The lesson of communication

Former actress helps law students improve presentation and speaking skills


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If the classroom had been larger, Rebecca Fishel, an instructor at Duquesne University's School of Law, would have told the 60 first-year students to get down on the floor for breathing exercises. But since the space was cramped, Ms. Fishel launched her session on communication skills by asking them to stand up and engage in techniques designed to manage their stress and body energy.

It was the first day of fall semester at the Uptown campus and Ms. Fishel, a former professional actress hired by the school to assist law students with their speech and presentation skills, was starting with the basics.

"We have to look at how we use our breath," she recalled telling the class. "Whether you are facing a client or a judge, breath impacts us in our voice, our posture and our ability to think."

Ms. Fishel's firm, Beyond Words Consulting Group, coaches and trains lawyers and other professionals in communication techniques that aren't typically addressed in college or graduate program curriculums that don't specialize in speech. She emphasizes non-verbal aspects of communication -- such as eye contact, facial expressions and focus on people you're speaking to -- that are tough to describe in a textbook but which can be critical to sealing a business deal or convincing a jury of your client's innocence.

For instance, lawyers with rigid, tense posture can have trouble getting a witness to open up during an interview or in the courtroom, said Ms. Fishel. But lawyers who learn to breathe consciously can relax their stance, project less anxiety and encourage the witness to spill more details.

"Frankly, I think it's important for anyone and for law students in particular because lawyers spend most of their time communicating," said S. Michael Streib, professor of law and director of the trial advocacy program at Duquesne where Ms. Fishel has also worked with law students preparing for moot court competitions.

Recent graduates in their 20s need the kind of communication training Ms. Fishel offers, he said, "because this is a generation that communicates largely through text messages, which are grammatically abominable. The abbreviations [in texts] have detracted from their ability to write in sentences and they are no longer speaking with each other as much.

"However, a lot of what happens of importance in the real world happens face to face."

Ms. Fishel, 60, who lives in Harmony, Beaver County, believes the current culture that favors staying connected with friends and colleagues largely through online social media, e-mail and cell phone texts, "is taking us into a head route where we're not present with each other."

"Job interviews are done over the computer. It's so ineffective. Personality is a huge thing in interpersonal communication."

She opted to focus her career on training others after years working as an actress, mostly in regional theater.

An Ohio native who studied speech communication and theater at Kent State University, and earned a master's degree in performance at Ohio University, Ms. Fishel fell into a teaching job at the State University of New York at Albany when she substituted for a faculty friend in his voice and Shakespeare classes. A full-time job at SUNY followed and while in Albany, she worked with the New York State Defenders Association in a program that trained young lawyers by using actors posing as victims, criminals, judges and jury members in scripted courtroom situations.

"It put the lawyers through their paces and helped them refine their craft in a safe way ... experience they needed to knock off the rough edges," she said.

When she moved to Southern Illinois University in 1998 to teach in the theater department, Ms. Fishel approached the university's law school about partnering on a similar training program in which theater students could help law students.

"I had the actors; they had the need," and the result was a collaboration that included the law students conducting interviews in a simulated law office with student actors who posed as clients with a range of legal issues. After the interview, the theater students provided frank feedback to the law students about their body language, appearance, ability to listen and overall communication skills.

One theater student told a law student to "lose the tongue stud," Ms. Fishel recalled.

She has incorporated lessons from the actor-law student exercises into presentations she makes for national legal writing and legal skills conferences, including an upcoming event at the John Marshall School of Law in Chicago.

Ms. Fishel and her husband landed in the Pittsburgh region three years ago to be closer to her family in eastern Ohio.

"Theater training is the most intensive, holistic look at how humans interact," said Ms. Fishel. "It's what I call human dynamics: how and why we do the things we do."


Joyce Gannon: jgannon@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1580.


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