June 06, 2011

Making Better Presentations In and Out of the Courtroom

Joshua Poje

Pop culture is dominated with images of attorneys in the courtroom, from Perry Mason to Law & Order. In reality, many attorneys never set foot in a courtroom in their professional lives. Nonetheless, attorneys of all types - from transactional to alternative dispute resolution, from legislative counsel to sports agents - are regularly called upon to make arguments or presentations before crowds, and in the technology era, they often turn to presentation software to enhance their efforts.

Discussion of presentation software for attorneys tends to revolve around dedicated trial presentation software like Sanction, Verdical, and Trial Director. These programs offer robust feature sets geared towards litigation, including the ability to store vast amounts of evidence in a database to be called up with a few keystrokes at trial. Other common features include on-the-fly annotation, the ability to build and display elaborate timelines, video play back of depositions side-by-side with the deposition transcript, and much more.

While the elaborate features of dedicated trial presentation can be beneficial for litigators - particularly those involved in complex litigation - the software may not be suited to all situations. Attorneys involved in simpler (or lower budget) litigation may find the software overkill, and it may be ill-suited for non-courtroom presentations like explaining a complicated estate plan to a client, guiding parties through mediation, or teaching a continuing legal education seminar. In those cases, the vast majority of attorneys turn to Microsoft PowerPoint. According to the 2009 ABA Legal Technology Survey Report, 97% of respondents reported using PowerPoint for presentations generally and 75% reported using PowerPoint for trial presentations.

Regardless of the software and tools used, or the situation in which a presentation is made, there are a variety of tips and tricks that can help attorneys use technology to make their presentations more effective:

  • Consider investing in a good presentation remote with an integrated laser pointer. This will free you to move about more naturally before your audience rather than being tied to a computer, and the laser pointer can be used to highlight important elements on the screen.
  • Know the limitations of your software. PowerPoint, for example, creates very linear presentations. If a situation will force you to jump back and forth from point to point -- as is often the case at trial -- you may find PowerPoint ill suited to your needs. Indeed, constantly scrolling back through a series of slides to find the relevant material may be distracting or confusing to your audience
  • Practice, practice, practice. Practice is always important when giving a presentation, but when technology is involved, it becomes essential. Know the technology you're going to use backwards and forwards and be prepared to deal with troubles should they arise. If you try to use technology at trial or in an important client meeting and you encounter technical difficulties, it may serve to undermine your credibility with the audience. In a heartbeat, your technology can go from benefit to liability.
  • In adversarial situations, don't ambush your opponent with your technology. Let all parties (and especially the court) know what technology your plan to use in advance to avoid last minute battles that could leave you without a tool you'd been counting on using.
  • Turn off the technology when you want the audience to focus on you. Any time your screen is on, whether it's displaying a PowerPoint slide or an exhibit, some portion of your audience will be focusing on the screen and not on what you're saying. Use the projector's remote to turn it to a blank screen when you want the focus turned to you, or insert blank slides into your PowerPoint presentation at appropriate times to achieve a similar effect.

    Invest time into making your presentations cosmetically appealing. Your audience probably wouldn't take you seriously if you showed up to court in ripped shorts and a t-shirt, and they're unlikely to take your presentation seriously if looks like you tossed it together the night before. Avoid tacky clip-art, make sure you have a strong contrast between the text and the background, and use large elements that will be legible from a distance.
  • Ultimately, keep in mind that good technology won't save a bad presentation, but bad technology may hurt an otherwise good presentation. Remember that the content of your presentation - whether it's an argument on a point of law or fact, or a lesson on an important piece of information - should be the real focus, and apply your best judgment in deciding when to use technology to augment the content and when to let the content stand for itself.
This article first appeared in YourABA e-newsletter, a monthly publication distributed via email to all ABA members.  Learn more about the benefits of belonging to the American Bar Association.

Joshua Poje