Tips for Effective Use of PowerPoint

Excerpted and adapted from PowerPoint in One Hour for Lawyers by Paul J. Unger, now available from the ABA Law Practice Division.

Don’t Overuse PowerPoint

No technology replaces the vividness of one’s own imagination! You do not need a graphic or slide for every single thought or idea. This can water down your message and overload the jury with verbal and visual information. Always ask yourself, “Does this slide advance the ball, or is it better to state the information?”

Don’t Misuse PowerPoint

PowerPoint’s misuse is a nationwide epidemic. Critics of PowerPoint, like Edward R. Tufte, say that the program itself facilitates the making of bad presentations. Moreover, Tufte claims that PowerPoint “stupefies” our culture by encouraging fragmented thinking through bullet points and linear slides, further diminishing our attention span, and feeding us heaping spoonfuls of graphic sugar.While I see Tufte’s point, I think PowerPoint is just a tool that humans use or misuse. When a tailor sews a crooked seam, should we blame the sewing machine? If a presenter has poor content and bad graphics or does not communicate clearly, should we blame PowerPoint? The bottom line is that if used properly, PowerPoint is an extremely effective tool to deliver information to our fast-paced world.

Speak with Passion, Not PowerPoint

One critic recently asked, “Could you imagine if Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech using PowerPoint?” If your goal is to persuade and motivate, then give a speech and scale back on the use of PowerPoint or other computer graphics. If your goal is to persuade and educate, then it is OK to use PowerPoint if you use it correctly.

Use Plain English in Your Speech and Graphics

Use plain English that everyone understands. This is still one of the biggest mistakes that lawyers make. Instead of saying, “This litigation is before us today because the defendant failed to exercise ordinary care in his relation¬ship as a physician with the plaintiff, and such failure was the proximate cause of the plaintiff’s damages,” simply say, “A doctor must do what other doctors would do in a similar situation.” Cut the jargon out of your pre¬sentations and say things an average person would understand.

Use PowerPoint to Educate the Jury in Voir Dire and Opening Statement

Jurors are pretty street-smart, but when it comes to science and numbers, you may want to provide some tutoring up front! It is estimated that, sadly, less than half of the jury will have math skills better than performing basic one-step calculations. Create a visual glossary to explain terms that will be used in the trial.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your expert will educate the jury for you. Make a road map for the jury so they can spend more time on understanding and analyzing your expert’s position than on learning a new complex vocabulary.

Have Strong Content in Your Spoken Words, Slides, and Written Materials

PowerPoint cannot mask the fact that a case or a presentation stinks. Edward Tufte argues in his essay The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint that it is easy to let PowerPoint shorten evidence and thought; organize complex information in a single-path model template; break up narrative and data into minimal fragments; decorate and fluff a slide show with format, not content; and promote an attitude of commercialism that turns everything into a sales pitch. All of these “evils” diminish content. I have personally witnessed thousands of good and bad presentations, and content and clear delivery dictated their success . . . not PowerPoint.

Don’t Dilute Your Message with Too Many Bullet Point Lists

Bullet point lists are overused and are too verbose, but that doesn’t mean they should never be included. If done properly, they can be a helpful tool.

I recommend a minimal number of bullet point slides; when cre¬ating them, think of the bullet points as headlines or titles about a main thought or idea (see Figure 2.2). The substance behind the bullet point is delivered orally and/or in written materials (or trial exhibits). The key to making bullet points effective is to use them sparingly.

An example of using bullet points effectively would be to have a slide that summarizes a witness’s key testimony in the form of headline bullet points animated to appear one point at a time. This is a good format if used occasionally. Furthermore, a juror would be able to listen to the presenter and also comprehend the bullet points because the slide isn’t too much to reconcile with the spoken word.

Focus on Clear Delivery

Steps to Creating a Successful Presentation Supplemented by PowerPoint
1. Develop excellent content and handout materials.
2. Practice the clear delivery of that content.
3. Prepare your PowerPoint storyboard slides based on what you need in steps 1 and 2.
4. Practice, revise, practice, revise, and practice with the technology!

Steps to Creating a Bad Presentation Supplemented by PowerPoint
1. Prepare your PowerPoint slides.
2. Speak from your PowerPoint slides.

