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March 03, 2015 Articles

Five Tips for Developing and Presenting Visuals to Judges and Juries

Forget bullet-point lists. Learn how to really communicate with jurors.

By Jeremy T. Brown

Persuasive trial attorneys do not question whether they should use visuals at trial. They understand that visuals increase jurors’ capacity to comprehend and retain the information presented to them. See Jaihyun Park & Neal Feigenson, 27 Effects of Visual Technology on Mock Juror Decision Making, Appl. Cognit. Psychol. 235–36 (Dec. 6, 2012). And no longer do most trial attorneys forego using modern technology to present their case out of a concern of looking like the “big, bad, rich company” versus the poor, innocent plaintiff. Indeed, they may hope that opposing counsel plays the folksy card and eschews modern technology, because that will only serve to increase their presentation technology's effectiveness. Id. (finding that PowerPoint’s impact on jurors was greatest when its use was unequal among the parties).

Although using visuals to present one’s case is now standard practice, the successful use of visuals varies significantly. If not employed correctly, presenting visuals to a judge or jury can actually detract from one’s message rather than enhance it. To help avoid that at your next trial or hearing, here are some tips for creating and presenting powerful visuals that help you win your case. 

Please Step Away From the Bullet Points

Litigators love PowerPoint. It’s not so much the program itself, but what the program allows them to do: make loads of bullet points to convey loads of information. It enables litigators to free themselves from that pesky, anachronistic notepad. They can simply click the next slide and see their notes right on the slide. Bullet points are pure genius. 

Or are they? Most presentation experts argue that they are an incredibly boring crutch that can actually diminish comprehension. See Olivia Mitchell, New evidence that bullet-points don’t work (Oct. 7, 2009); Ken Lopez, 12 Reasons Bullet Points are Bad, The Litigation Consulting Report (July 16, 2012). Bullet points cause judges and jurors to read the slide while the litigator basically reads the slide to them at a slower pace. This results in concurrent language processing that diminishes comprehension and retention due to cognitive overload.

In contrast to some, I think bullet points are fine for some presentations if used correctly, i.e., when the litigator doesn’t simply read the bullet points from the slide and they adhere to the less-is-more concept (discussed below). Nevertheless, consider whether you can communicate your message more effectively by getting away from bullet points.

Here is an example of transforming bullet point information into a more visually compelling slide.

The slide on the left is self-explanatory. The presenter using this slide would likely just read or paraphrase the substance of the bullet points. In contrast, the slide on the right complements the substance that would be conveyed orally. It allows the audience to make connections and conclusions themselves, rather than the presenter spoon-feeding them all of the connections and proper conclusions. Many people believe that jurors are more effective advocates for a particular conclusion when it is their own.

When preparing your next litigation presentation, ask yourself whether there is a picture, chart, or other visual that appropriately conveys the point you are trying to make. If so, always opt for the visual instead of a bullet point. A common example of this is seen when one shows a contract on a slide and then creates a callout from the contract to highlight a particularly important term. This is much more effective than simply quoting the language in a generic bullet point. This technique adds credibility by showing the audience where the language is coming from and that you have not altered the text in any way. It also provides a visual reference point if the judge or jury wants to review that document or opinion later. This is just one example, but there are several websites that provide other concrete ideas on how to remove bullet points from your presentation. See, e.g., Connie Malamed, 6 Alternatives To Bullet Lists, the eLearning Coach.

For those that truly love bullet points, a good compromise is to move them to your speaker’s notes in PowerPoint. There you’ll still be able to see plenty of lovely bullets loaded with organized information while sparing your audience pain they don’t deserve.

Less Is More

As a first-year attorney, I was asked to help a senior partner prepare a presentation on antitrust issues affecting a particular trade industry. I dutifully prepared a series of PowerPoint slides for use in the presentation. I thought it was a masterpiece. It was detailed, thorough, and conveyed the partner’s mastery of the subject matter. When it was returned to me, I saw red—ink that is. Lots of it. I had not yet learned one of the cardinal rules for trial graphics: Less is more. Here is an example of what one of my slides probably looked like.

That slide probably makes your eyes glaze over the second you look at it. To avoid this effect, try to keep text to a minimum. Your slide does not need to be self-explanatory. It does not need to convey the full message. It should complement the oral component of your presentation, not replace it. Try to focus each presentation slide on a single point with a complementary single image. Here’s an example of a better slide.

See Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm, For Opening Statement (or Any Other Presentation), Keep Your Speaking Notes Off the Screen (Dec. 28, 2009). Rather than just being another medium that conveys the same content that is being conveyed orally, this second slide is a tool that the litigator can use to make the particular point. It enables the jury to process the point through the non-language portion of the brain, and in doing so, it greatly enhances their ability to recall the information. 

The less-is-more concept applies to more than just text. Take a fresh look at the graphics on your slide and try to remove visual clutter. Although your slide may look pretty with all of the various pieces of information on it, too much information on a slide can detract from the message. Like bullet points, your audience becomes focused on processing all the information on the slide, and as a result, fails to hear or comprehend what the litigator is saying. The brain is limited in the amount it can process—the simpler, the better.

But More May Be More

Although less is more with respect to particular content on a slide, when considering how often to employ litigation graphics in your presentation, you may want to err on the side of more. Persuasion Strategies recently published a study that was designed to reveal which type of trial presentation strategies were most effective. To answer this question, the study team presented closing arguments to 1,375 mock jurors in a products liability case. All the jurors saw the same version of the plaintiff’s argument but were randomly assigned one of five different defense presentations: (1) no graphics; (2) flip-chart graphics created live; (3) static graphics; (4) animated graphics; and (5) an immersion approach comprised of a mix of static and animated graphics used continuously so that imagery was shown throughout the presentation. The study team concluded that to get the full benefit of visual persuasion the immersive approach worked best. So rather than developing a few isolated slides for just your most important points or evidence, consider incorporating visuals throughout your presentation, particularly in opening and closing statements and when presenting experts.

Silence Is Golden

When presenting an argument orally, you probably know that silence is powerful. When it is intentional, letting silence fill the air for a few seconds after an important point lets it sink in with the listener and adds to the force behind the point. The same is true when presenting visually. When you present a visual, don’t immediately start talking about it. Give the audience a few uninterrupted seconds to digest the visual. This technique is particularly effective when used at the end of a presentation that ends with a dramatic point. Make the dramatic point, then show the slide and say no more. That image, and the associated point, will be seared into the jurors’ and judge’s minds.

Action Is Good

Other than deposition videos and animation reenactments, most litigator’s visuals are presented in static form: two-dimensional representations without movement. Static visuals are presented basically as they were 30 years ago, albeit on a screen instead of a foam board.

Your visuals can be so much more by adding movement and interactivity. Like other visuals, timelines are usually presented as a static picture—what you see on the screen is what you get. Like other types of slides, a timeline can be more than just a static reflection of events.  It can serve as the backdrop for organizing all of the important evidence in closing argument. Within the timeline you can embed the most important pieces of evidence related to the particular event on the timeline. Then as you are discussing the event, you can click on that portion of the timeline to bring up the evidence relating to that portion of the timeline. The jury can then see visually how all of the evidence fits together. One of the benefits of using this approach is its flexibility and fluidity. Even though the evidence is organized temporally, that does not mean you have to proceed that way. You can jump around any way you need to. This can be particularly helpful for rebuttal arguments. 

Interactivity also works well for slides designed around concepts. A litigator could, for example, create a slide focused on damages. Several icons representing the various components of damages could be separated by plus signs followed by an equals sign and the amount of damages requested from the jury. The litigator can then tap the icon to reveal the various pieces of evidence used to support that component of damages.

The possibilities of using interactive slides are limited only by imagination and may be less expensive than you think. See Ken Lopez, 16 PowerPoint Litigation Graphics You Won’t Believe Are PowerPoint, The Litigation Consulting Report (Feb. 4, 2014). Interactive slides will keep your audience interested, and you will come across as polished, credible, and well prepared.

When used correctly, visuals are an indispensable tool in conveying a litigator’s message. They should work in tandem with the oral component of one’s presentation. Visuals that complement the oral message, rather than replace it or duplicate it, increase jurors’ and judges’ understanding of the litigator’s theories and supporting evidence. And when the audience can make sense of the information presented to them and understand how it fits together, they are more likely to become an advocate for your side and help you win your case.

Jeremy T. Brown is with Keating Brown PLLC in Plano, Texas.

Copyright © 2015, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).