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Winning at Trial with a Dynamic PowerPoint Presentation

Applies to: PowerPoint 2007, PowerPoint 2003

Author: Robert Lane and Dr. Stephen Kosslyn

Date Created: July 1st 2009
Last Updated: June 14th 2012

This Wasn’t Part of the Plan
Hey, It’s Not Like That on TV!

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A lot is at stake—power, money, reputation, future plans, justice. You need to win this case. Your presentation materials surely will play an important role in helping the judge and jury experience the sights, sounds, and details of the case … or not. The choice is up to you, says one tech-savvy attorney. It all depends upon whether you are willing to push PowerPoint beyond its normal boundaries to maximize its interactive and persuasive potential.

Robert Lane

Robert Lane is a US-based presentation consultant specializing in visually interactive communication theory and is the author of Relational Presentation, a Visually Interactive Approach. His web site features free demonstration video clips, tutorials, guides, and other resources that further explain the concepts discussed in this article
Bruce A Olson
Bruce A. Olson is President of ONLAW Trial Technologies, LLC, a consulting firm offering trial technology, eDiscovery, and computer forensic services. A trial attorney and nationally recognized legal technologist, Olson is AV rated and Board Certified by the National Board of Trial Advocacy. He is co-author of The Electronic Evidence and Discovery Handbook: Forms, Checklists and Guidelines, published by the American Bar Association. He received the prestigious "TechnoLawyer of the Year 2002" @ Award, from TechnoLawyer, and was Chair of ABA Techshow 2004, Vice Chair of ABA Techshow 2003, and served on the Techshow Board of Directors from 2000-2004.

This Wasn’t Part of the Plan

Figure 1

On a crisp winter’s day, Bruce climbed the courthouse stairs and walked toward his assigned courtroom, a ritual he had repeated many times before throughout his career as a trial lawyer. Soon a jury would hear opening statements. Bruce was well prepared, as usual, to walk them through a carefully arranged PowerPoint presentation—a typical series of linear slides summarizing the case. Everything seemed in order and under control. That’s when a surprise hit.

Bruce: “We’d picked a jury in the morning, and opening statements started after lunch. I’d made it part way through my opening when I realized I was starting to lose the jury—they were dozing off. Opening after lunch is always difficult. To wake them up, I really needed to move up the most important slides from the end where I’d initially placed them for a strong finish. I also needed to drop a number of slides on the fly to shorten the presentation. Given the way I’d structured my PowerPoint show, though, I was stuck. All I could do was talk loudly and click rapidly through the slides to get to the end so I could re-engage the jury’s interest.

”While I was generally a fan of PowerPoint, it clearly had its limitations in court, or so I’d been led to believe. As a result, I always exercised caution when using it at trial. The software’s linear design worked well for sequential, predictable messages such as opening and closing arguments, but I hadn’t learned a way to use it to address unpredictable events like sleeping jurors. Situations like that don’t fit into convenient little predictable boxes. They are messy and random—and most aspects of litigation are like that. How could PowerPoint possibly address such complexity?


Hey, It’s Not Like That on TV!

“Another factor caused me to further worry about PowerPoint’s appropriateness to litigation, a phenomenon I refer to as the CSI Effect. Movies and television shows like CSI condition us to expect visual clues on a regular basis to help fill in information gaps. Suddenly we are taken back in time to see a gunshot, hear a victim’s scream, get a zoomed-in view of a blood speck on a carpet, or a thousand other timely bits of information needed to solve the mystery of how the crime was committed. Those clues allow us to mentally piece together what really happened.

“Granted, such television dramas have little relationship to real life, but that doesn’t seem to matter with many jurors these days. They almost expect trial lawyers to act like CSI characters, pulling up just the right pictures, video clips, and sounds, at the right moments, to support their points. Words alone are not enough. A subconscious thought demands: ‘Show it to me like they do on TV so I can decide if he really did it or not.’ There is a huge difference between rebutting an argument with a statement like, ‘That’s impossible,’ compared to ‘That’s impossible … and let me show you why.’ The latter response taps into a CSI expectation of seeing evidence when it’s most relevant.

“A lawyer who can’t satisfy this media-enhanced expectation to at least some degree risks losing jurors’ interest and concentration. Just having that information gathering dust somewhere in a long slide show is not enough, either. Details must be available at a moment’s notice, regardless of context, to provide jurors with what could turn out to be a pivotal clue. In that instant of relevant display, they realize, ‘Ah! Now that makes sense.’

“Again, in the past I would have thought, ‘PowerPoint for more than openings or closings? Are you kidding?’ I have a different perspective today.”


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