Make an Impression, Stay on Topic with Presentation Software

Attorneys ready to make the leap to digitized visuals can expect rewards for the effort

By Carole Levitt

Whether in trial, arbitrating, mediating, pitching potential clients, or speaking at a seminar, attorneys are always making a presentation, and visuals are often a central part of it. If visuals are used in court, they are most likely to be tangible items to be admitted into evidence, such as a document, an image, or a murder weapon. At a seminar, an attorney may use flip charts or overhead transparencies to reinforce and simplify the message. Some attorneys, however, have graduated to computer-generated visuals.

In litigation, computer-generated visuals may include labeled exhibits, charts, diagrams, and time lines. Even demonstrative exhibits-such as CAT scans, x-rays, ultrasounds, photographs, illustrations, and maps-can be stored on a computer. Moreover, what can be stored on a computer can not only be displayed on a screen but also be edited for effect. For seminars and meetings, visuals may also include bullet-point lists and text documents with important words circled or underlined. To create computer-generated visuals, one must master presentation applications, and the two most common are Microsoft PowerPoint and Corel Presentations. Legal-specific presentation software, including Summation, Concordance, and Sanction, can also be used. The choice is largely a matter of personal preference, although some features are available only with certain applications.

With any of these applications, an attorney can create computer-generated slides that, while waiting to be projected, reside on a laptop's hard drive. While the audience sees only the slide on the screen, the attorney's laptop screen shows the slide, an outline of the presentation, and any notes the attorney has attached to the slide. A computer-generated slide show can best be described as a series of high-tech overhead transparencies or fast-flying flip charts. Presenters can run through 100 to 150 PowerPoint slides in 60 minutes without dropping them or getting them out of order, which is an all-too-frequent occurrence with transparencies or actual slides. Besides visuals, presentation software can include sounds and movement and therefore belongs to the larger category of multimedia software.

Presenters either swear by presentation software or shun it. In 1997, the CEO of Sun Microsystems banned the use of PowerPoint by his 25,000 employees, believing that they spent too much time developing the visual aspects of their presentations (and presumably not enough time developing content). According to the New York Times, however, the ban was not enforced.1

To determine whether presentation software slides are more persuasive than other media, Presentations magazine and 3M conducted a study that used college students as subjects. They were presented with the same information via text only (no presenter), overheads with a live presenter, and presentation software (in this case, PowerPoint) with a live presenter. PowerPoint won each of three tests, most dramatically in a test that involved sales and persuasion. Audiences viewed the PowerPoint presenters as more persuasive, credible, professional, and reliable.2 This is why presentation software has become so popular. Presentation software's popularity is also bolstered by the ease with which any presenter can create attractive handouts directly from the software by printing the presentation's slides, notes, or outlines.3

Studies also show that audiences retain information better when a visual element is added to an oral presentation. Including sound effects and movement in a presentation may increase the retention of information even further, especially among auditory learners (those who learn best through sound) and kinesthetic learners (those who learn best through movement). Nevertheless, text or graphic visuals should be used sparingly in a presentation. Just because a presenter can use more than one visual per minute does not mean that a presenter should. Text visuals can reinforce the gist of a presentation by highlighting a point, displaying an outline, or summarizing. Adding graphics to the presentation enhances the message and may assist visual learners, who learn better from graphics than text, but presenters should use only those visuals that are appropriate. In a trial, for example, visual graphics such as charts and time lines may be appropriate, but goofy clip art most likely will be inappropriate. The opposing party may raise objections even if a litigator is using something like a smiley face only as an illustrative element. On the other hand, clip art may be appropriate in a seminar presentation.

One exception to the rule that visuals should be used sparingly is a seminar in which people learn how to use a visual medium. In that case, the more visuals the better. In conducting an Internet training seminar, for example, a presenter can show PowerPoint slides of Web sites in rapid-fire succession, emulating a Web session without the worry of failing to connect to the Internet. The presenter is assured of controlling the presentation because all the Web sites are on slides. As the presenter discusses the attributes of each site, the visual reinforces the message. This can only enhance learning.

