Phillips Nizer LLP Articles
Article - You Gotta Have A Gimmick: Putting Life Into Your Inn of Court Presentation
All right, I'll admit it; my thoughts sometimes (often) wander in the midst of watching some (most) Inn of Court presentations.
Don't think badly of me; its just that I've had a long day, there are generally several deadlines that I am trying to meet, I still have to catch the commuter train home, and, once there, I must make my kids' lunch for the following day. How can I fully concentrate with all of that going on?
The truth is that the presentations must take some share of the blame. Some programs lack that certain something that compels our undivided attention. Now, of course, not every presentation can be "Macbeth," but what would it hurt if the entertainment content of the presentations rose slightly.
Well, you say, what can be expected of us, we're lawyers, not showmen. You claim, and rightly so, that Inn members devote considerable energy to preparing programs designed to enlighten, not leave 'em laughing in the aisles. Moreover, no one wants to be thought a fool or engage in anything inappropriate or potentially embarrassing.
All of these are valid points. Indeed, most Inn programs are not created by closet Woody Allens or Neil Simon wannabes, and while attorneys (particularly litigators) have a bit of ham in them, most presenters prefer not to have their reputations sullied by participating in skits otherwise found on third rate cable access stations. The mere suggestion of levity has sent many a distinguished Inn member running.
Fortunately, Inn programs can be imaginative and entertaining and even do the unthinkable--keep the audience awake and in their seats. This can be done by Inn members themselves, not by professional gagmen brought in to ghost write, or by surfing the Internet for a program created six years ago by some unnamed individuals. Most importantly, you can have fun doing it. Here are a few simple steps to get you going
Setting The Stage For Creative Thinking
Relax a little. Start planning your program well in advance; don't be like my kids, always scrambling around trying to complete projects on Sunday night that are due the next morning. Time pressures stifle your creativity. Leave yourself time to play around with ideas and try different ways of making a point. Also, if good ideas don't present themselves at first, there will still be time to have them naturally occur.
Plan the program in a place where ideas can flow freely—the back room of a local restaurant, a park, or a conference room after office hours. Schedule meetings for the lunch hour or in late afternoon (preferably on a Friday), a time when outside pressures are not overwhelming. Encourage a comfortable give and take among team members by putting them in a place where they cannot be overheard. Give them the assurance that what is said in the room stays in the room.
Start talking. Now is not the time to be mute. Talk about other presentations that kept your interest, possible topics, special talents (i.e., the ability to impersonate John Jay), and ideas from other teams that can be utilized, etc. The old adage that "there is no such a thing as a stupid question" is particularly apt here where every idea, regardless of quality, should be articulated. One never knows which idea might spark some creative thinking by another.
Finding The Right Topic And An Effective Way To Present It
Try to select a topic of general interest, perhaps something controversial or an issue that has been in the news of late. Dense, hyper-technical topics might have been all the rage in your law school study groups, but they tend not to fare too well before an audience. Thus, while it was said that Sir Laurence Olivier could make reading the phone book sound interesting, most of us are not Olivier.
Selecting the right concept for your program is critical and should be the structure around which your presentation is built. The concept can be anything from a panel discussion with team members representing various sides of an issue, to a game show or a light opera. Among the considerations should be the size of your team (a team of fifteen, for example, might prove too unwieldy for "Jeopardy"), your comfort level ("American Idol" parodies are not for everyone), and the nature of your topic (subjects such as hate crimes and human rights violations might not lend themselves to Marx Brothers take-offs).
"Serious" is not synonymous with "snore-fest." Even programs built around serious subjects can—and should—be infused with creativity. If your topic does not lend itself to satire, consider a mock news broadcast with the "anchorman" outlining the issues, then bringing in "field reporters" to dissect particular issues. Fictional debates, mock government hearings, "man in the street" interviews may also be means for educating the audience on serious issues while enlivening the program.
The beauty of a good concept is that once you've found one, the script should virtually write itself. Consider a bar association program presented a few years back focusing on tort reform. The presenters created a play loosely based on the movie "Casablanca," wherein the authorities, seeking to arrest "Victor Lazlo" for litigating a medical malpractice claim, are thwarted by "Rick," who tries the case, helps "Victor" escape the grasp of the authorities, and works with the lovely "Ilsa" to defeat the legislation. Once the "Casablanca" concept was hit upon, the entire production fell into place and the story was told in an entertaining and understandable way.
