November 02, 2017 Articles

The Centerpiece Exhibit and Other Courtroom Communication Considerations

Using memorable visual images and other helpful communication approaches make experts and lawyers more effective teachers and storytellers.

By Glenn W. Perdue

Trial presentations are the quintessential act of information distillation. Enormous amounts of information produced in discovery and found elsewhere must somehow be pruned, compressed, and organized in a manner that makes it fit for human consumption over the course of a few days. Ultimately, this information must tell a coherent story after being presented through a variety of sources—attorneys, fact witnesses, and expert witnesses.

Drawing on my experience as an expert witness, lecturer, and seminar presenter, I have noted several tools and approaches that help me better communicate complex information.

Narrative and Numbers
Narrative and Numbers is a new book by Aswath Damodaran, a finance professor at New York University's Stern School of Business. The book's title, reflecting its premise, provides an ideal starting point for this discussion.

When presenting complex quantitative information in court—whether financial, scientific, or otherwise—context is critical to understanding for a judge and jury. Narrative provides context for the numbers by explaining what the numbers mean, where they came from, and why they matter.

The subtitle of Professor Damodaran's book is The Value of Stories in Business. The concept of a story takes the notion of narrative to its highest level, a level at which broader meaning and deeper messages can be revealed.

Most attorneys would agree that good storytelling at trial is important. My testimony as an expert witness should stand on its own while also fitting within the context of the broader story being told at trial.

The Importance of Visual Images
It is well understood that both comprehension and retention improve when information is presented in a multi-sensory manner. This is particularly true when information presented verbally is supported by memorable visual images.

In her book Images with Impact, author and trial attorney Kerri Ruttenberg explores the importance of using visual images to help the trier of fact better remember and understand what is being presented. "Turning themes into visual images" is the overarching theme of this book.

Ms. Ruttenberg cites research findings that we remember 36 percent of what we hear on day one, which drops to 10 percent by day three. However, if we hear and also see this information in some visual form, day-one recall goes up to 85 percent, while day-three recall goes up to 65 percent.

The Centerpiece Exhibit
A "centerpiece exhibit" is a central visual I may use to tell an entire story or use on a recurring basis to help tie a story together. In many cases, my centerpiece exhibit involves a timeline superimposed with financial data and other information to help explain how events unfolded over time. Seeing this information in one place provides context and demonstrates how different factors may have contributed to an outcome such as the failure of a project or the loss of a contract that led to economic harm.

In some cases, I have used a centerpiece exhibit as my sole exhibit at trial. In other cases, my centerpiece exhibit may begin only with basic information, but as my testimony unfolds, new information may be added in subsequent versions to demonstrate how various facts, activities, and outcomes fit together.

Repetition is a useful tool in teaching. So whether used as a sole exhibit or as an exhibit that builds on itself throughout the presentation, a centerpiece exhibit capitalizes on familiarity and repetition as a means of helping viewers understand and retain information.

Cars, Houses, and Other Accessible Analogies
Most people can relate to buying cars and houses. For that reason, cars and houses provide a useful and readily accessible source of analogies to convey complex information.

When discussing market-based valuation approaches that rely on industry valuation multiples, I often use the example of a house valued on a per-square-foot basis. For instance, a 2,000-square-foot house that sells for $350,000 sold for $175 per square foot. Similarly, a company with annual revenues of $15 million that sells for $30 million sold for two times revenue (a  revenue multiple of 2). Put another way, each dollar in revenue provided $2 in value, just as each square foot of the house provided an additional $175 in value.

The analogy of a house that sells at a certain price per square foot is a helpful and accessible means of introducing how revenue or profitability multiples are used when valuing businesses. Such analogies can help demystify what might otherwise be perceived as dense financial jargon that may be hard to understand.

Connecting the Dots Deliberately and Regularly
With complex information, going back to previous information can provide context and insights regarding new information. Better retention and understanding can also result from revisiting previously presented information, thus helping observers learn.

Connecting and reconnecting the dots may involve the use of a centerpiece exhibit or other visuals, but it may not. Repetition and reinforcement can also occur through thoughtful direct examination questioning and by the expert simply making a point to tie in previously presented information when answering new questions.

Consider the old adage of tell them what you're going to say, say it, then tell them what you said. This concept of intro-detail-summary relies on repetition to highlight desired takeaways.

Guided Storytelling
While it may be helpful to use the intro-detail-summary approach described above, the detailed component of the story should build on itself logically. Ideally, the expert's report (if one was prepared) functions as a basic script and already builds logically. A chronological presentation approach often works well because it provides context by showing how events unfolded over time and may have affected future outcomes. But non-chronological approaches may be appropriate too.

Good stories should be animated and vibrant. While this may be challenging with some types of cases and information that may not be exciting, the manner in which information is presented can still make a big difference.

Counsel guides the storytelling efforts of an expert through a well-planned examination outline and good questioning. Asking good questions at the right time contributes to a healthy back-and-forth rhythm that helps educate the judge and jury by keeping them engaged.

Glenn W. Perdue, MBA, CVA, MAFF, CLP, is a managing member of Kraft Analytics, LLC, in Nashville, Tennessee. 

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