Speaking Skills Professor Offers Words To Part With
Professor Robert Sayler thinks we could all use a bit more Aristotle in our lives.
As one of the guiding minds of the University of Virginia School of Law's Public Speaking Program, Sayler consciously follows the examples of classic rhetoricians like Aristotle, Cicero and Demosthenes, even when analyzing the most recent gaffe splashing across the cable news networks. Even though he is retiring at the end of the semester after 14 years at the Law School, he does not anticipate that his interest in rhetoric will disappear any time soon.
"I never thought I'd be working this long, but one reason I did was how rewarding this is," said Sayler, who built a career as one of the nation's top commercial litigators before joining the Law School (see sidebar). "It's a labor of love."
The art of argument fascinated Sayler at a young age. He knew he wanted to be a trial lawyer when he was 10, and he honed his skills on debate teams in high school and at Stanford, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1962.
Sayler's debate coach at Stanford was head of the rhetoric department and encouraged him to study classical thought. Sayler realized how ancient philosophers like Aristotle were relevant to his goal of being a lawyer.
"What Aristotle and all those people were mostly talking about was being a persuasive advocate, both in writing and orally," Sayler said. "But a big part of what classicists of rhetoric were teaching was about being more effective on your feet."
When Sayler went on to Harvard Law School, he was surprised to find that classical rhetoric was not a focus of the curriculum.
"I was a little troubled that there was not much going on there," he said. "They had one short class on trial advocacy. They didn't have a course on rhetoric or advocacy generally." (He added that he has heard that Harvard Law now emphasizes oral advocacy and rhetoric more than they used to.)
Sayler graduated from Harvard Law in 1965 and went to work as a trial lawyer at Covington & Burling. Because advocacy was not taught much at law schools, firms focused on developing oral advocacy courses for their young associates. There, he learned from more experienced advocates, and eventually taught younger lawyers himself.
Sayler found success at Covington & Burling specializing in cases involving complex multi-party claims. By the mid-1990s, he was among the most senior trial lawyers at the firm and head of the litigation department, as well as chair of the ABA Litigation Section.
In 1995, Sayler received a call "from out of the blue." It was UVA Law Professor Ken Abraham, who wanted to know if Sayler would be interested in co-teaching a course on insurance law as an Ewald Distinguished Visiting Professor.
Despite his experience teaching advocacy skills to young associates, Sayler had never planned on moving into academia and considered turning the offer down because of his trial schedule. But that schedule was the very reason that Sayler's wife, Marty, encouraged him to take the gig. She wanted him to have some steady home time.
"I went home, my wife beat me over the head with a skillet and said, 'You fool, call him back and say you can come for half a year because you've got to do a trial the second half,'" he said.
(For the record, Sayler's head was untouched, and his wife used nicer words.)
Sayler agreed to teach insurance law, but he also asked if he could teach his "lust in life" — oral advocacy. He was worried "that so many able students were not getting training in being effective and comfortable on their feet." When he arrived at the Law School, he brought with him a course he had developed at Covington & Burling — Hallmarks of Distinguished Advocacy. That course eventually evolved into several public speaking courses.
When Sayler returned to Covington & Burling after his visiting professorship, his interest in teaching lingered. Although he enjoyed his work, Sayler recognized that it was taking a toll.
"[I spent] 30 years living out of hotel rooms," he said. "All of my cases were at least several months long." Some trials, such as litigation involving asbestos claims and litigation after the Exxon Valdez disaster, lasted years.
He realized that stability would be a benefit of teaching. In 2003, he returned to the Law School on a permanent basis to teach rhetoric and advocacy. Two years later, Sayler helped bring Molly Bishop Shadel, a former colleague at Covington & Burling, to the Law School to teach oral advocacy with him. Sayler and Shadel wrote a book together, "Tongue-Tied America," covering basic oral advocacy skills. They also blogged together about the political rhetoric of the 2012 and 2016 elections.
"I did not originally envision myself as a law school professor, but Professor Sayler did, and now here I am," Shadel said. "I didn't feel certain that I could write a book, but Professor Sayler did, and so we have. Professor Sayler has done more for my professional advancement than any other mentor I've had, and for that I am extremely grateful."
The Public Speaking Program now includes multiple advocacy and rhetoric classes, as well as popular January term seminars. Sayler maintains that the focus on oral advocacy sets UVA Law apart. "It's really a badge of honor that we've put this much effort into [the program]," Sayler said. "I don't think anybody else is doing anything quite like it."
Students say they appreciate the courses' focus on the technical aspects of public speaking. Third-year Lucas Caron said Sayler's approach to hands-on learning was "refreshing, and highly pragmatic, given the subject matter. His critiques were never overwhelming and were instead focused on very small things students could do to improve their next exercise."
Sayler's and Shadel's classes at the Law School focus extensively on oral presentation. Each student gives multiple videotaped speeches and then sits down for a one-on-one critique. "Pedagogically, the videotape is a magnificent teaching device," Sayler said. "It is one thing to tell somebody what Aristotle said, or it's one thing for a professor to say 'x.' It's another to see yourself."
Giving videotaped presentations allows students the opportunity to notice often-overlooked details that can add to, or detract from, an effective presentation. Sayler focuses on every aspect of the presentations, down to what students are doing with their hands and feet.
"Professor Sayler's teaching style is really unique," said third-year law student Caroline Catchpole. "You can absolutely tell that if you asked him to give an eight-hour speech on 'The Importance of Rhetoric,' he would be able to do it without missing a beat. He incorporated stories about his time in practice, and has obviously been honing his rhetoric skills for a very long time."
The course revolves around classical rhetorical virtues. "Substantively, class one starts off with Aristotle, the huge importance of projecting Aristotle's three qualities," said Sayler. "We start there: ethos, pathos, logos — those are what we're ultimately trying to project."
Seeing the students' progress is a rewarding experience, he said. When the students give their final argument to the class, "they are so darned improved, I literally, literally have had tears in my eyes a couple of times."
In his retirement, Sayler plans to write a book about American political rhetoric, which he said will be an update of Richard Hofstadter's "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." He also will teach a class next semester at Stanford.
Founded in 1819, the University of Virginia School of Law is the second-oldest continuously operating law school in the nation. Consistently ranked among the top law schools, Virginia is a world-renowned training ground for distinguished lawyers and public servants, instilling in them a commitment to leadership, integrity and community service.