Originally presented as HaynesBoone Trial Consultants Digest 2015 #1


5 Million! That is how many PowerPoint presentations are estimated to be shown in the world every day. One researcher estimated that the legal industry alone spends 3.6 million dollars a day producing or watching PowerPoints.

After their introduction in 1997 PowerPoint presentations became so ubiquitous, and so misused, that in 2005 the U.S. Army General H.R. McMaster banned what he called “PowerPoint Rangers” from strategy briefings. Marine General James Mattis supported that decision saying “PowerPoint makes you stupid.” There was some support for using PowerPoint. “Senior officers say the program does come in handy when the goal is not imparting information, as in briefings for reporters.”

By 2014 Amazon, Linkedin, The Large Halidon Collider Project, Fermi Labs and the CIA had all eliminated PowerPoint from their meetings. Edward Tufte, master of information design, famously published the article “PowerPoint is Evil!” He also explained the cognitive style characteristic of the standard default PP presentation is “foreshortening of evidence and thought, low spatial resolution, with a deeply hierarchical single-path structure as the model for organizing every type of content.”

The main problem with PowerPoint is that most people use is as it was designed. To paraphrase the Bard “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our software, but in ourselves, that we are underlings.” We allow the software to direct our thinking. In doing so we limit the language we use, the space available to convey content, and the style of our presentation.

The highest use of PowerPoint is as a blank delivery mechanism for your own creativity. We can’t cover an entire course on rethinking presentations here, but I would like to point out some of the most common problems in building and presenting a PowerPoint slideshow.

1. Bullets

You may have heard “Bullets don’t kill, Bullet points do.” When a list of bullet points appears on a screen, what do you do? Most people will read the bullet points, all the bullet points. While they are reading, you begin talking about your first point. They are not listening. That is called the “split attention effect”

Reading what is on the slide to the audience brings on the “redundancy effect”. Studies have shown that our minds have difficulty processing information when it is simultaneously received aurally and visually. You would have been better off just putting the list up and remaining silent.

2. The Text Wall

We’ve all seen it, the slide that is covered with text from top to bottom, side to side. The text is probably too small to read, and if it is readable you are either reading it to them (redundancy effect) or explaining what it means (split attention effect). If the entirety of the text is that important, split it into multiple slides. Most often it is better to cite the source and explain what it says, with a blow out of the salient text, or only the salient phrase on the slide.

3. Just Because You Can Doesn’t Mean You Should

PowerPoint can be fun. It has all sorts of clip art and neat little motion effects. You can drive your words on in a truck and have a little man pick them up and put them where they belong in a sentence. You can make your words fly on to the page from any direction. You can make them fly around the page, spin around, bounce up and down.


Some motion effects can be used to purpose. Active page blowouts can show where on the page the text came from. The front page can move to reveal the second. Items on a list can appear individually. If you go beyond purposeful animation you are just making “eye candy”. Eye candy does to your brain what hard candy does to your teeth.

4. The “Why is That” slide

Using visuals to illustrate is an effective tool. It’s important however that the picture is clearly related to your point. A rule in comedy is that if you have to explain a joke, it isn’t funny. If the audience can’t relate the image and what you are talking about they are not listening, they are wondering why the picture is there.

5. The “Why is That Still There” Slide

Once you are finished talking about the point of the slide, the slide should go away. If you don’t have an effective slide, go to a blank screen. There is nothing wrong, and many things right, with showing a blank screen. For one, it shows that you have left that subject.

A blank slide should be black. When projected the black slide looks like a blank screen. A white slide, or a slide with just the background, looks like something is about to happen on the screen.

6. Branding

Every major law firm, has a standard slide template for PowerPoint. These slides are branded. The firm name, the logo and the style are on each slide. The purpose of branding is marketing. When you are presenting a slideshow in trial you have no customers in the room.

Slides should focus the finder of fact on your client and their story, not on you. We recommend using a background with color schemes or subtle branding representing your client and that differentiates your slides from those of other parties. The best source to find appropriate colors and fonts is your client’s web page.

7. Don’t Forget You Are There

Retention can be enhanced by a “focus shift”. After a period of time focused on a screen, attention can slip. Shifting the focus to something else reawakens attention and enhances retention.

Slideshows are only one aspect of multimedia. During a slideshow you can affect a focus shift by introducing a different media. Stopping to show a trial board or physical exhibit can be effective.

The most important form of media you have at your disposal is your presence, and your voice. A blank slide can focus the audience on you, but there are a couple of things that can ruin that. If your projector is so dim you need to turn the lights down you are just standing in a dark room. If your back is turned to the audience because you were watching what was on the screen, the focus shifts to your, uh, ….

8. The Last Slide

Someone once told me that “Once you have run out of things to say, don’t spend another 30 minutes proving it.” Have an ending, a conclusion, a dénouement. Then have a blank slide at the end of your presentation. In making your presentation you have created an environment, a space where you and the audience take a journey through the facts together. The moment you finish talking, if you switch the screen to an image of the main PowerPoint screen you destroy the illusion you worked so hard to create.

This is far from a comprehensive list. Each of the consultants at R-D Consulting is well experienced in the art of multimedia learning and they can help you avoid the pitfalls inherent in the presentation program we all love to hate.

For assistance with slideshows or other presentations contact me