One of Jerry Seinfeld’s most famous jokes discusses a national survey, which concluded that the fear of public speaking ranks highest in most American’s minds — even higher than the fear of death. “In other words,” he jokes, “at a funeral, the average person would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”
Like any Seinfeld fan, I always laugh whenever I hear the joke. But, from the first time I heard it, to the twentieth time my father repeated it at the dinner table, the joke has puzzled me. To me, the most wonderful gift humans possess is our ability to express a myriad of emotions. We have the ability to move people to tears with our words, to show anger and frustration, and, as Seinfeld knows, to bring laughter. So why fear public speaking?
I believe the answer lies in the difference between the act of talking and the act of speaking. Talking is innate; it is something we do as naturally as blinking. Speaking, however, is a much deeper cognitive process, entailing a particular method of thinking so that the action is deliberate and methodical. To speak is to present information to a group of individuals, engaging them so that there is a constant yet subconscious dialogue of thought between the presenter and each audience member. Most of all, speaking means knowing when to start and stop talking.
So Jerry Seinfeld hit the nail on the head: Despite the highly social aspects of our lives, for many students, public speaking is terrifying. Even in a profession where oral communication seems as though it is an inherent part of the practice — the law — there are plenty of law students who refuse to take part in any sort of competitive speaking, or who competitively public speak for the first time as a graduate student. Many students who “knew” they were going to law school as undergraduates, or at least considered law school as an option, never participated in any sort of competitive public speaking as preparation for a life in the legal profession. Business and medical students, whose professions require expert communication skills, are likely in the same boat.
The lack of experience in public speaking is not a new phenomenon. Historically, university curricula throughout the United States rarely required students to take public speaking courses or participate in speaking competitions. Other schools strongly encourage students to take one pass / fail public speaking class, failing to realize that public speaking is a process requiring more than one try. Things have still not changed. Even more frustrating, most top-tier law schools do not require students to engage in any sort of public speaking competition or take any oral advocacy courses, though it is highly encouraged.
Law students who want to become deals or capital markets corporate / transactional lawyers often claim that they are entering a profession where public speaking is unnecessary. Undergraduate students entering the fields of engineering or the physical sciences echo these concerns. They are dead wrong. At the end of the day, no matter what deal you close or what you invent, you are going to have to explain what you did to your boss, your client, investors or the judge. Everything boils down to communication.
So, this is a wake up call. For students pursuing careers requiring any sort of communication skills (that means all professions), please enter at least one public speaking competition sometime before you graduate. Yes, this may mean facing a fear. Yes, this may mean taking time out of your busy schedule to do yet another activity. But, trust me, you will be pleasantly surprised by what you are able to accomplish.
To students entertaining the thought of attending law school, or to students who are generally nervous about public speaking, I suggest trying out a team event, or at least observing a competition. Here are some suggestions:
Mock Trial: A simulation of a federal district court jury trial. The mock trial begins when the prosecution / plaintiff seeks permission from the judge to give an opening statement to the jury, followed by the defense. After opening statements, examination of witnesses begins. The prosecution / plaintiff calls witnesses first. A student prosecution / plaintiff attorney conducts a direct examination of the witness followed by a cross-examination by a student defense attorney. The process is repeated for the remaining prosecution / plaintiff witnesses and defense witnesses. Once all of the witnesses have been examined, the trial concludes with closing arguments.
Moot Court: A simulation of appellate court proceedings, where competitors draft briefs and participate in an oral argument in front of a panel of judges. Judges frequently interrupt the student advocates and ask them questions regarding legal standards and the application of facts to the law.
Mediation / Arbitration Competitions: Here, students serve as advocates, mediators, and / or arbitrators assisting parties to resolve disputes. Mediation and arbitration are very informal and conversational.
All of this is available right here at Cornell. The Cornell Mock Trial Team is one of the most successful teams in the country, even hosting their own Big Red Invitational in January. Competitions are open to the public. Cornell Law School hosts at least four separate moot court competitions throughout the year, and final rounds are open the public. Finally, Cornell’s Scheinman Institute hosts week and day-long mediation and arbitration competitions throughout the year. So, come watch, compete and show Jerry Seinfeld that his survey may be outdated.
Puja Parikh is a second-year law student at Cornell Law School. She may be reached at email@example.com. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.