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Monday, January 24, 2011

The First Advocacy Agony Aunt Q&A

Dear Readers,

Recently, we began a feature entitled Advocacy Agony Aunt, an advice column that permits readers to submit anonymous questions on the Advocacy Agony Aunt page. After moderation and editing by Hugh Selby--and perhaps a crack or two at an answer from the blog administrators--the questions will be posted on the main blog, along with any comments or answers. Please feel free to add additional comments to any Advocacy Agony Aunt question.

So--here's the first Advocacy Agony Aunt column:

Anonymous said...

Dear Advocacy Agony Aunt,

I have a teaching problem I don't know how to fix.

One of my students, who is otherwise a talented advocate, cannot control the pitch of her voice under stress. She becomes increasingly shrill and strident at trial, and it gets worse with every question. It is particularly bad on cross-examination, when she adds ineffective sarcasm to the mix. Even when we eliminate the sarcasm, the shrill edge remains.

I'm not sure what to do. "Try not to be shrill" doesn't seem to be cutting it.


January 15, 2011 4:25 PM

Hugh Selby said...

Dear Perplexed,

Advocates ‘under stress’ commonly have some irritating indicator of that anxiety state. Higher pitch in the voice, speaking too quickly, no gap between witness’s answer and the advocate’s next question are very common ‘bad habits’.

Saying, ‘Try not to be shrill’ is not just ineffective. It probably worsens the problem because the advocate has been told the problem but not the solution.

‘Performance anxiety’ is a given. Effective management, not elimination, is the goal.

To manage that shrill voice the advocate has to move the anxiety energy someplace where it is not noticeable. As well the advocate has to acquire some habits that slow down his or her voice speed and introduce pauses. The slowing down will bring a deeper, non- shrill voice. The pauses will be a boon to the advocate (who can then think more clearly), the witness (who gets time to think before answering), and the decision maker (who gets time to listen and make a note).

Move the physical energy into the toes. Have the advocate move their toes (all ten) up and down. Then have them change the speed at which they move them. When the embarrassed laugher subsides have the advocate sync their toe speed to their voice speed. The difficulty of moving toes very quickly seems quite rapidly to lead to a healthy compromise of both slower toes and voice speed.

Tell the advocate to practise this exercise in the bathroom when shaving or applying make-up.

Make sure the advocate has a memory jogger at the bar table: ‘Toes’.

The voice speed (and the toe speed) being under control, now make sure that the advocate has a half glass of water to hand, in the position that when they reach for the glass they reach into the visual field of the decision maker. This is to ensure that the silent sip is a sign of confidence, not memory black out.

Let Auntie and readers know how you and student fare.
January 15, 2011 10:55 PM

Charlie Rose said...

Dear Perplexed,

Like Hugh, I too have faced this problem. I have seen the "toe technique" in action and it definitely works. You can see an example of it on the youtube channel that supports this blog - http://www.youtube.com/TRIALADVOCACY. Take a look at the one about the 3F's of masking fear. Hugh does a great job of employing the technique he describes above. I'd like to give you another tool to try and fix the problem.

Often when a student is having trouble with tone and speed of speech there is a breathing issue. I find that forcing the student to stop and breathe from the diaphram whenever they begin to speed up fixes this issue. The act of deep breathing calms the body, focuses the mind and energizes the voice. A full set of lungs and an expanded diaphram brings down the tone. It is a lot like creating reverb or bass in a stereo. The deep breathing fuels the voice, and you can't talk fast and breathe deeply at the same time. Teaching advocates to breathe in the heat of the moment can be difficult. Make sure that you slow it down as much as is needed to drive the point home. Students who remember to breath fully are connected to the world in a way that those who are breathing shallow are not. We use this techinique in sports, in yoga, in meditation - and it works here too.

Give it a try, you'll be amazed at how quickly the voice comes back around to a more normal pitch.

All the best,


1 comment:

  1. I was interested in the question on how to help a student whose voice becomes shrill under stress. It caused me to think about how we frequently forget that what we do as advocates is wrapped up not only the visual (how we look, or present) but also the oral (what we say) and the aural (how we sound. ) Because we use video review so much, the last two components can get short-charged compared to the last two. Let me suggest a technique I’ve found useful to help students learn to listen to themselves and to alter vocal problems that interfere with their total presentation.

    You can buy a cheap dictating machine or recorder at Office Max for less than $20.00. Suggest that the student get one, then tell them to practice their presentations with it. Using the recorder allows them to focus only on what they say and how they sound. Since we don’t hear our own voice the way everyone else does, this can be a revelation for the student. Using the recorder also allows them to work on specific problems. Let’s take the shrillness problem, for example. I agree that this is frequently related to talking too fast. I suggest to students with a speed problem that after recording themselves, they slow down the playback speed, listen to how that sounds, then try to train their brain to talk at a slower speed, to feel like that their voice is coming out like the slowed-down recording. (Of course, slowing down the playback also makes the recorded voice deeper, and hence less shrill.) The student won’t actually sound like an old 45 played at 331/3 (that’s a reference to vinyl for all you young folks), but they will learn to slow down and deepen their voice. If the student is too soft, they put the recorder at an appropriate distance, and practice projecting. If they mumble, they can learn to articulate. If they are too sarcastic, they can hear how bad that sounds. If they use a lot of clutter (“um,”, “er”, etc.) they can hear it and eliminate it. And so on…..

    Remember: “It ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it.”

     Bob McGahey