Controlling anxiety is one of the hardest parts of oral argument.
Everybody gets nervous. You never really outgrow it.
I’ve seen even very experienced, very good lawyers–lawyers much better than I’ll ever be–undone by their own nervous energy at oral argument, spitting legal propositions in the panel’s general direction at twice the speed of human comprehension.
I found a few more keepers in Alan Dworksy’s The Little Book on Oral Argument. (Yes, I know that it’s a book for law students in moot court. I don’t care. Good advice is good advice.)
Here are three tips worth borrowing from Dworksy:
1. Most Judges Want You to Do Well
First, most judges want you to do well. After all, you are there to help them to arrive at the correct result. If you do well, it makes their job easier.
Also, judges are (by and large) regular folks with normal human emotions. Most sane people don’t want to watch a bad performer crash and burn. It’s uncomfortable at best. The few exceptions to this rule show up in the early rounds of American Idol, and they are cherry-picked outliers. Most failures are painful to watch. Thus, even if normal human decency fails them, your panel will be rooting for you just so they don’t have to count off the awkward seconds after you’ve lost your place for the third time.
2. Breathe Properly
Second, remember to breathe. As Dworsky explains:
Many relaxation techniques are based on beathing, which occupies a unique position among bodily functions. It’s the only vital unconscious function everyone can consciously control. When you consciously breathe properly [deeply, from your abdomen] you accomplish two things. First, you interrupt the stress response by stopping the chattering of you conscious mind and giving it something productive to do. Second, you start a chain reaction in your unconscious that calms other involutnary functions–such as your heart rate, adrenaline level, and gastrointestinal functions–that you ordinarily can’t control.
3. Visualize Success
Dworsky’s third tip is borrowed from high-level athletes, who visualize themselves executing their technique perfectly. You can do the same thing. Keeping in mind that most nervousness doesn’t show, picture yourself engaging the judges and answering their questions. Then cut the sound off, and just watch yourself at the podium, poised and confident.