low volume and focus on saying every part of every word, each syllable, each vowel, and each consonant. Then go back and practice your speech at your regular volume level. Once your mouth has intentionally done every sound, you will be much more articulate and speak with ease.

In Conclusion: A Checklist

The next time you are preparing for an opening or closing, follow this simple checklist:

  1. Release physical tension
  2. Ground your feet, soften your knees
  3. Connect to deep central breath
  4. Make space in your mouth
  5. Speak your words clearly

Remember the “litigator from heaven” that we discussed earlier? Litigators from heaven are comfortable in their own skin. If you follow the five steps above before you walk into the courtroom, you will be comfortable in your skin and your voice will be strong and compelling.

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Rena Cook

Rena Cook

Rena Cook is Professor Emerita at the University of Oklahoma. She is a TEDx speaker, author, voice, speech, confidence, and presentation coach. She is the founder of Vocal Authority, a training consultancy serving attorneys who want to use their voice in more commanding and authentic ways. She has authored several books, including Her Voice in Law, which she co-wrote with Laurie Koller. The book provides additional advice on the above topics and more, and is available at https://www.americanbar.org/.

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