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Why Reading Your Litigation PowerPoint Slides Hurts Jurors

Kenneth J. Lopez, J.D.
By: Kenneth J. Lopez, J.D.

Trial Graphics, Litigation Graphics, Trial Presentation, Courtroom Presentations, Psychology, Bullet Points, PowerPoint, Redundancy Effect, Opening


by Ken Lopez
A2L Consulting

I was just painfully reminded of how bad a juror's experience can be when we fail to put them first. Yesterday morning, like many of you recently, I had to complete a continuing education course. It was your typical recorded one-hour one-credit online course. That's one of the slides pictured here.

While listening to the instructor, it struck me that the experience I was having was eerily similar to most opening statements. It lasted about an hour, 119 PowerPoint slides were presented, there were lots of bullet points, almost no actual graphics were used, and the content of the slides was dutifully read to me by a well-spoken middle-aged gentleman.

And it nearly killed me.

You see, even though I have a law degree, I am much more like a typical juror than a typical lawyer. When someone presents to me with the intent of persuading and/or teaching me something, I expect a lot, and boy did this presentation fail to deliver.

I expect compelling visuals, I expect videos, I expect to be entertained, and I expect to hear scenarios and examples that I can imagine experiencing. I am a lot like most jurors, impatient and spoiled by twenty years of information being delivered efficiently online or on television. In learning style terms, I am a somewhat rare dominant-kinesthetic learner with a secondary preference for visual learning. In other words, I prefer to experience something when I am learning it, but if I have to, I am almost equally comfortable seeing it.

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Most jurors are visual learners. Most lawyers are not. Most lawyers prefer to speak when they teach or persuade. Most jurors are wondering why we are not showing them more. The same is true for online training attendees like me, and that experience provides a valuable reminder for litigators, one that most of us can relate to.

Why does reading your litigation PowerPoint slides really cause a problem for people?

When you read a slide, you are actually worse off than if you had either only shown a slide and said nothing or if you had only spoken and shown no slide. This is true for at least two reasons, one is commonsense and the other rooting in neuropsychology.

The commonsense reason is that people read faster than you can speak. On average, people speak at 150 words per minute while people can read 275 words per minute. Unless you want to race against your listeners or properly combine oral and visual methods, it is best to choose one approach or the other.

The other reason one should not read litigation PowerPoint slides is not as obvious. It involves something called the split-attention effect and cognitive load. In plain language, our brains get overloaded when someone tries to show us something and tell us the same thing at the same time. The result is that our brains bounce back and forth between communication mediums and end up retaining and understanding less than they otherwise would have had we used only one method. 

To be clear, the opposite is true too. If we supplement good visual aids, like well-prepared demonstrative evidence, with spoken words, a jury will remember more and understand more than if you had just done either. A recent study [pdf] confirmed this fact.

So, for someone like me, I learned what I needed about conflicts of interest in this online module and earned the requisite certificate in the course, but I was miserable along the way. I was bored, I felt my time was not respected, and I felt that little effort was made to make my experience a good one. If I could have punished my lecturer, I would have, and that is precisely the opposite way you want your jurors to feel, right?

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