Monkeys in Business Suits

“You’re not even listening to me!”

It wasn’t the first time I’d heard that phrase.  I’m sure it won’t be the last time I hear that phrase, either.  And candidly, no, I wasn’t listening to her.  But there’s a pretty good reason why I wasn’t listening…

I wasn’t listening to her because of the monkeys.

Let me explain.  Behind her head and directly in my line of sight was a big screen TV showing an ad for a job search website.  The ad shows a young guy in an office surrounded by monkeys.  The monkeys are dressed in business suits and they’re seated around a conference table, conducting a business meeting.

I love monkeys.

Just once in my life I want to dress a chimpanzee in a business suit, bring him to court, and seat him next to me at counsel table for the entire trial.  (If I can train him to hold a sign that says “Tell Us What Happened Next,” he could even perform a direct examination or two.)  Monkeys in business suits are hilarious.  Probably the only thing funnier than monkeys in business suits are monkeys in spacesuits.  It doesn’t matter how bad your day is, when you see a monkey in a suit, you start laughing.  Monkeys in suits make the world a better place.

So anyway, that’s why I wasn’t listening to her.  I could see the monkeys on the TV, and my mind was immediately distracted.  It wasn’t that I didn’t want to listen to her, and it wasn’t that I meant to ignore her.  It’s just impossible for anyone to compete with the visual image of monkeys in business suits.  When I see a monkey in a business suit, I’m compelled to watch.

If you’re not careful, the same compulsion can harm your presentations.

When you present to an audience, you want them to focus on your message.  Most of the time, your message comes from the words you say and how you say them.  As we improve our presentation skills, however, we’ve started adding more visual imagery to our presentations.  We now show jurors poster-size photos in opening statements, use overhead projectors to zoom in on important portions of documents during testimony, and make dramatic use of PowerPoint during closing argument.

These advances can dramatically improve your presentations.  However, you want to make sure that your visual aids are helping the jurors focus on your message, rather than distracting them from it.

Make sure your visual aid isn’t becoming a monkey in a suit.  Don’t let strong visual aids distract the jury from your message.  The only time they should see your visual aids is when the images emphasize the particular presentation point that you’re making.  If your visual aid emphasizes [A], you don’t want the jury focusing on that image while you’re discussing [B], because they’ll ignore the point you’re trying to make.  Here are three quick tips to prevent visual aids from hijacking the jury’s attention:

1. Don’t show the image to the jury until you’re ready. Once the jurors see your image, their eyes will be irresistibly drawn towards it.  Stack your posters out of the jury’s sight or cover the projector lens until you’re ready to discuss that point.

2. Don’t compete with your images. When you first display the image, give the jurors time to read it to themselves.  If you talk while they’re reading it, they will ignore you.  Read it quietly to yourself twice before you resume speaking, and that should give them enough time to digest the message.

3. Hide the image when you’re done. When you want to direct the jury’s focus back towards you or towards your witness, remove the image from their sightline.  If you’re using PowerPoint, hit the “B” key to turn the screen black (hitting “B” again will return you to your image).  If you’re using a physical prop, completely remove the image from their sightline before moving on to your next subject.

Most of us can only focus on one thing at a time.  Before you start your next presentation, determine when you want the jurors to focus on what you’re saying and when you want them to focus on what you’re showing.  With a little advance planning, you’ll prevent your visual aids from competing with your verbal messages.

And if your visual aid involves monkeys in business suits?  Just forget it — no one can compete with that!

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