Don’t you get nervous speaking in trial?

Don’t you get nervous speaking in trial?

July 8, 2020

The red light shines on the back wall next to the old, large wooden door. A sense of excitement and dread occur simultaneously.  “Did I do enough?” Seconds become minutes as my mind plays vicious games in the silence. A decision has been reached.

I wait.

The door up on high opens to the sound of “All Rise!” Moments later that old, large wooden door by the red light opens and in walks the twelve strangers who will tell me if I did enough. I stare at them as they walk in, hoping for some indication. They keep their eyes glued to the floor. Emotionless. They sit. I do the same. What is the jury’s unanimous decision?

The trial began one week earlier. Murder. That was the accusation against my client. My client had never been in trouble in his life. My client who spent his time off with his son at comic con dressed in costume. My client who faced the rest of his life in prison if he was found guilty.

One day before the trial started I ran some ideas by my best friend in preparation. He listened. He gave feedback. Then he asked the question I get asked all the time.

Don’t you get nervous speaking in a trial?”

I have been in trial over one hundred times. I have tried murders, robberies, and child abuse cases. I speak to strangers for anywhere from one day to multiple weeks. I speak to them knowing that I will influence their decision.  

Most of my friends and family shake their heads with disbelief when they hear what I do in a courtroom. They tell me that they could never get up and talk in front of people like I do. I tell them I understand. I tell them I am different.

I do not get nervous speaking in public.  

I get nervous about my fear of failing to persuade.

The distinction between those two is important.  

Most people get nervous about speaking in public because they fear embarrassment. I get nervous about failure to persuade and must embrace that fear to push me.

If I fail to persuade, the consequences are severe. A person could be wrongly convicted or sentenced to life in prison. This nervousness about failure motivates me. I must do everything I can to succeed. The nerves about failure push me to build the skills needed to never fear public speaking.  

Those skills come from two things.

  1. Practice
  2. Preparation


Practice makes perfect. Everybody has heard that saying. This is absolutely true. I practice speaking all the time. I practice as I pace at home, in my car, and walking in my neighborhood. My friends, family, and colleagues get sick of hearing me deliver the same talking points, closing arguments, or pop culture debates. Practice makes perfect.

The only way to excel when it comes to persuasive speaking is to perform, refine, repeat.

Perform, refine, repeat.

My friends may be sick of hearing me talk about a murder case for the tenth time but what are friends for if not to listen to the same speech for the tenth time?  

Practice often feels silly. There is no natural way to bring up the topic of murder or child abuse. If I can practice on these issues, it is possible to practice on any topic.

One of my go-to strategies is to ask a friend to meet for a happy hour. For this specific murder case, I wanted to see a friend who would be critical if necessary. We met up on a Thursday for happy hour and after fifteen minutes of quickly catching up the next words out of my mouth were “hey, can I run something by you?” My friend, not knowing what was coming, said sure. For the next ten minutes, I ran through parts of my closing argument to gauge her reaction. No buildup. No facts. No poisoning her opinion.

She listened and gave me brutal honesty. She happened to be a very similar person to who I expected to be on the jury in the trial. She was the target audience. Her feedback provided critical information for me as I framed my talking points. She also happened to be about the twentieth person I had practiced on to prepare for this trial.

The key to getting more comfortable with speaking is just practicing. Practice starts at the earliest stage of any case. The early practice is rough with lots of bad information and ideas. The early practice lacks the level of preparation a great public speech requires. Practice serves as the outline for a great speech.  

The more practice and feedback I get, the better I feel about my speaking. The better I feel about my speaking, the more confident I become. Practicing works. Practice is half the battle.


Practice without preparation will lack the force necessary to land the knockout blow. Preparation provides power.

Think of it this way. Football players have practice to make sure they know how to tackle, throw the football under pressure, and make diving one hand catches. Those same players have study sessions on the playbook, opposing teams playbook, and video of both themselves and the other team each week. This studying is the preparation.  

If the players do not practice tackling, throwing, and catching they will lose. If the players do not prepare by studying the playbook and film each week they will lose. They need both to win.  

Preparation for this trial included knowing the law, knowing the facts, strategizing how the trial will play out, and working with witnesses before trial. Preparation meant noticing inconsistencies in testimony or even reviewing the police policy when it came to the use of force. I had to be ready for anything.  