PowerPoint can fragment the presentation of thoughts and data if you let it. Any visual aids can fragment a presentation if you don’t “own it psychologically” and know how to transition smoothly through your visuals. This is why you should first write or outline the content of your speech. The second step is to focus on practicing its clear delivery. The last step should be to create your PowerPoint slides based on what you need for the content and delivery. In other words, think about what visuals can best help you clearly tell your story, and then use PowerPoint or other tools to build and present those visuals. The story comes before the storyboards. The storyboards then build your PowerPoint.

If the Slide Is a Distraction, You Are Missing the “Point”!

The whole purpose of PowerPoint is to make a point—not a distraction. Avoid the overuse of animation, sound effects, and cheesy backgrounds. This is what gives PowerPoint a bad name! Animations and bad flashy backdrops can be very distracting, which obviously diminishes your presentation and your credibility. This doesn’t mean that your presentation shouldn’t look like a million bucks. Hire an artist to create an original background that is professional looking and that no one else has seen. Pick one or two effects to bring in text and graphics, and stick with just those effects. I recommend the “fade” effect. It is very professional, tasteful, and not at all distracting.

Unless you are just starting to use PowerPoint, try to avoid the standard design templates. Most people have seen these templates and graphics dozens of times, if not more. Try to create graphics that give you a unique and professional brand. A great way to do this is to contact a local art school and hire a student. Tell the school that you are looking to create a PowerPoint backdrop for your company’s presentations. Ask the student to create a JPG and then to produce a theme or POTX template that you can load into your PowerPoint templates folder.

Here are some other excellent sources for PowerPoint design templates:

1. Digital Juice is a suite of thousands of PowerPoint backdrops and royalty-free graphics, clip art, sounds, and animation.
2. Microsoft Office  publishes free templates that you can download.
3. Sonia Coleman’s Digital Studio has a nice library of free templates and tutorials.

Design, Color, and Layout Are Important

Design conservatively and with professionalism. Most of the time you should use darker backgrounds (such as dark blue, green, etc.) and high-contrasting color text (such as white, yellow, etc.). A white back¬ground is OK, but if you don’t know what you are doing, it can be too bright. Also remember to be color-blind friendly. One in ten people have problems interpreting color. Avoid the combined use of red and green, green and yellow, and blue and yellow.

Does Color Matter?

Yes, color does matter, but only in the sense that the presentation must appear professional. My real-life experience, backed by focus group research, indicates that as long as the slide is professional in appearance and easy to read/see (admittedly, a subjective standard), jurors don’t care if it has a green, blue, or black background. Furthermore, my research has shown that color used in a PowerPoint slide show in the context of a trial does not affect memory retention. Jurors pay more attention to the merits of the case and delivery than to the aesthetics of a slide presentation. Although the failure to use PowerPoint or some other visual memory-reinforcing aid may affect memory retention, color generally doesn’t make a significant impact.

The exception to this is when you deviate from a color scheme. Say you use white text on a blue background in a twenty-slide presentation, but you decide to use yellow text on a blue background on the tenth slide. That will indeed have a positive impact on memory retention. However, it could easily be argued that the same effect could be accomplished by changing the font or underlining.

Does Size Matter? Remember 8H!

Text not clearly readable by everyone adds frustration and creates a distraction. I’ve seen too many presenters say, “You may not be able to read this, but . . .” If that is the case, then why even show the slide?

One old rule of thumb in the presentation industry is called the 8H rule of legibility. The rule was developed as a guideline when 35 mm slides were in use, and it goes like this: if you can read an image from eight times its height, odds are that everyone will be able to read it when projected.

In those days, if you could read a 35 mm slide, which was 1 inch in height, from 8 inches away, that slide would be legible under most presentation conditions.

Translated to today’s world, if your computer screen is 10 inches in height, scoot away from your screen 80 inches. If you can read the image on the screen, then everyone in an audience should probably be able to see it when it’s projected.

In practical terms, that means you should never go below 11-point type. I think 18 is a safer number, but obviously 22 or 24 gives you extra wiggle room in case the presentation screen is a little smaller and farther away than you expected.

Use Fonts That Are Easy to Read

Avoid Courier and Times New Roman fonts. Instead use fonts like Calibri, Twentieth Century Monotype, Tahoma, Arial, and Helvetica. They are easier to read from longer distances.

For more PowerPoint tips from Paul J. Unger, order a copy of  PowerPoint in One Hour for Lawyers  today!

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