We Have Met the Enemy and He Is Us
“PowerPoint makes us stupid.”
–General James N. Mattis, Joint Forces Commander, Afghanistan, as quoted in The New York Times, April 27, 2010
It looks like a bad imitation of a Jackson Pollock painting—hundreds of squiggly lines in six different colors, connecting a dozen or so clusters of “Bold ALL CAPS” text. Except for its deadly serious nature, the graphic would be funny; something the late comedian George Carlin would use to illustrate what he called the “oxymoron of ‘military intelligence.’” It is the PowerPoint diagram relied on by NATO forces to illustrate what needs to be done in Afghanistan before troops can withdraw from that country’s on-going conflict.
The diagram appeared on the front page of the April 27, 2010 edition of The New York Times, just above the headline, “We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint.” While we have suffered through as many bad PowerPoint presentations as anyone, we feel the need to call “foul.” In all fairness to Microsoft’s ubiquitous electronic display technology, The New York Times should have left the quotation the way it was originally delivered by the great philosopher, Pogo: “We have met the enemy and he is us!”
Let’s be clear; we are not PowerPoint junkies. We no more advocate the use of PowerPoint than we do any other method of presenting information. What we do believe is that a bad presentation (the kind most people typically associate with PowerPoint) is less a product of the media choice than it is a result of inadequate message development and bad design choices. Blaming PowerPoint (or any technology, for that matter) for an ill-conceived and shoddily executed graphic makes as much sense as crediting your pencil for coming up with the first draft of your last winning trial outline.
Any meaningful discussion regarding technology, whether at NATO headquarters, in the courtroom, or at a client presentation, must start by identifying three elements: (1) the message, (2) the design, and (3) the media.
The message is the “what”; it is the content, the substance you are trying to convey to your audience. For the trial lawyer, the message is what you hope the jury takes away from your case and uses (ideally, in your client’s favor) during deliberations.
The design is the layout of your message. A good design allows both the presenter and viewer to focus on what really matters. Oftentimes, we associate good design with the feeling of relief or gratitude we experience when we say to ourselves “Oh, now I get it!” Likewise, we recognize a bad layout because it triggers the Yikes! Alarm—the automatic response we have when we suddenly inhale, think Yikes! and believe that we are incapable of understanding the complex information being presented to us.
The media is the how; it is the delivery system through which you convey your message. It is what we commonly call “technology” and is unfairly singled out when a presentation is bad but, conversely, rarely noticed when the presentation goes well.
Choosing one technology over another will never compensate for a poorly reasoned argument or a hastily assembled presentation. Said differently, the message and the design are always more important than the technology. Consistent with this, we have observed that the best advocates follow the same three-step process when preparing a successful presentation. First, they spend considerable time determining the message (what is important and needs to be communicated). Second, they carefully consider the best design for conveying that message. Finally—and only when these first two steps are complete—they determine what technology they will use to present their material. Conversely, ineffective presenters start by picking a display technology and then force the all-important message to mesh with their pre-chosen media.
Developing your message requires knowledge, understanding, and perspective
In the broadest sense, all presentations are political, that is, we hope the viewer accepts and in some way responds to what we are saying. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. noted that successful politics involve education, persuasion, and coalition building. Of these three steps, Schlesinger considered education to be the most important, because the other two steps cannot proceed without it.
Far too often, trial lawyers forget that they are, ultimately, teachers. They are advocates, of course, but they are advocates who persuade through educating a particular audience. The best teachers do not begin to teach until they themselves comprehend—really comprehend—what is most important about their subject matter. This requires them to develop knowledge (which comes from memorizing facts), understanding (which results after weighing the facts and isolating those that matter), and perspective (connecting what matters in a way that makes sense).
Imagine the worst possible “informational graphic” you have seen—perhaps one that your expert created at your last trial, or even the one described above that appeared in The New York Times. If an MRI of the brain could reveal the degree to which the person who created that graphic comprehended the message they were trying to convey, the image would be as confused and convoluted as the graphic. This is not the fault of the media that displayed that graphic; it is a direct result of the user failing to develop the necessary degree of knowledge, understanding, and perspective about the subject matter.
Developing knowledge, understanding, and perspective is not easy. It takes time and a commitment to doing three things: systematically examining your case, allowing yourself periods of stillness to "mentally" compost the information, and engaging in active discussions with others as a way of honing what you have developed. When you consider the alternative—completely alienating your intended audience—these efforts are clearly worthwhile.
