Are You Communicating Like a Gourmet Chef or the Buffet Attendant?

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By Scott Lawson

One of my favorite things I do each fall is participate as an instructor at Stanford Law School’s Trial Advocacy Workshop. At a recent session on Opening Statements, I shared with the students a tip that I thought others might find helpful.  When communicating important ideas to a critical audience, organize and present those ideas like you’re a gourmet chef and not the buffet attendant at Golden Corral.

A gourmet meal, like a good opening statement or closing argument, is a cohesive whole comprised of a succession of courses (ideas, arguments), each of which supports the next and which together make up an overall dining (listening) experience that lingers in the minds of the diners long after the meal is over. By contrast, at the HomeTown Buffet of ideas, the arguments are indistinct and not strategically organized, and are, therefore, ineffective and unmemorable.

In the Buffet School of Oratory, the speaker spends too little time organizing his thoughts before presenting them. Having himself already spent a lot of time with those thoughts, the speaker forgets that his audience is new to them.  He makes the largely unconscious assumption that the ideas will essentially organize themselves, leaving the audience to fend for itself, buffet style.

As a result, although each idea is (relatively) confined within its own chafing dish or steamer tray, they are lined up side-by-side according to a rough, barely discernible organizational scheme. The individual items, hidden behind a foggy sneeze guard, are not easy to make out.  One argument or idea is hard to distinguish from another.  In the orange glow of the heat lamps, the fried chicken looks like the meatballs that look like the broccoli florets that look like the oatmeal cookies.  Making matters worse, ideas get mixed together in ways that don’t advance the argument.  A few soldiers within the army of overcooked peas have made furtive raids across the border into the Velveeta-thick mac and cheese.  You get the picture.

A good opening statement, or closing argument—or any good presentation that seeks to convince an audience—applies the same principles that underlie a well-executed gourmet meal. The atmosphere is prepared—any errant easels or demonstratives or Power Point slides or other visual distractions are put away—and the table is set.  A central theme is presented that provides the narrative context that will bring the elements of the story together.  The ingredients—the facts, events and argument—are carefully selected, and pruned of extraneous elements.  These key facts are grouped in “courses” with related facts, breaking down the broader narrative into component elements, arranged in such a manner that good facts look great and bad facts look unimportant or untrustworthy.  As quality rather than quantity is the goal, the portions are small and easily digested.

The order in which these “courses” are presented to the audience is not haphazard, or even merely logical or chronological. Instead, it is driven by a specific rhetorical strategy designed to advance the central theme.  The speaker uses pacing, emphasis, pauses, visual aids, gestures and physical movement to ensure that each “course” stands out, that each key element of the argument is distinct and memorable, yet merges coherently with the rest of the presentation and the overall theme.  She uses “markers” and “borders,” and employs transitional language to alert the audience that one course is ending and another is being presented.

The Golden Rule of any kind of advocacy or promotion is to make it easy for your audience to do the thing you want it to do—the jury to side with your client, the judge to grant your motion, the customer to buy your product or service. The next time you are making an important presentation, therefore, set the table, adjust the lights, find your inner chef, and give them a meal they’ll remember.

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