People want substance in a speech. Flowing language and oratory tricks are nice but without facts and evidence, those tricks are meaningless. Preparation means gathering data, graphs, and authorities that people can rely upon. The goal is to use this preparation to frame the narrative and persuade the audience.  

Framing a narrative requires a level of preparation when it comes to presentation.

When I frame a narrative I want to create emotion. My words only matter in that they develop an emotional response. I want the jury or audience to have a specific feeling or vibe.

Think of the show Stranger Things and the music, light, and even clothing of the characters. The vibe of that show is 80s nostalgia with hair bands and 80s synth music. A show made in 2019 makes you feel like it is the 1980s.

Hearing the theme song when it comes on Spotify will immediately make you feel the vibe that Stranger Things is about. You may remember the terror of the upside down or the power of Eleven. Vibes are memorable and powerful.

When I create a persuasive speech I identify the type of feeling I want from movies, television, music, and art. I prepare by consuming as much of this type of media or art as possible. Having this library of information at my fingertips provides me the chance to recreate something that resonated with me.  

Think of The Hunger Games and the moments after Rue dies. Rue is the young, shy girl who becomes friends with Katniss. As the life is fading from Rue the camera becomes Rue’s perspective as the light slowly dims until complete darkness. Immediately after Rue dies, Katniss can be seen screaming but the audience does not hear it.  

As she gives Rue a proper resting place in death, the tone of the filming becomes peaceful and beautiful. A stark contrast to the frantic camera work earlier and the silence to the viewer of a screaming Katniss. In that moment of complete despair, when she finishes the memorial, she raises her hand in a 3 finger salute that the cameras capture.  

The people in District 11 raise their own 3 finger salute as the camera focuses on the people dressed in ratty blue clothes and powerful music enhancing the mood. They stand as a collective group paying tribute to this fallen young girl.  

That feeling at that moment gives me chills. It makes me believe that one person can stand up and inspire others. The darkest moments can bring change.

That is a feeling I want my audience to feel.

In this murder case, I knew the type of emotion and feeling that needed to be created for the jury. I could feel the vibe I wanted but could not capture it. I spent weeks working on a closing argument but felt like I came up short. Life in prison was on the line for my client and coming up short was not an option.

We spent the week in trial and ended all of the evidence late Friday night. The closing argument would be on Monday. I drove home that Friday night distraught and frustrated with myself. I knew what I wanted but could not deliver. I refused to give up. I knew there was some inspiration in my media library I have collected these past 33 years.

Halfway home inspiration struck. I knew where to find guidance. I pulled out my phone and looked up “Toby Ziegler Vengeance West Wing.” Season 1 Episode 14 titled “Take this Sabbath Day” was just what I needed. I pulled up the episode and rewatched it.  

I knew I had found the vibe I needed. I knew my relentless preparation had paid off. By Sunday night I had practiced how I would create the right feeling. By Sunday night I knew my client would be saved. I had my inspiration and performance ready.

My inspiration came from this scene.

Notice in this video the lighting in how it was filmed. Listen to the intro music and the tone. See how the Rabbi speaks to Toby.

Intimate and soft.  

Personal and approachable.  

Listen to the song the woman begins to sing. The Rabbi calls her “our communications director.” Toby struggles to even defend his position. He struggles to the point he begins to stutter. The Rabbi counters arguments made by Toby all while the woman sings the melancholy song with dark lighting. “Vengeance is not Jewish.”  

I wanted the jury to feel like Toby in that video. I wanted them to sense the melancholy and the sadness. I wanted to provide them a message that “Vengeance is not justice.” By preparing through the consumption of media and art, I created my favorite closing argument I have ever made. Tears streamed down the jurors’ faces. They walked back in the jury room to deliberate for the next five hours.

Then that red light shined and told us all that a verdict had been reached.  It was time to face our fate.

The judge read the verdict silently then asked that my client and the defense stand for the verdict. This was the moment. Did all my practice and preparation pay off? Would my client go home with his family or would he spend the rest of his life in prison? The foreperson stood and read from the verdict form.

“We the jury, unanimously find the defendant NOT GUILTY.”  

The practice and preparation paid off.

This is why I do not get nervous speaking in a trial.

I have practiced.

I have prepared.

I am ready.

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Performative Speaking uses storytelling ideas that incorporate other forms of art, culture, media, and pop culture to create the mood, feeling, or vibe in the audience to convince them of a position.

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