Five Tips To Avoid Over-Lawyering Your Trial Graphics

Five Tips To Avoid Over-Lawyering Your Trial Graphics

Over-lawyered trial graphicsOver the past decade, there has been a dramatic increase in the use of visual demonstratives at trial. Attorneys have come to realize that using graphics is a powerful way to help teach and persuade jurors. However, understanding the value of graphics is only the first step; actually creating good trial graphics is a more challenging one.

Part of the challenge in creating effective visuals for use in a courtroom is that many characteristics of strong graphics at trial run counter to all the instincts a lawyer calls upon leading up to trial. A good brief might include extremely nuanced use of language, complex logical exercises (e.g. arguments in the alternative), and detailed explanations of the minutiae of a case (e.g. expert reports).

But a good trial graphic must essentially be the exact opposite: language should be plain and straightforward, arguments should be simple and clear, and the amount of detail that can be communicated is limited.

When it comes to creating trial graphics, sometimes lawyers can be their own worst enemies simply by being–well, too lawyerly. My colleagues at The Focal Point and I design literally thousands of graphics each year; we are constantly in trial, working on anything from simple contract disputes to highly complex patent cases.

Based on this experience, we’ve compiled the following tips to help you avoid the most common mistakes we see lawyers make when designing graphics. These guidelines apply to all trial graphics, whether you are putting together a do-it-yourself PowerPoint or you are working with a graphics consultant to create a state-of-the-art trial presentation.

Tip 1: Less Is More

By far, the No. 1 mistake lawyers make is to add too many words to their the title, to timeline entries, to labels of documents. This impulse probably stems from the fact that graphics are created in silence, but presented with sound.

If jurors were merely going to be handed a printout of the graphic with no oral argument, then all those words might be necessary. But trial graphics aren’t used in a vacuum of silence; they are presented with the sound of the attorney’s explanation.

Good trial graphics work in tandem with your oral presentation to provide a holistic explanation of your case. Unfortunately, too many attorneys use them as if they were teleprompters. At that point, you are either reading a slide-based version of your 25-page brief (leading to boredom and apathy in your audience) or talking over bullet points that don’t match what you are saying (an incongruence that will confuse your audience).

But if you keep your use of text to a minimum of key phrases, the words you include will be given more weight in the minds of your jurors and they will complement, rather than compete with, your verbal presentation.

Tip 2: Emphasizing Everything Means Emphasizing Nothing

Despite your newfound reluctance to add text to your graphics, it is still sometimes necessary to display key passages from documents or deposition transcripts for the judge or jury. And while you may think the entirety of a particular passage is vital to your case and worthy of highlighting, emphasizing the whole quote will not help you communicate the importance of it anymore than not emphasizing any of it would.

The purpose of highlighting is to direct attention to the most important phrase or sentence–the key language you want the jurors to remember from that particular document or testimony. As a rule of thumb, you should never highlight more than half of the text you are displaying, as doing so results in the non-highlighted words standing out more than the highlighted portions.

Furthermore, you can avoid diluting the impact of your best documents by limiting the number of highlighted documents you parade in front of the jurors in succession. You want the jury to remember the facts, not to become lost in a blur of white-black-and-yellow-all-over.

Be especially selective in opening statement and closing argument; if you can bring yourself to forgo showing all of your good documents, your great ones will really shine.

Tip 3: Bigger Is Not Always Better

We live in a culture that often equates size with importance, but you only have a finite amount of screen space available on each graphic. Use size and space to your advantage.

Identify the most important point of the graphic and make it the dominant element on the screen. If you try to maximize every element, the viewer will not know where to focus his or her attention and you will have handicapped your ability to emphasize the parts that truly matter.

You should also include some empty space as breathing room between the various elements of the graphic. Make sure no element is jutting up against another and that there is a sufficient space around the outside edges of a graphic.

The same holds true for text: There should always be adequate margins, line spacing and paragraph spacing, and any text in your graphic should be large enough to be legible from across the courtroom (but never larger than the title font).

Following these simple guidelines will ensure your presentation looks orderly and clean instead of jarring and sloppy.

Tip 4: Bite-Size Pieces Are the Easiest to Digest

At some point in your presentation, it might be necessary to wade through some of the finer details of your case. When you need to impart a lot of complicated facts to your jurors, be conscious of not overwhelming them with too much information at once. (Remember, this is the first time they are hearing any of this information!)

In these situations, it can be immensely helpful to incorporate pacing devices into your presentation. Pacing devices can help you sustain the attention of your jurors without overwhelming them.

For example, rather than showing a cluttered timeline filled with entries, begin with an empty timeline and populate it one entry at a time. Each time an entry is added, your jurors’ eyes will jump to the new information and their interest will be temporarily rekindled. The composite graphic might well be the same (cluttered) timeline that would have overwhelmed them initially, but building it progressively allows the information to be digestible.

Some lawyers initially resist this tool because of the rehearsal time needed to master this type of presentation. But in our years of experience, it is overwhelmingly clear that presentations that use pacing devices in this way are easier to follow and more memorable in the minds of jurors.

Tip 5: Keep It Simple

Trial graphics don’t need to be flashy to be effective. When creating a template for your graphics, you want to take a clean, minimalistic approach. Backgrounds with ornate swirls or semi-transparent photos will only generate visual noise on your graphics and distract from your content.

Similarly, conspicuous gradients or elaborate footers with logos will limit your color options and reduce the amount of usable space on each slide. The background of your graphic should serve as a neutral backdrop that will provide contrast for your other visual elements.

When in doubt, a simple dark, solid-color background with white text will allow for legibility from a distance (think highway exit signs), while also ensuring that highlights, graphs, documents, and other visual elements will pop.

One of the best ways to ensure you are following these guidelines is to test out your presentation on a lay (non-lawyer) audience who knows nothing about your case. Can they follow your presentation, or are they falling behind as they try to read the slides? Are you able to sustain their interest, or are they overwhelmed with the amount of information? When you have finished your presentation, can they identify the key themes, or has your message become diluted?

If your presentation isn’t having the desired impact on your audience, return to your graphics with an unforgiving editing eye and these tips in mind. As we often remind our clients, creating compelling trial presentations is an iterative rather than a linear process. Ultimately, the benefits from this process will be more than worthwhile.


This article originally appeared in IP Law360 on May 25, 2010.

Five Tips To Avoid Over-Lawyering Your Trial Graphics

Appeared in IP Law360

May 25, 2010


G. Christopher Ritter

Chris Ritter is a Senior Strategy Advisor and Jury Consultant at IMS | The Focal Point and has nearly twenty years of experience working as a trial lawyer. An accomplished author, Chris has written three books, published by the American Bar Association.

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Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts has worked with the country’s top trial teams on a wide variety of cases ranging from complex intellectual property litigation to commercial disputes and class-action lawsuits.