In the last many years, we have worked closely with our legal Professional Development colleagues to improve not just how we teach, but how we can achieve better outcomes for our speaking skills programs. It is a lifelong pursuit as we strive to keep getting better results for our participants, and for ourselves. We are always pushing to achieve a world-class standard. We want to deliver the best teaching, and to make our students the best speakers. Whether you are one of our practitioner students, or a teaching colleague, we hope our goal is clear: to keep improving as master teachers who can achieve outstanding results.

Thus, we try very hard to listen to what colleagues and students tell us. Over the last year, some feedback indicated that lectures and workshops seem too long. We made them shorter; individual coachings may now be 45 minutes instead of an hour. Clients suggested that making video of speaking performances be less cumbersome. We now use smart phones to make an ephemeral record, a great, easy, controllable and affordable alternative to hiring video crews to record, copy, and email video. We began exploiting state-of-the-art nationwide video conferencing to allow more coachings per day from one office of a law firm.

But more and more often, we find ourselves listening to and debunking “cutting edge” “research” that students find on the internet or from other unqualified sources. We’ll address two of them here: The Box and Look at Their Forehead.

Let’s first reiterate that we teach speaking skills for lawyers, who must persuade juries, argue for and against motions, and appeal a court’s decisions. They speak about issues to clients for whom the outcomes are vitally important, and sometimes even a matter of life and death. What we teach matters. How lawyers make their arguments matters.

To discuss consequential subjects requires that lawyers speak from a deep well of expertise on their topic. Attorneys must be able to answer questions from judges, argue to persuade juries, explain complicated ideas, and offer solutions to clients. Whether they appear in courtrooms or not, they have to be able to talk about their topic with authority and confidence. They are not reading or reciting.

This type of speaking usually takes some time to hone. An attorney must be able to get over nerves, talk with her hands, think on the fly, and speak loudly enough to be heard. In our opinion, after the technical aspects of speaking reach a certain level, the art of speaking overtakes the motor skill of talking in public (or to any demanding listener). Only then may a lawyer enjoy becoming really good at it.

Internet Myth #1: The Box

Back to the two unscientific and objectionable, yet pervasive, ideas that we continue to encounter.
The first piece of bad advice is that speakers should stay inside “the box” when gesturing. This idea posits that everyone should carefully keep their natural gestures inside a box-like area in front of the body, without straying “outside the box” in any direction—out to the sides, up above the shoulders, or down below the waist.

Try to stay inside the theoretical box with your own gestures. You will be constrained and literally boxed in. This arbitrary instruction to stay small and keep your natural gestures from flowing in front of you is contrary to scientific research. It is a made-up idea with no experimental, peer-reviewed science supporting it. Yet when we ask students during lectures whether they have heard of The Box, many hands go up. If you have been trying to stay inside The Box, stop immediately. Never worry about The Box again. You are free.

To prove it to yourself, try this short exercise. Stand or push back from your desk. Say this sentence:

One thousand people a week are dying of opioid overdoses.

Use your hands to show how big that number is. Don’t you have to use a big gesture? Now, say the same sentence, but keep your hands and arms close in to your ribcage:

One thousand people a week are dying of opioid overdoses.

The number of opioid deaths just decreased, becoming small and insignificant.

Because speaking is classified as a “soft skill” for lawyers, there is not a prerequisite or certification for those who teach it. The result is, unfortunately, a fair number of teachers who are unqualified and simply make stuff up. Speaking to a federal judge in an effort to save a client from execution is not a soft skill. It requires not only extensive knowledge of the specific case, precedent, and the United States Constitution, but a science-based technique to deliver a persuasive argument. Speaking isn’t merely a hard legal skill, we’d call it a bedrock skill.

But we’re betting you can go on TedTalks and find someone spouting about The Box, all the while gesturing outside of it. They surely have a web site and articles touting it. They are wrong. Speakers gesture outside the box most of the time, and have a predictable pattern of venturing outside of it—all while looking completely natural, because that is how they gesture every day. Real scientific research reveals that these behaviors are found across cultures and in every language.

The Box is has no scientific basis. Don’t buy it.