Wit Preferred, But Not Required
We've all seen movies, watched televisions, read books, performed in plays, etc., and have ample imagination to develop a concept. Start by describing the issues presented by your topic and the types of individuals who might be affected by them. Say, for example, your topic is sexual harassment in the workplace. The individuals involved include the victim, the aggressor, co-workers, a department head, the victim's lawyer, etc. So, instead of simply lecturing the audience on recent legal developments regarding burden of proof or jury verdicts, consider dramatizing the events, i.e. the offending conduct, the company's internal investigation of the events, communications between the victim and her counsel and the resolution of the matter.
The scenes can be played in a straight-forward, sort of documentary style, or with some comedic flair, depending on the comfort level of the group. However, even the more conservative approach should, at minimum, include, a narrator, perhaps in the mode of "The Twilight Zone's" Rod Serling, who can interject some educational points, help transition between the scenes, and re-cap the events. The entertainment quotient can be increased (without causing any unnecessary embarrassment) by giving the characters clever names, incorporating props and costumes, and making use of visual effects. Once you're focused on these areas, you'll be surprised at the ideas that will be generated by your team.
Familiarity breeds success. Structuring your presentation around a movie or television show can be extremely effective. However, it is important that the audience understand the reference. A "Honeymooners" vignette in which the Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton characters dramatize events is easily recognizable (unless, of course, I am seriously dating myself); conversely, inside jokes, parodies of little known shows, or reliance on esoteric facts can be lost on most folks. The references must be widely known to be fully appreciated. Not everyone knows that Ritchie Petrie's middle name on "The Dick Van Dyke Show" was the acronym "Rosebud."
Say It With Music
Someone who has seen far more presentations than I once told me that the best programs were done as musicals. Now, of course, this did not mean that the program included lavish costumes and splashy chorus numbers; rather, by "music" she meant creating lyrics written to existing songs that commented on the program. Putting aside the obvious copyright implications, the "musical" concept is highly effective and is not as difficult to do as some might believe. Moreover, even conservative, stage-shy individuals should not be embarrassed by the inclusion of songs, as long as they do not have to sing them.
There is an art to satirical lyric writing which cannot be fully taught in this article. However, some general rules might be of help. First of all, relax. If you are tense, the words will not come. Second, use familiar tunes; lesser known songs from "High Button Shoes" or "Tenderloin" will not go over well and the joke will largely be lost. Besides, it is easier to learn lyrics written to familiar tunes and the songs will be more fun to sing. Third, and perhaps a more difficult concept, make sure not only that your lyrics contain the same number of syllables found in the original song, but that the lyrics fit comfortably on the notes. In other words, a particular line in the original song may have thirteen syllables; that does not mean that other words whose syllables add up to thirteen may be substituted for the original words. The words must fit the tempo of the song. Believe me, you will hear the difference and, hopefully, be able to modify your lyrics accordingly.
Before completely rejecting the "musical" concept consider that the program need not have more than two or three songs to be highly effective. An opening song that introduces the theme or foreshadows the events, a song for one of the principal characters and a finale may be enough. Moreover, the songs need not be sung by members of the Inn. Although there may be a technical rule of which I am unaware, non-members can be brought in to perform (commonly referred to as "ringer singers"). Further, a full orchestra is not required; a keyboard player or recorded music will do fine. Indeed, if your team members have the talent, but not the desire to sing live in front of their peers, their performance can be videotaped.
Putting It Together
Thanks for the advice, you say, but our program addresses a serious subject, our team members are serious folk and we're seriously against dramatizing our presentation, particularly in front of an audience of very serious members of the bench and bar. We'll stick to the tried and true and present the same dull recitation that our forefathers gave before us.
Okay, have it your way, but at least do me a few favors. Please don't read your presentation and, if you do, don't be surprised if when you finally lift your head up from the paper, several members of the audience are either heading for the exits or in restful slumber. Further, stand up when you present and put some energy into your performance. How can you expect anyone to stay interested in watching you speak from your seat in a monotonous tone that reminds us that the battery in our cell phone is running low.
Rehearse the darn thing. The last thing your audience wants to hear is something read for the first time that night. To say that your performance will not be polished would be an understatement. Moreover, by rehearsing you'll likely realize that some of your sentences go on too long, are redundant, or have strayed dramatically from the point. Promise me that you'll not only rehearse, but that you'll do it in front of the other members of your team. This way, they'll not only identify any dull spots in your presentation, but in their own. Further, if certain portions of your program are meant to be humorous, rehearsals may help you recognize which jokes are not landing. Better to find that out before the night of the program.
Most of all, enjoy yourself. No matter what the subject matter, take pleasure in the work that you put into preparing the presentation and be confident that you will both educate and entertain your audience. The energy and enjoyment you derive from the program will be infectious and the audience will be extremely receptive.
This article, reprinted with permission from the American Inns of Court, was originally published in the May/June 2006 issue of The Bencher, a bi-monthly publication of the American Inns of Court.