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Public Speaking Tips for the Painfully Shy Paralegal

RTPA President Kirsten Carlos and me

As I left my office to drive to today’s Research Triangle Paralegal Associationhttp://www.rtpanc.org/, luncheon where I was the guest ethics speaker, I joked with my co-workers, “How does someone with severe social anxiety and fear of public-speaking get so darn many speaking invitations?” I could actually feel my knees quaking as I walked to my car.

I had plenty of time to think about it on the drive. I’ve been told by many other smart, personable, and experienced paralegals with a wealth of knowledge to share that they could never do what I do. My response is usually, “Yes, you can. If I can do it, you can do it.”

I can never remember a time when I was not painfully shy. I was one of those funny-looking kids with huge glasses, fuzzy hair, and awful acne – not that too many people saw my face hidden behind a book. I avoided public speaking like the plague until someone asked me to present a personal injury CLE in the early 90s. It must have gone pretty well, because it was repeated by popular demand.


The next time I faced a large audience was teaching my first Introduction to Paralegalism class at the local community college. Even though my initial impulse, after I faced the students and my mind went completely blank, was to bolt from the classroom, somehow I stayed put and the lecture started. At the end of the semester, I think we had fun and even learned something, because they kept asking me to come back and teach other classes.

Which brings me to my advice for painfully shy paralegals who think they can’t give a public presentation:

  1. Start telling yourself that you CAN. You’ve accomplished a lot in your career; public-speaking can help you take it to the next level and greatly broaden your professional network. Plus, no one ever died of public speaking. (I’m almost pretty sure about that.)
  2. Volunteer to speak about a topic you’re knowledgeable and passionate about. Think about what you regularly teach others at work, and what you keep up with in the news. The more excited you are about a topic, the easier it is to share with a large group.
  3. Consider doing a presentation with a co-speaker. This takes the entire focus off you, and team-teaching is fun. Being part of a panel is also a good way to get your feet wet, without feeling like you have to carry the entire session by yourself.
  4. Plan your presentation to engage your audience. Think about ways to make dry material (let’s face it, a lot of legal topics are pretty darned stultifying) interesting. Also, attendees will forgive a lot if your manuscript and materials are outstanding, and the information is helpful to their every day job duties.
  5. Build your confidence by starting small. If you’re not ready to present a CLE session in your area of expertise, offer to speak to a local paralegal class or to a luncheon group. Join a paralegal or legal association committee, which will give you opportunities to speak up and present ideas to a group, or even introduce speakers at association events.

Ultimately, I remind myself that a typical speech is only an hour of my life, and it will be over before I know it. I know if I can get through the first five minutes of that deer-in-the-headlights feeling, I’ll relax and hit a rhythm and have fun with my audience, and easily share my passions, including social media, technology, professionalism, civil litigation, and writing for lawyers.

Speaking from personal experience, public speaking for the painfully shy paralegal gets easier with time and repetition. Sure, it would be awesome if we could have a martini instead of a glass of water before a presentation, but since that’s not usually an option, just take a deep breath, remind yourself that you know your stuff, and then go out there and share it.

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In addition to today on the road, Practical Paralegalism was also out of state for a funeral this week. Regular weekly features, including the legal staffer profile and recommended reading will be back next week.

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