Presentation software is fairly easy to learn and is sold individually or as part of a traditional office software package. Microsoft PowerPoint and Corel Presentations operate in similar ways, and users of other Microsoft or Corel software will not find themselves in completely unfamiliar territory. PowerPoint serves as an example.

Using PowerPoint

PowerPoint comes bundled with Microsoft's Premium and Professional editions of its Office Suite package. The free handbook, Discovering Microsoft Office 2000, includes an overview of all the ways to use PowerPoint, from creating slide shows to placing them on an Internet or Intranet site. However, as is all too common with the handbooks that come with software packages, Discovering Microsoft Office 2000 offers no actual instruction about creating slides. Instead, users can access the PowerPoint's Help screens or purchase the book PowerPoint for Litigators (published by the National Institute for Trial Advocacy, or NITA),4 which guides attorneys through case-specific exercises and shows how PowerPoint can create the visuals. The book comes with a CD that contains the files of the documents, photos, video clips, and diagrams to be used in the exercises. Those without a CD drive on their computers can download the files from the Web site at In addition, NITA recently published Corel Presentations for Litigators.

For those who prefer in-person instruction, trainers can teach the basics one-on-one in about an hour. Additionally, PowerPoint classes are offered in adult education programs at local high schools and the Learning Annex.5 By assigning a staff member to create a PowerPoint presentation, an attorney cannot take advantage of the software's ability to help organize the presentation.

In PowerPoint, slide shows can be created three different ways. The Auto Content Wizard asks questions to help build the show. The Design Template uses predesigned slide backgrounds, and the Blank Presentation mode allows the user to build the presentation from scratch. The Wizard is most useful for creating business or sales presentations, with ready-made solutions for many presentation topics. The Design Template's background designs range from a corporate spiral notebook to the peculiar Dad's Tie background. The Blank Presentation feature is most useful to attorneys because it allows them to mix a variety of slide types in one presentation. Slide types can range from blank slides, in which a document or photograph may be placed, to slides with a bullet list or chart that allow text to be added.

To satisfy kinesthetic learners, attorneys can take advantage of screen transitions and animation. Transitions such as Fade Throughs and Checkerboard Down can be found by clicking on Slide Show and then Screen Transitions. To animate text or graphics, click on Slide Show and select Custom Animation. In addition to motion, periodic sound effects may be incorporated to lend variety, make a point, add humor, or offer a surprise. A selection of sound effects can be found by clicking on Slide Show and then Screen Transitions. Be sure to click on Apply and not on Apply All when applying sound to a slide. Otherwise every slide will be accompanied by the sound effect that was meant to accompany only one.

What Two Attorneys Say

Greg Labate of Sheppard, Mullin, Richter & Hampton is one attorney who swears by PowerPoint, because, as he explains, "creating a visual presentation forces me to focus and simplify the information I present to my audience." Labate suggests that presenters place only one or two ideas per screen to stay focused. In a small group setting, such as a pitch to a potential client, Labate uses PowerPoint's bullet-point slides to summarize what the firm does for its clients. In a large group setting, such as a seminar, Labate uses PowerPoint slides to keep the audience engaged. The slides also keep the presenter focused during the presentation. While traditional presenters are chained to the podium and their notes, a PowerPoint presenter with a remote control can walk among the audience or over to the screen.

Attorney Craig Rossell, of Hunt, Ortmann, Blasco, Palffy & Rossell, uses PowerPoint in any setting in which the rules of evidence are relaxed, such as arbitration. Rossell asserts that "PowerPoint is not flexible enough in a trial setting, when I need to be able to change the slides on the spot." For on-the-spot changes, he has used Summation, Concordance, and Sanction. However, a new plug-in, ANIX,6 is designed to allow PowerPoint to make on-the-spot changes. With ANIX, PowerPoint may be flexible enough for demanding litigators.

Attorneys should consider adding presentation software to their advocacy toolbox because audiences perceive those using presentation software as more persuasive, credible, professional, and reliable. Those wanting to learn more can visit for presentation tips, updates, and reviews.

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