Learning from a Disaster – Speaking at CLE Seminars

My First Time Speaking? Not So Good.

SpeakingI have had a busy couple weeks of invitations to speak. First, I was asked to return to the ABA Law Practice Division’s Tech Show.  If you have never been to Tech Show, you might not realize what an honor this is.  But only the best speakers are invited to Tech Show, so it really is quite something to be invited back.  Then, a couple of days later, I was invited to speak at the next Internet Update seminar in March, 2014. The PBI attorney in charge told me that both Fred Wilf (the course planner) and the attendees asked for me to come back.

This second invitation, which I was flattered to receive, reminded of my history as a speaker. You might think, because I speak all the time, that I was always a good speaker. Always comfortable in front of an audience. This couldn’t be less true.

My First Time Speaking

The first time I ever spoke for PBI, besides introducing a seminar, I didn’t do a very good job at all. I stepped in at the last minute on a topic, and it was either the Internet Update seminar or a similar seminar called E-Commerce. This would have been in Pittsburgh. I was completely unprepared and very, very nervous.


As I recall, I spoke for about 15 minutes. I think the topic was ethics. I was awful. Someone wrote in the evaluations that I was “brutal” and I was. I spoke in this clipped, aggressive style. I know it was from nerves and lack of preparation, because I never again spoke that way. The other evaluations weren’t very good either. I don’t specifically remember them, but I doubt I got good scores.

Trying Again

Despite my bad first experience, the then Executive Director of PBI, Roger Meilton, felt I would be a very good speaker. He encouraged me to speak. So I agreed to try again.  I stepped in a few more times when people called off at the last moment. Leading a panel on Software Licensing, and moderating a seminar on Privacy. Next, again with Roger’s encouragement, I created and taught a seminar called Basic Internet Research. This time I got mainly 4s and 5s and a lot of positive feedback.  The same thing happened on the next seminar I created, The Invisible Web. My confidence grew. This increased confidence made me still a better speaker. I began to be willing to open up to my audience.  Any good speaker will tell you that this is a crucial part of being a good speaker.

Somewhere in there, I became an Adjunct Professor at Widener University School of Law in Delaware.  Most of my students were very happy with me, and I enjoyed the experience.  I just was too busy to keep it up.  But I slowly increased my speaking efforts for PBI.

Speaking in Earnest

After I left PBI, I started to get phone calls about speaking. Due to Sharon Nelson’s recommendation, I was invited to speak at my first Tech Show. Also, PBI staff started to call me and ask me to speak. So did a number of local bar associations. With each talk I became a better speaker. Experience matters.

Last year, I was invited to step in as a replacement at Internet Update. I couldn’t  help but be reminded of my disastrous first effort all those years ago. That didn’t happen this time.  One could say I hit it out of the park. Jeremy Mishkin, one of the best speakers I know, commented to me “you’ve been practicing.”  I was thrilled to hear such a good speaker compliment me. Being invited back tells me that I, without a doubt, have overcome that terrible first effort.

Never Quit

Had I gone by my first presentation, I might never have spoken again. I am glad I didn’t let it stop me, because I really do enjoy speaking. I like connecting with the audience and providing useful information.  My point here, and I do have one, is never let one bad experience stop you from anything. You might just turn out to be pretty darn good if you learn from that first negative experience. I am also grateful to Roger Meilton for encouraging me. It never hurts to have encouragement, especially from someone so important in your life. Roger not only hired me at PBI, but became something of a mentor to me. His signature is the one on the certificate admitting me to practice law in Pennsylvania.

Learn From Others

My second point, is while speaking can be a skill you are born with (my mom was a wonderful speaker and teacher, I get my abilities from her) no one is a great speaker without practice. Speaking is difficult, polls consistently show that most people are terrified to speak in front of an audience. I used to feel this way too. But even if you are not a naturally good speaker, that doesn’t mean you should give up. Ask for reviews, if you can get them. Ask someone you respect as a speaker to watch you, and give you tips on how to improve. With practice, you can become a speaker people enjoy listening to. This in turn will lead to more and more invitations to speak. Once that happens, you can enjoy the personal and professional benefits of speaking in front of both the legal and lay community.

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