Wednesday July 23rd 2014

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Quality vs. Quantity: The art of speaking clearly

Recently, a law clerk called the office to discuss a transcript.  She was concerned about the way a couple of undertakings had been expressed in the transcript. (Undertakings is a term in Ontario which brings legal effect to a promise to do something on the record during Examinations for Discovery or Cross-Examinations, which are akin to Depositions in the US context).

After reviewing the portions of said examination, how the undertaking was marked and perceived by the court reporter, the law clerk sighed, “This transcript is just not well worded and the way the undertakings have been given are very hard to follow! Your court reporter should have stepped in.”

In a perfect world court reporters would like nothing better than to turn to counsel and say, “You know, the way you are interrupting one another, the long questions and all the back-and-forth is creating a terrible record for you down the road!”

The reality is that such an interjection would go over like a lead balloon.  As the law clerk and I discussed, it is up to counsel to create their record, and it is up to the court reporter to faithfully transcribe that record. The two are not, unfortunately, working hand-in-glove. If counsel’s dialogue was confusing or complicated, it would be completely improper and unethical for the court reporter to make the transcript readable.

I then read with interest the words of the highly regarded Ontario litigator Harvey Strosberg, who has been recovering recently from a debilitating stroke where he lost his ability to speak. As you can imagine, relearning is a slow, painful and deliberate process that has taken many, many months. Harvey said this about speaking deliberately in a Globe and Mail article January 3rd, 2012

“Many lawyers speak too fast. They think they have a minute or two minutes, and they race to get the most words in a minute. That’s wrong. You have to think about the concept of the judge being persuaded. If you take your time, he’ll or she’ll get the idea simpler and faster.”

What Mr. Strosberg opines is very true. Having been a court reporter for 30 years, I have reported and transcribed hundreds of speakers over the years. The ones who speak deliberately, carefully, and thoughtfully always get their point across. Too often lawyers and speakers are trying to cram hours of speech into small time allotments, and the result may be this:

  • No one can follow what is being said coherently, or can appreciate the nuances and subtleties of arguments and thoughts
  • Long, rambling questions can confuse witnesses
  • Not allowing one speaker to finish his or her thought and being interrupted by another creates a very choppy and hard-to-read transcript

This is a case where quantity is not better than quality.

It’s time to rethink the “quantity v. quality” argument.  I would suggest honing a speaking style that allows everyone to be heard without interruption, one that incorporates brevity but imports meaning into each statement, and speaking deliberately – in the moment, as it were, and not to the next three points – will produce an excellent transcript for future use.

In this time-squeezed world, it’s easy to forget that the listener can only absorb so much. If you can remember speak deliberately, carefully, and thoughtfully; you can prevent them from losing the thread completely.

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