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August 2000

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Litigation Spotlight

Making the Right Impression

By Samuel H. Solomon

Litigation Spotlight: Making the Right ImpressionIF A JOB candidate walks into your office wearing mismatched, ill-fitting clothing, what is your first impression? If she answers each of your questions with boisterous, long-winded speeches, would you continue the interview?

Appearances and first impressions count in everything we do. For people, this is defined by body language and affect. In trial work, first impressions can be influenced by the visual aids you use to help "sell" your case.

Studies consistently show that visually reinforced information is easier to understand and remember. As a result, when litigators present visual aids, trials progress more quickly, saving money and time for courts, attorneys, and their clients. And when visual aids are during mediation, issues emerge early, with increased clarity, helping the parties assess risks and benefits.

Do It Yourself

You don't need to spend huge budgets nor outsource to develop creative, effective visual aids. Microsoft Corp.'s PowerPoint dominates the marketplace for software that can be used, even by novices, to create visual "slide shows" and displays. But there are many other presentation programs available, including Slides & Sound Plus, AppleWorks, ASAP WordPower, Corel Presentations 9, and Astound 6.0.

For newcomers, there are instruction books that can guide you through the creation process step-by-step. More experienced users may want to try some of the software designed to enhance the basic PowerPoint software.

All of these programs help you create "slide shows" that can be displayed on monitors, projected onto screens, or printed onto paper or transparencies. Typically, lawyers will use these tools to create "bullet" lists, or to display pictures, documents, charts or even animation. These visual aids can be used in presentations, or in courtroom settings to amplify witness testimony or other verbal communication.

Here are some tips on how to make effective use of these visual aids:

1. Less is Sometimes More

Identify the informational needs of the judge or jury, and plan your visual aids carefully. Good design adds clarity, rather than complexity, to an unfamiliar group of facts or events. By contrast, decorative templates, splashy colors and special effects, used poorly, can distract and obscure the facts. If the phrases on the page are too wordy, the viewer will lose interest.

All aspects of a slide's appearance, including color, text, graphics, and labeling of images, must deliver a single, consistent message.

Nuances of design are equal in importance to the words themselves. If subliminal cues are not consistent with the overall message, they can confuse (and even irritate) the jury.

2. Content is King

A visual aid is only as good as the facts it represents. If your case is weak, or your themes are poorly developed, they will not be strengthened significantly by a fancy slide. Do not underestimate the sophistication of your audience. They can separate fluff from facts. Respect your viewers and they will respond by giving your information thoughtful consideration.

3. One Question

Each of your slides should address one question. A slide that attempts to focus on more than one issue will confuse viewers. Rather than decipher its meaning, jurors will simply discount it.

Titles of charts should define the question you intend to answer. Content should meet that expectation.

If a graphic does not educate, and merely looks pretty, it does not belong on the screen. The purpose of your presentation is to communicate facts efficiently. Meaningless pictures or phrases waste valuable learning energy.

4. Pictures v. Text:

Consider the following testimony:

"The car chased the truck two blocks up Elm Street to the corner of 47th Street, turned right and continued for two miles to the stop sign at 2nd Avenue, where it ran the stop sign and hit an old woman."

Will the jury remember all of these details? It helps to use a "blow-up" board with a street map to mark the route of the chase. Even more powerful: use PowerPoint, and slowly reveal the path of the vehicles as the witness testifies. Include a picture of the intersection. A photograph of the pedestrian as the witness describes the woman who was injured.

5. Short, Clear Phrases

Imagine if you were driving along the highway at 65 miles per hour, and the traffic signs were written in prose. Would you want the sign to read:

The best exit to take to get to 49th street is coming up in approximately 2.5 miles on the left side of the road?

Or, would you prefer 49th St., left lane, 2.5 miles? Visual aids are like road signs; they give direction and should cut directly to the point. Extra words waste time and blur memory.

6. Fonts

Think once again of that road sign. Imagine if it were written in decorative script. Would you be able to read it? Keep it simple, and clean. Use san serif fonts, such as Arial or Helvetica. These are clear and comfortable to the eye. Highlight key phrases. This helps the jury to stay focused and alert. Do not highlight full paragraphs. They are to difficult to read from the monitor.

7. Color

Color has subliminal meaning in most societies; its own language. In the U.S., would you expect a stop sign to be purple? Green is go, yellow is caution, red is stop or danger.

Imagine a bar graph with eight rainbow colors, one for each bar. Do the colors tell the jurors anything important? Not likely. In contrast, had all but one of the bars on the graph been green, the other being red, what assumptions could you make about the significance of the red bar?

8. Rehearse

Be comfortable with the design or 'personality' of your digital presentation. Just as people have different styles of dressing, and feel awkward in clothes that are not consistent with their self-image, you will appear awkward if try to deliver a presentation that does not integrate well with your personal style.

9. Pacing

One of the most powerful features of slide shows is the ability to teach detail slowly and methodically. A good story unfolds one fact at a time.

Let each new fact build on the credibility of the last, and support the overall message. Give your audience the time to absorb each fact.

If you reveal a complete list of bullets at once, the jury will read the list rather than listen to your explanations. Revelation lets you control the learning process.

10. The Other Witness

Similarly, consider when the monitors should not display an image. Suppose you have a very credible witness whose testimony is critical to understanding your case. If you do not have slides to support that testimony, leave the screen blank.

Do not reveal your next slide or people will naturally read it, rather than listen to the testimony of your expert. On the other hand, if your witness makes a weak appearance, you may choose to allow the distraction, diverting attention away from the speaker.

A persuasive presentation delivers a consistent message in all of its aspects. Appearances are important. Clumsy appearance delivers a clumsy message. A well-tailored presentation is authoritative, and credible. A presentation enhanced by persuasive demonstrative offers the competitive edge necessary to prevail in legal proceedings.

Samuel H. Solomon is the CEO of DOAR, headquartered in Rockville Centre, N.Y. He is co-author of PowerPoint for Litigators, published by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy.

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