Designing your graphics and choosing your media
If you have a clear understanding of your message, you are ready to begin thinking about how to visually present it. Keep in mind that your thought process should not be limited to how to fit your message into a series of PowerPoint bullet slides.
In the broadest sense, there are two types of technologies: what we call electric (such as computers and projectors displaying PowerPoint) that plug into the wall and acoustic (such as blackboards and boards), which do not. Each type has its advantages and disadvantages. Choose the technology that makes the most sense for your message and do not be afraid to mix your technology. For example, consider using a timeline that is displayed on a presentation board that can remain in front of your audience, while you electronically show copies of key documents or bullet points related to that timeline.
With those options in mind, the following five tips will help improve the visual design of anything you display, whether in PowerPoint or any other media. Following these pointers will help ensure that your graphics bolster your argument rather than turn off your audience.
Tip 1: Less is more
Lawyers love words; we add too many words to our graphics...to our titles, to timeline entries, to document labels, to everything. If you were distributing a printed handout with no oral presentation, all those words might be needed to fully make your point. But presentations have a verbal component: your narrative or explanation. The text on your graphic should serve as your talking points, not a teleprompter. The words on your graphic should complement, rather than compete with, your verbal presentation. Keeping your text to a minimum will help focus your audience on what you are saying. If what you are saying is less important than the exact wording of long text on a screen, you should consider distributing a written report.
Tip 2: Emphasizing everything means emphasizing nothing
Despite your new-found reluctance to add text to your graphics, it is still sometimes necessary to display key passages from documents or deposition transcripts. Whenever this occurs, minimize your use of highlighting. The purpose of highlighting is to direct the viewers’ attention to the most important phrase or sentence in the text—the key language you want them to remember. Highlighting an entire section of text will not help you communicate what is important anymore than highlighting nothing would. You want the jury to remember the facts, not to become lost in a blur of something that is black-and-white-and-yellow-all-over.
Tip 3: Bigger should be reserved for what is better
The two most scarce resources in any presentation are time and space—your audience will only give you so much time before they begin to lose interest, and you have only so much usable space on any graphic that you use during that presentation. Not all information is of equal value; you should only allocate time and space to what really matters, and do so in a way that maximizes the benefits of these scarce resources.
Identify the most important point of the graphic and make it the dominant element on the screen. If you try to maximize every element or give equal emphasis to everything, the viewers will not know where to focus their attention and you will have handicapped your ability to emphasize the parts that truly matter. You should also include some empty space as breathing room between the various elements of the graphic. Make sure no element is jutting up against another and that there is a sufficient space around the outside edges of a graphic. The same holds true for text: there should always be adequate margins, line spacing, and paragraph spacing, and the text in your graphic should be large enough to be legible from across the courtroom (but never larger than the title font). Following these simple guidelines will ensure your presentation looks orderly and clean instead of jarring and sloppy.
Tip 4: Bite-size pieces are the easiest to digest
Be as thoughtful about your use of time as you are with your use of space. When you need to impart a lot of complicated facts to your jurors, do not overwhelm them with too much information at once. It can be immensely helpful to build your graphic element by element. For example, rather than showing a cluttered timeline filled with entries, begin with an empty timeline and populate it one entry at a time. Each time an entry is added, your jurors’ eyes will jump to the new information and their interest will be temporarily rekindled. The composite graphic might well be the same (cluttered) timeline that would have initially overwhelmed the viewer, but building a graphic bit by bit avoids triggering the Yikes! Alarm.
Tip 5: Keep it simple
Trial graphics don’t need to be flashy to be effective. When creating a template for your graphics, you should take a clean, minimalistic approach. Backgrounds with ornate swirls or semi-transparent photos will only generate visual noise on your graphics and distract from your content. When in doubt, a simple dark, solid-colored background with white text will allow for legibility from a distance (think highway exit signs), while also ensuring that highlights, graphs, documents, and other visual elements pop.
PowerPoint is not the enemy. Technology—even PowerPoint—can be your ally when used appropriately. By following the guidelines we’ve outlined, you can avoid the costly mistakes that inevitably occur when the media is allowed to define the message.
This article originally appeared in the San Francisco Daily Journal on May 25, 2010.
Appeared in The San Francisco Daily Journal
May 25, 2010