Over the past few weeks I’ve been out and about in the legal community and seen a number of presentations from eminent QCs.
Now for those of you outside the UK, Queen’s Counsel (QCs) are the creme de la creme of that part of our legal profession that performs in court.
As a result, they need to be super persuasive, brilliant communicators, and able to influence the toughest of judges and juries.
Now I have to admit, other than a trip to see the House of Lords (the judicial arm, not the political chamber) when I was a law student, I’ve never actually seen any of them live in action, as litigation was never my area of practice as a lawyer. That said, I have no reason at all to suspect their professional abilities are anything other than tremendous – I suspect the market for their services would have found them out well before they reached the top if they didn’t cut the mustard.
However, my recent exposure to their presenting abilities was not in the familiar setting of a courtroom, but the cold, harsh reality of the seminar circuit.
These, were very much “away” matches and not comfortable home fixtures.
The most astonishing presentation was from an eminent QC who had thoughtfully prepared for his audience a 90+ page summary of the recent developments in the law in his area of practice over the last twelve months.
“Great”, I thought to myself as I settled down before the seminar began, “this means I won’t need to take notes during the lecture, and I’ll be able to really concentrate on what he’ll say”.
As our presenter took the stage to applause, and the audience settled down in anticipation, my expectations were high. After a few brief, humorous anecdotes, it was time to get down to business.
Our presenter then produce his own set of notes, identical to the audience’s, but heavily highlighted and with a massive amount of post-it notes poking out all over the place. They looked like a giant, fluorescent hedgehog, and my spidey-sense began to tingle. Something was wrong.
“If you’ll all please turn to page 4 of your notes, we’ll begin with paragraph 16…..”.
The presenter then began to read his notes.
We then had, I kid you not, 75 minutes of this heavyweight QC reading his notes out to an audience of at least 200 delegates. It was truly painful. Did he not think we could read them ourselves? What value did he think he was bringing to the written material? Did he think about the audience at all? It was truly astonishing.
The other QC presentations (different events) were a marginal improvement, but continued on a central theme. All the others involved powerpoint (which as a tool can be very useful, but is often grossly misused IMHO) , and typically the presentations were built using a standard Microsoft template with the chambers logo hastily cut and pasted on the last slide. They all used bullet points and seemed to be a font size of about 16, which meant the writing was (just) legible for those at the back of the auditorium, but small enough so the QC could pack enough text on to simply read out for 30-45 minutes.
All of the presentations were, by today’s standards, epic failures of the highest order.
You’ll have gathered that nil points were awarded for presentation style. But on top of that, the content itself was so dry and dusty, cobwebs began to form on my ears as I listened. These people are often at the absolute cutting edge of legal developments in the areas they were speaking about, and so surely (surely!) must have had some practical examples they could have shared, some war stories to make the law seem a little more “real”? A little human warmth to bring things alive?
The other unifying theme through all of the presentations, and for me, the final nail in the coffin was the timing. Each of the presentations finished in a huge rush, with material at the end of the talk being either run through at a million miles an hour, or skipped entirely.
Now I appreciate there are undoubtedly times when time can be difficult to manage in a presentation – when you are presenting towards the end of a conference, other sessions have overrun, and as a result your time is compressed. Fine. Or perhaps if you are taking questions as you present, and either some really interesting debate arises, or you have a particularly difficult audience member.
But in the examples I’m describing, these factors weren’t present, it was just bad time management from the presenters.
What made this even more unforgivable, was that I saw two of the QCs take questions at the end of their presentations, and both were brilliant. Utterly fantastic.
They came alive – their personalities shone through, they were engaging and their mastery of their subject matter became crystal clear. Difficult questions were not brushed aside, but met head on with relish and grace. Stories and really useful hints and tips came tumbling from their lips.
It was like night and day.
In short, they became (as I expected from a QC), truly world-class presenters.
But, in my mind, this only made their performance during the main presentation even more surprising.
Let’s be clear, they are far from the only people who have given poor presentations. I know I’ve presented and not lived up to my own standards, and I also know there are plenty of people who present and do so either being absolutely terrified, or do so without being given appropriate training or experience.
Regular readers will know I’m a big fan of an approach called “Presentation Zen” by Gary Reynolds, but just following the presentation basics would have worked for the QCs in question.
Think of your audience. Build a story. Structure your message. Work out the timings. Practice.
You don’t need to be a QC to shine.