Adding Power to Courtroom Presentations

Powerpoint PresentationThe lights dim, and the first slide appears. You think to yourself, “Oh no, another boring PowerPoint presentation.” Unless the presentation includes some interactive elements, such as an interactive map (perhaps sourced from show map) or videos, presentations can be very uninteresting. The first line of text soars in from the left, each character twirling and dancing across the screen. You count eleven bullet points on the first screen (the shortest of which is sixteen words long). The second slide is even more confusing. The third is a picture of his kids. Fortunately, the room is dark, so no one notices as you start to fall asleep…

Why are most PowerPoint presentations so dreadful? When was the last time you saw a presentation that was actually enhanced by PowerPoint? The reason PowerPoint decimates the effectiveness of most presentations is because the presenters don’t understand how or why to use it. Any lawyer who is planning to use it to illustrate points in their argument should partake in some powerpoint training first, because in the courtroom, PowerPoint can be a tremendous addition to your trial skills toolbox. This article will give you tips for improving your presentations, both inside and outside the courtroom.

The purpose of PowerPoint. PowerPoint is a supplement to, not a substitute for, your courtroom presentation. PowerPoint allows you to add visual imagery to your arguments, but slides aren’t the reason why the jurors came to your presentation. If PowerPoint presentations were that effective, you could stay home and just email the jurors a copy of your slides. The substance of the message comes from the presenter, not the slides. Once you accept this philosophy, your PowerPoint presentations will dramatically improve.

Guidelines for creating slides. Too many PowerPoint presentations become garbled and confusing because the presenter tries to cram too many ideas onto a single slide or uses every tool available from the Custom Animations toolbox. Follow these guidelines to minimize confusion and enhance understanding in your next PowerPoint presentation.

  • One main point per slide. Slides are cheap (free, actually) so you don’t need to cram multiple points on a single slide. If you’re making an important point, give it a slide of its own.
  • Keep it simple. Step 10′ away from your monitor and look at your slide. Does the main point jump out at you? Is it immediately clear to you? If not, you may have too much information on the slide.
  • Use spell check. Check your presentation before you get to the room. Spelling errors can ruin an otherwise professional presentation.
  • Font selection. Don’t use bizarre fonts – no one can read them. Stick with traditional, sans-serif fonts (ex. Impact, Helvetica, Arial) – they are easier for your audience to read. Also, use a large type size (40 pt or higher) for easier comprehension. If you must go outside of these, look for free fonts for commercial use for your presentation and keep in mind that clear is best.
  • Make it easy on the eye. Your text should stand out from the background. Can you easily read the slide from the back of the room? Yellow text on a dark blue background works well, and so does black text on white, but experiment to find the color scheme that works best for you, your message, and your audience.
  • Use images. Avoid PowerPoint’s standard clip art – everybody’s seen it. (How many times have you seen the picture of the man hitting his desk or the guy with the light bulb over his head?) Instead, use pictures. Search the web for royalty free stock photography, or use a digital camera to create your own. Be conservative in the number and style of images you choose. PowerPoint is a great tool for showing the jurors photos, exhibits, or documents as they are admitted into evidence, but the rules of evidence still apply. Make sure that your exhibits have been admitted before you present them to the jury.
  • Keep a design template for each slide. Avoid the standard design templates that come with PowerPoint – everyone recognizes them. Create your own design template. Maybe you want to put your name, logo, or company name on each slide. If your firm does numerous presentations for the community, it may be worth the investment to hire a graphic designer to create a template for your slides.

Guidelines for presenting. Even well designed slides can’t communicate your message if you present them poorly.

  • Avoid silly text animations or transitions. Admit it. You hate those stupid wipes, slides, and swirls between slides. You hate it when the text “types” out one word at a time or flies in from random corners of the slide. So does your audience. Minimize the custom animation effects and focus your attention on the substance of your slides.
  • Don’t read the slides to your audience. Assume your audience is smart. Let them read the slide to themselves. If they’re too dumb to read the slide, they probably can’t grasp the points you’re trying to communicate anyway. To make sure they have enough time to digest the information, read it to yourself, quietly, at least twice.
  • Can everyone see it? Get to the courtroom early so you can look at the screen from various spots in the jury box. If you can’t see the screen, rearrange the room layout so that all of your jurors can see the screen.
  • No shadow puppets. Don’t walk between the projector and the screen – it distracts the audience.
  • Don’t compete with the slides. If you’ve finished discussing the information on the slide and don’t want the slide to draw away the audience’s attention while you speak, dim the screen. Hit “B” to turn the screen black, or “W” to turn the screen white.
  • Burn a copy “for the record.” Consider how a PowerPoint will look for the appellate court. Many guilty verdicts have been overturned because of prosecutorial mistakes during closing argument, and some substantial verdicts have been overturned on appeal because of improper closing arguments. To ensure a complete record for the appellate courts, consider burning a CD or printing out a hard copy of your (or your opponent’s) presentation and adding it to the court record. Whether it’s in the courtroom or in the appellate courts, the record is important because… “If they can’t see it… they can’t see it!”
  • Have a backup plan. Sooner or later, it’s going to happen. The computer will crash, the projector won’t work, a virus will eat your presentation… Whatever happens, have a backup plan and be prepared to present without your slides. When the substance of your message comes from you, not your slides, you’ll deliver a powerful presentation, with, or even without, your PowerPoint slides.

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