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PowerPoint Tips for the Courtroom
(Originally published on ABA Law Technology Today)
Since everyone has a different level of comfort and experience with something used as infrequently as PowerPoint, the objective for this list is to approach the topic from several different perspectives, in hopes that each reader might find at least two or three helpful tips. We’ll begin with some very basic design and layout ideas, and move on to some more technical and advanced features. With about 20 years’ experience in trial presentation, these are a few things I’ve seen used/misused most often.
1. Slide Layout
If you’re using PowerPoint slides, you may select widescreen (16:9) or standard (4:3) slides. The current version of PowerPoint defaults to widescreen, but that may not be the best for courtroom use.
On wide computer monitors, widescreen fills it up. Most court presentation systems still use a standard projector and screen, however, so although you will fill the side-to-side area, your top and bottom may have a lot of blank space. The projector may be adjusted to compensate, unless someone else is using the standard 4:3 layout. Find out what will be used in your courtroom, and set up your presentation accordingly.
2. Color Choices
Volumes have been written on color theory and the visual effects different colors can communicate. Without getting too deep on this, you should consider going with a soft, neutral slide background, as opposed to something that becomes the primary point of interest. You should also avoid using a black text font on a plain white background when possible, as it can actually cause visual fatigue when viewing for long periods of time.
Do use a template. Don’t use a bad template. Using a neutral template will help prevent viewers from becoming distracted by “busy” backgrounds, and can ensure that all slides have a visually similar theme.
Make sure to use an appropriate font and image sizing. Too much text on a slide, or a small photo in the middle of a slide are common mistakes you should avoid. Make sure any sound effects are disabled, and if you do use animated text fly-ins, use a consistent and subtle effect.
4. Recycling Graphics
With a bit of forethought, you can reuse your graphics, making them even more effective in your closing argument. For opening statements, avoid any argument or going beyond “what the evidence will show in trial.” You may be able to tweak it a bit if you use it during testimony with an expert witness, and later adding an argumentative title or comments to the closing version.
5. Backups and Redundancy
Never assume that everything will work properly. If you plan on using the courtroom system, you should bring a backup with you. Ideally, this would be another computer or iPad with your presentation already loaded, but a thumb drive or even a hard-copy printed set might save the day. Fortunately, many courtroom systems still include a document camera (e.g., ELMO).
6. Video Problems
If you’ve added video to presentations before, you may have experienced an issue where you can see the first image of the video, but it won’t play, leaving you with a great opportunity to explain to the jury what they would have seen if only the video had played properly. To make sure this doesn’t happen to you, the media file should be located in the same folder as the PPT file. If you are prompted to upgrade your media file to the current standard, do it, which should embed the media into the PPT. Finally, make sure you test it ahead of time, both in editing and presentation modes.
7. Save Money
Cost is always a factor when it comes to bringing technology into trial. One quick and easy way to reduce costs is with a cost-sharing agreement for equipment rental. In many cases, you might also be able to share “neutral” access to a trial tech for presenting the trial exhibits. This should all be negotiated with opposing counsel well in advance of your trial date.
8. Blowups and Screen Size
Ideally, these decisions are made based on the courtroom layout. In very small courtrooms, or perhaps for a bench trial, you might be able to use a 2’x3’ blowup, with perhaps a 42” monitor. In larger courtrooms, the jury may be seated thirty feet or more from the screen, so you will want to go with a minimum screen size of seven or eight feet. Blowups can then be printed at 4’x6’ or larger. Jurors straining to view a postage stamp at twenty feet is generally not a good strategy.
9. Monitors or Projector and Screen
If your courtroom has technology installed, you will obviously be able to use that.
If not, you will need to decide what sort of equipment to use. While there are several options, and as many opinions, in most cases, I would recommend going with a large screen and projector over several smaller monitors. Your image will be larger, giving you and the jury one central and common point of focus. Plus, you can’t effectively use a laser pointer on a monitor.
10. System Connections
You may be familiar with the terms, “VGA” and “HDMI.” These are the two common video connections used in courtrooms today, and your laptop must be able to utilize one or the other.
You may need an adapter (i.e., USB, mini DisplayPort), and if you’re planning on going wireless with an iPad, you will need a complete system such as Apple TV to do so. The courts generally do not have the Apple system installed, nor any adapters you might need to connect anything other than VGA or HDMI.
Bonus Tip: Blank Screen
Have you ever been presenting and you wished you could quickly blank the screen? To blank the presentation screen at any time, simply hit the letter “B” key on your keyboard. To resume the presentation, hit the key again, or resume and advance the slide with the mouse, clicker, page-down, or the arrow key. The “W” key works the same, although it projects a white screen instead of black.
Bonus Tip: Navigation
If you need to jump directly to a specific slide without going through several others to get there, simply type in the slide number and then hit the “Enter” key. If you do expect to use this feature, make sure to have a printed set or other slide directory with page numbers, since few things can be quite as humiliating as getting lost in your PowerPoint presentation.
About Ted Brooks
Ted Brooks is an experienced Trial Presentation Consultant with offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco. His company (Litigation-Tech LLC) has been recognized with many awards, including Best Courtroom Presentation Providers.