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Tuesday, January 12, 2016

What The State Of The Union Teaches About Advocacy

Great lawyers and politicians have much in common.

When a politician is also a lawyer -- and current President Obama is one, and a former law professor to boot -- then, watch out! (Among the lawyers running for President in 2016: Former Senator Hillary Clinton, former U.S. Attorney and current New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.)

That's because such skilled orators are great advocates.

And what makes a great advocate is (1) knowing your target audience, (2) delivering the message you need to, to your target audience, and (3) knowing whom you can ignore.

That third point is shocking and dismaying to many -- but it is a critical point in business. It is from that truth that the success in lawyering, whether in a negotiation, mediation or to a lesser extent, before the (increasinglyy rare) jury at trial, flows. 

You need to know who matters, and who doesn't.

While the words spoken are meant for a certain audience, and sometimes are targeted precisely for a certain group or constituency (the phrase you'll hear is "interest group"), it is just as important to listen to who doesn't get mentioned, whose interests don't get mentioned. The absence of those mentions sends two crucial messages. Understanding those silent messages is key to knowing how certain "buttons get pushed."

One message is to the favored group, allies or a target whom you need to persuade. The message consists of emphasizing their interests, needs or priority status. Appealing to ego is a great move when you need just one or two people to see things your way, but it also works in the broader-public-appeal arena of politics. The best thing is that silence towards others is easily used to imply "most favored nation" status towards your favored audience, and allows you to avoid ever having to explain what you never said.

The second message is targeted at the disfavored. It conveys the recognition of who is in control, whose opinion matters, and who doesn't matter at all. 

Often in legal situations, there are very few people whose opinions really matter. 

There may be eight people around the table, but there is so often just one opinion leader and perhaps one trusted adviser. That's it. Everyone else? They're often just there to bill hours, look good and do enough to justify keeping their job before someone notices they're really superfluous.

In court, it's really just the judge and, in a jury trial, a few people at most in that jury. There are always leaders (whose statements carry great weight) and dominators (who take up much of the space but do not necessarily add much value). Again, most of the rest are sheep. Followers. They don't count.

So...tonight's lesson is: Know. Your. Audience.

Because the people who run things never forget that lesson.

Eric Dixon is a New York lawyer who works with private businesses and organizations on various legal, regulatory and management matters. 

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