In trial, be visual: technology makes it easier than ever
“To see is to believe,” we hear quite often. For trial lawyers today, it’s an important message to keep in mind. Visual aids work wonders in the courtroom and thanks to the myriad technologies offered today, creating a visual impact has never been easier.
As a longtime Baltimore trial lawyer I regularly use visual aids ranging from simple charts and diagrams sketched on an easel to multifaceted PowerPoint presentations. The combination of high-tech imagery and low-tech witness examination often creates vivid, lasting memories in the minds of jurors. As technology has evolved, there are now even more ways to show exhibits in a courtroom. Keep in mind, however, that it is not sophistication that counts but how well the imagery persuades.
Studies indeed show that people are more likely to believe what they see than what they hear, but different people process information in different ways. With that in mind, it is best to vary your visuals so that your message is fully received, in one version or another, by each of your listeners. Some individuals are most receptive to logical and straightforward information – best expressed in charts, graphs and technical exhibits. Others benefit most from comparisons, stories, examples and familiar analogies. Photos and more vivid images may be a better conduit of information for this latter group. Increasingly, judges and younger jurors are far more accustomed to visual images than are older baby boomers, so it is more important than ever to maximize your use of visuals and their variety.
Remember, even with a heavy use of visual aids, uniformity and monotony will reduce their impact. Your challenge is to capture and hold your listeners’ attention throughout your arguments. After an hour of videotape, for example, move into a colorful, high-tech PowerPoint presentation, and follow that with information on a chart that you highlight using a manual pointer. The art of balancing demonstrative aids and testimony can be comparable to directing a play or film. When you show the evidence, how you display it and what you say about it play a role in how effective you will be.
As is true with the presentation of any evidence, the use of exhibits in argument should be strategic. Consider whether to use exhibits that already exist and were introduced as evidence during the trial as well as exhibits created solely to enhance your argument. In a contract dispute, for example, the written contract constitutes not only the formal embodiment of the agreement of the parties at the time but also concrete evidence of the parties’ true intent. You can argue effectively that it is not necessary to rely solely on the plaintiff’s present recollection of events surrounding the execution of the contract. Instead, you can find in the actual contract a record of the parties’ intent. You may, however, need to create a new exhibit for that contract to have maximum impact: Would a model or reproduction help hit the mark? Would a timeline help make the alleged sequence of events easier to follow?
Though most courtrooms today have projectors, monitors and other devices at the ready for attorneys to use, it is always advisable to meet with the judge’s law clerk or the court’s technology advisor to discuss in advance your technology needs, both generally and logistically. Details such as where a projector and monitor should be positioned for optimal juror viewing, and where best to set up your other demonstrative aids for maximum impact, are best planned out well in advance.
Another thing to consider as you iron out your visual aids is how to respond if opposing counsel seeks to use your exhibits. You may or may not find it appropriate to accede to the request. Your opponent might effectively discount or reverse the power of your exhibits and use them to his or her own advantage. On the other hand, you might appear ungracious or petty to the jury if you were to refuse. Therefore, discuss in advance how your opponent may use your exhibits. One of the advantages of PowerPoint or other downloadable presentations is that they are controlled from your laptop computer. When you are finished with your argument, you can turn off your computer and return to your seat. Rarely would opposing counsel gather the courage at that point to ask if he or she could use your laptop.
Finally, despite the numerous advances in technology and their ease of use, always come prepared for the worst. Be sure to have a backup copy of all your presentations, and make sure you have an appropriate programmer or technical advisor on hand in case something requires immediate attention. Know your visuals sufficiently so that you can face the jury while you present, and not focus your attention solely on the demonstration at hand.
Keep in mind that though demonstrative aids can be a powerful weapon in your arsenal, American juries can quickly become cynical if the gloss is stronger than the message you are conveying. High-tech presentations can be and should be used to support your argument, not detract from it.