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Bethany Auck is the founder and creative director of SlideRabbit, a presentation design firm. We ask her how attorneys can give better visual presentations.

What are some of the biggest mistakes you see attorneys make in presentations?

The number one mistake is definitely too much text. Text on a slide is really tempting for a lot of attorneys, because they can use it partially as their notes and their script, and I think that they do believe that the words are being read by the jurors. But actually brain function won't allow jurors to process both what the attorney is saying and read the words. Language, whether it's spoken or written, is processed in the auditory cortex, so jurors are actually just experiencing some serious sensory overload in that cortex. A better approach would be to include some large graphic representations, whether they be diagrams or just stock photos or a large image. That way you're activating the jurors' visual cortex and leaving the auditory cortex to focus on the spoken word.

One of my personal pet peeves is clichés. I wrote recently about the tendency for attorneys especially to use the phrase “red herring.” But it's not limited just to red herrings. All clichés are so nestled into our colloquial language that they don't do the work that attorneys, and speakers in general, would hope that they'll do, which is that that metaphor is still a working metaphor. When people say “work as hard as a dog” or something like that, the brain just interprets that literally. It doesn't say, "Oh my gosh, they were working so hard that they were panting like a dog." That connection is lost at this point because the phrase is so overused.

What are your principles of good design?

One thing I definitely like to push my clients toward is creating a roadmap slide. This will force attorneys to think of their opening statement or their witness exam or their closing in sections or buckets of concepts. This is easier for the audience to remember because "chunking" is something that our brain does naturally when it's trying to put information away and file it. So the more you can do that work for the jury ahead of time, the better.

I also think it's important to stay away from clip art if at all possible, so it's good to invest in at least some professional help. People know the level of resources that go into a trial, so you should not come into court with slides that clearly were prepared by someone with very little design or even PowerPoint training. The professionalism of the slides really comes across to the jury. I've heard that in mock juries before.

One of the most important things you can do to grab attention and seat your arguments in the audience's memory is to stir emotions. Primal feelings awaken a different part of our brain – especially fear, but also protectiveness, like maternal protectiveness – those are such primal feelings that they become extra-memorable for our brains.

That's a good argumentation tactic and also a good design tactic: when something is supposed to be scary, you'd better make it look scary.

What do attorneys need to keep in mind about design specifically when presenting to a jury as opposed to for instance leading a seminar?

With juries especially, it's really important to simplify, simplify, simplify. The more slides you have that have one concept only, whether it be one large pie chart or one large image, that is what you need to keep the attention of a jury, because as soon as those eyes glaze over, you've lost them, and that's going to happen pretty soon as soon as things start to get complex. Juries are captive audiences, but that doesn't mean that their attention spans are also captive.

You say your design is based in cognitive science theories, and you mentioned that language is only processed in one area of the brain. How else do those theories come into play?

What I try to do is learn as much as I can about how the brain functions in normal memorization and persuasion situations and then apply those concepts to graphics. So for instance, there is the concept of working memory, which is where ideas are being molded. That's where you're most open to persuasion. The problem with working memory is that it only holds five-to-nine pieces of information at a time. That's where chunking becomes really important, because you've got to make sure that you're chunking your information into groups that are bite-size, somewhere in the five-to-nine pieces of information range, and then working with that set of information to persuade, to explain, to conclude, before moving on and then working with another piece. That is really important to graphics because it's very tempting to get all of the information you can onto a slide, but that's actually the wrong approach. One point per slide is optimal.

Bethany is happy to count among her clients companies like Exxon, Starbucks and Ernst & Young. She has worked closely with many AmLaw 100 firms, including Winston & Strawn, Kirkland & Ellis and McDermott Will & Emery. For more information about SlideRabbit, visit www.sliderabbit.com or call 773.672.7219.

About Author

Brendan Conley is a staff contributor to Bigger Law Firm Magazine and legal content developer for law firms throughout the United States.

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