I use PowerPoint in my law practice more often than Microsoft Word.  Word processing tools are for preparing documents for people to read and understand; I use presentation tools like PowerPoint when I want people to see and understand.  PowerPoint isn’t a word processor; it’s a visual presentation tool.  You can fill slides with text as you might a word-processed document, but when you do, you’re killing the power of PowerPoint.

Text documents speak for themselves.  Presentations benefit from a narrator, i.e., you sharing your message.  An effective presentation supports your message.  It’s your ally and must not be your competitor.  The human brain cannot simultaneously read text and listen to words because both tasks draw on the same cognitive capability.  When we ask an audience to read text and hear words, text doesn’t reinforce the words; it competes with them.  Our language centers are overwhelmed trying to process both.  The result is a breakdown in comprehension and retention.  That breakdown is worst when a presentation proceeds at the brisk pace required to hold the attention of younger listeners.  And we need our audience’s attention! Attention is the hardest thing to grab and hang onto in this time of ubiquitous screens and constant connection.

We’ve all experienced someone talking to us as we try to read a document.  It’s rude, and makes it tough to follow the document or the conversation.  When handing a document to a judge, savvy advocates know to shut up and let the document do the talking.

Why then, do so many fine advocates insist on reading the text on their slides to the audience?

A savvy presenter knows not to speak when listeners are reading slides and limits the amount of text onscreen.  An effective presentation is Show and Tell, not Speak and Spell.  An effective presentation doesn’t stand alone; it needs a narrative.

This is heresy.  Most presenters build slide decks to suffice as handouts (NO!!) and present them by reading aloud that text which the listeners have already read or are struggling to plow through.  This is Death by PowerPoint, and it’s the reason so many presentations are far less effective and memorable than they could be.

PowerPoint in Trial?  Not So Much.

When I started using PowerPoint thirty-odd years ago, it was hard and costly to use visual persuasion in court.  Courtrooms weren’t well-equipped for presentation and old-school judges took a dim view of innovative techniques they worried might slow proceedings or inject error.  But I used them anyway, and greatly benefited.  Today, going to trial or a key hearing without a compelling visual presentation is going underprepared.  Judges like good visuals, and jurors need them.  Today, the presentation tools are right at hand in modern courtrooms.  Yet, even as we focus on visual presentation in court, the reality is that only a handful of disputes today are decided in courtrooms.  Most are resolved in settings unconstrained by the rules of evidence, making it more important that your presentation be engaging and informative than evidentiary.  Accordingly, it’s fine to use, say, stock photography, sound and even music, if the effect will be to get and hold focus so you can instruct and persuade.  Cases settle because one side fears an outcome more than the other.  When you are seeking to persuade an opponent to settle, it’s sensible to use and underscore emotion.  Few things do that as well as images, sounds and music.

As my practice gravitated from trial to teaching, testifying and consulting, I am less constrained by strict rules of evidence in framing my presentations.  I use richer media and more creative and provocative imagery, and I strive to use visual persuasion everywhere.  Whether you are presenting in a courtroom or in more free-wheeling settings, you need never eschew visual persuasion.  If you follow a few simple rules, it will always improve comprehension and retention of your message.

  1. Use Pictures to Persuade: Persuasion is telling a story the listener takes as true.  When you tell that story in pictures, you free the speech center of the listener’s brain to hear your words, and you empower the visual cortex to forge connections between the story and the memories and emotions conjured up by the images.  Instead of fighting to reconcile the written and spoken word, the visual and language cortices pull together, each reinforcing the other.  No doubt there is a pithy biochemical explanation for why this works; but all we need know is that it works.  It works really, really well.
  2. Follow the Five Second Rule: I won’t use a slide that takes more than a few seconds to apprehend.  If you must use text to make a point, never use more text than an average reader can read and understand in five seconds, tops.  That doesn’t mean spreading loads of text over many slides and clicking through like mad.  Make the point verbally, as narrator, at your own pace.  Text on the slide merely anchors a point and provides essential context.  Don’t ask it to do more.  Using just an image or a single word injects tension and prompt listeners to forge their own connections between the visual and the message.  The connections built of a listener’s curiosity are sturdy.  We better retain what we think through than what we are told.  If you can make the point with no text at all, do it.  The words come from you.  Use the screen for imagery.
  3. Fill the Slide: Don’t be afraid to give over the entire slide to your image.  Too many presenters leave room for text even when there’s little or no text.  We are so conditioned to treat images as adjuncts to the written word those images too often get added as little rectangles floating in a sea of dead space.  Don’t do it!  Use images of sufficient resolution that can be stretched to fill the screen without pixilation.  I’m fond of using solid areas of images for whatever bit of text I include.  Feel free to get creative with the image, using just a section or changing its orientation.  I sometimes add subtle movement to images using the Morph transition or motion path animation or a grow/shrink enhancement to take advantage of the fact that our primal survival senses are intensely attuned to movement.  It draws our attention, even when the movement is almost imperceptible.
  4. PowerPoint is not a Teleprompter: Presenters lard their slides with tons of text when they’re afraid they won’t otherwise remember what they want to say.  That’s lazy, but it’s also foolish, because it guarantees that your message won’t come across as clearly or stick as firmly.  Trust me: If you know your stuff, it won’t take more than one well-chosen image or word to trigger your recollection of everything you want to say.  If you need notes, use them or use the Speaker Notes feature of PowerPoint; but, be warned:  Audiences have a low tolerance for presenters reading to them.  While it’s acceptable to read a sentence or two, most people would rather hear your narration in a relaxed, conversational way.  Nothing belies your competence quite like reading a presentation.
  5. Bullet Points Don’t Wrap: I despise bullet points and strive not to use them. But, when I must use a bulleted list, I follow the ironclad rule that bullet points don’t wrap.  No “buts.”  No “what ifs?”  Never!  If any item in a bulleted list is so long that it won’t fit on a single line, it’s not a bullet point, and it’s got to go.
  6. Make It Big; Make It Flow: The presentation viewers can’t read is no better than the speech they can’t hear.  Never put text on a slide that you expect viewers to read unless it at least 24 points in size.  Bigger is better.  Don’t fudge on this.  You should be able to read the text on a slide when in slide sorter mode. 

A slide presentation doesn’t have to “feel” like a PowerPoint.  I’m flattered when people come up and ask me what program I used to present.  They’re shocked when I respond, “just PowerPoint.”  Use transitions and backgrounds to smooth the flow between slides and eliminate jarring segues.  A simple fade is sufficient; but I’m a huge fan of the Morph transition in PowerPoint that enables objects, words and text to re-assemble before the viewers’ eyes.  It’s slick; so, use “slick” with care and subtlety.  The transition should help the flow, not interrupt it.  Morph is also terrific for enlarging sections of images or documents.  It handles all of the calculations required for smoothly animating between slides called “tweening.”

But, Wait!  There’s More: PowerPoint does much more in my practice than just serve as a presentation tool.  I use its powerful screen capture and video editing tools to obtain and tweak imagery.  I use it to fashion sophisticated animations, and its powerful suite of drawing and photo-manipulation tools support extensive customization of images.  The drawing tools are handy when I need to crop an image, remove a background or convert vector graphics to pictures.  It’s also a convenient, adaptable canvas to paste to when capturing screen shots.