Where do I stand? When should I move – my location, my arms? Is this much eye contact too much eye contact? How loud should I get, and when? And in all of this, where is the line between communicating effectively and being seen as histrionic or manipulative?
Those are among the questions FOOLPROOF is intended to answer. Written by Rebecca Diaz-Bonilla, an attorney who is a communications expert, the book’s chapters offer advice, insight, and exercises.
But here is the dilemma. For every exercise one can do and self-evaluate, and every piece of ‘wisdom’ that can be gained and applied, there are drills that will have limited utility without external feedback. Let me illustrate.
On the you-can-do-it side, for example, is the exercise on “skeletal thinking,” one where lawyers take a matter they have handled, take sixty seconds to distill it to bullet points, wait until the next day, and then record a presentation of 2-3 minutes speaking just from the bullet points. After listening, rework it for clarity; and then rework the bullet points using only thirty seconds to do so. What an effective drill.
A similar you-can-do-it drill involves finding a “home base,” a seated or standing position where you are comfortable when speaking with friends and familiars. The advice is simple – find two to three such positions, and make them yours, to be interspersed into a long presentation.
FOOLPROOF reaffirms what many of us know and/or teach – primacy/recency; the selective use of visuals, with the understanding that they are aids and backdrops and can’t be distractors; and the explanation of the power of pauses. There is also terrific, and easily followed, advice on how to memorize.
But time and again, the exercises are ones that, without a critical eye observing you, will leave you to your own impression of what works. Practicing pacing of a speech; working on where to get soft or emphatic – these need an independent ear. And that is where FOOLPROOF, in this reviewer’s estimation, falls short. Telling me to take a text and “score” it for words “on which your voice should inflect” begs the question – how do I know which words those are? My own judgment that I was hitting the right highs and lows is just that – my own, and sadly uninformed, judgment.
What does this mean for a skill set that lawyers desperately need? FOOLPROOF might be a better read after taking a course with Ms. Diaz-Bonilla; otherwise, it offers lots of important advice and some essential exercises, but on some essential skills leaves readers assessing themselves – and that is not so helpful for those who school never trained to elocute.