The Speakers’ Society: An Innovative Approach to Developing Presentation Skills

September 16, 2016

Imagine a lawyer training program so popular that everyone participating volunteered to attend.

Imagine a training program where all attendees didn’t just show up—they spoke!

Imagine a training program that not only helped lawyers develop critical skills, but also helped them learn more about their firm, their colleagues and their clients.

Imagine Dechert Speakers’ Societyan innovative approach to oral communications skill development

Dechert LLP, a global law firm with almost 1,000 lawyers across 27 offices, has worked to establish a “culture of learning” with its core competency based Critical Skills Institute, according to Kaitlin Sullivan, Dechert’s U.S. director of attorney training. While some call these “soft” skills, Dechert believes they are critical to its lawyers’ success, at the firm or anywhere. Along with practice-related skills, the Critical Skills are the basis of the firm’s training, evaluation and promotion processes. “We aim for no random acts of training, and instead look to make our programs interesting, informative and interactive,” Sullivan said.

In a world of so much texting and tweeting, junior attorneys do not always get the opportunity to present in public, with most of the “speaking parts” at pitches or trials reserved for partners. Dechert trains its lawyers with simulated negotiations, depositions and trials, and, last September, I helped launch the firm’s latest program for associates, the Speakers’ Society.

At monthly videoconferences, Speakers’ Society members present three- to five-minute presentations, critique themselves and receive peer feedback.  The Speakers’ Society has two rules: respect and confidentiality. Sullivan encourages candid peer feedback, but reminds members to be kind and supportive. As for confidentiality, “what happens at the Speakers’ Society stays at the Speakers’ Society” to encourage members to trust, support, and be comfortable with each other in what Dechert’s team calls a “PFZ”—a “partner-free zone.”

Recognizing existing demands and requirements on associates’ schedules and lives, the Speakers’ Society has no demands or requirements. The enrollment form includes a self-assessment, which asks members what they want to work on—such as eye contact, thinking and speaking on their feet, getting rid of their verbal tics, and being more confident. The self-assessment also asks about public speaking experience, and whether the members have any upcoming presentations.

Every Speakers’ Society meeting starts with introductions from all attendees. In addition to introducing themselves, the members answer a question of the month to get them all thinking and speaking on their feet. Examples include:

  • What did you want to be when you were growing up?
  • Tell us your hometown and something interesting about it.
  • Name someone who you think is an excellent speaker and why.
  • Name one place you went to this summer.
  • What two words best describe you?
  • If you could trade places with someone for a day who would it be?
  • What do you like best about the firm?

The meetings start at 11AM EST, which means an early start for those in California and a late meeting for those in Europe, but allows almost all associates across the firm to attend.

The presentations by associates usually focus on recent cases or deals or clients, although presentations have included ones on raising twins, life in a small town and the NBA playoffs. Presenters receive recordings of their presentations to review, and all members are offered one-one-one coaching with internal and external coaches. More than 80 associates already received that individual coaching.

Attendance has been higher and more consistent than other training programs, with a membership of over 220 associates, according to Sullivan. Members are not just litigators, but include transactional lawyers, and they range from summer to senior associates.

Some meetings feature speakers, such as Dechert partner Ed McDonald, an experienced actor who convinced Martin Scorsese to cast McDonald as himself in Goodfellas. McDonald shared stories from his life in the movies. Other programs discussed influence and persuasion, executive presence and better use of PowerPoint with a technical trainer.

Feedback from the Speakers’ Society members has been very positive. According to Chicago associate Angela Liu, “the Speakers’ Society was an innovative way to compel associates to be vulnerable in practicing our speaking skills in a supportive environment based on trust. Not only do the associates gain more confidence, but it also helps to build bonds with other associates in other offices across practice areas as well.”

Washington, D.C. associate Xenia Garofalo said that as a tax attorney, she rarely gets an opportunity to speak in public. She was asked to deliver a tribute to a mentor at a dedication ceremony, and “was so thankful to be able to use the Speakers’ Society as an opportunity to practice and refine my speech. It was tremendously helpful.” Garofalo said the feedback from other associates she received helped make her presentation better. “My colleagues were candid and constructive with their advice and I was able to use the peer feedback to strengthen my presentation skills, which led to me ultimately delivering the address flawlessly. I kept my emotions and nerves in check and really connected with the audience.” Garofalo received many compliments and other positive feedback about the presentation, and her mentor “was delighted — of course, my mentor took the credit for my presentation skills.”

Garofalo also practiced a portion of a CLE presentation at a Speakers’ Society meeting, “testing out a few ways to make my tax talk relevant and interesting to the attendees — a true feat, trust me.” The eventual CLE presentation also received positive feedback and requests for an encore. “In short, I am no longer afraid of public speaking as a direct result of my membership in the Speaker’s Society,” she said.

Liu said that as a litigator, she wants to “take advantage of every opportunity I get to hone the critical skill of oral communications. The society meetings not only give me the chance to try out different presentation styles and techniques, but they also give me a chance to learn about the work we do for our transactional clients across the country. It has been one of the most innovative training programs in which I have participated.”

The benefits of the Speakers’ Society include more than just developing better public speakers who get to learn about the firm and get to know each other. The meetings also allow members to learn how to effectively participate in videoconferences, such as where the cameras are and that the members are always on camera, and how to mute their microphones and address live audiences across the firm and world.

Garofalo summed it up. “I have learned just as much by listening to others and giving them feedback and I relish being part of such a great group,” she said. “We all want to be there – no one forced or ’strongly encouraged’ us to sign up or attend, and we all participate. I have gotten to know so much more about my colleagues, our practices and our clients. Most importantly, I have learned that I am equal to any speaking engagement that may come my way. I love the Speakers’ Society!”

BY MOLLY PECKMAN

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