I’m a busy lawyer, and I’ve got too many techno-gizmos to manage. So why should I care about Powerpoint?
The answer is: you shouldn’t. Powerpoint is just a tool, and arguably a poorly designed one. The question that you need to ask, however, is this: should you care about using visuals and graphics to explain things? Lawyers have been using charts and foam boards for years. Why? Well, because there is a lot of evidence that people understand explanations better if they are well supported with visuals. Not only do they understand visual information better, they also remember it longer.
So if your goal is to effectively communicate complex information, then you should care about using visuals. Powerpoint is just one tool that you can use for displaying visual information. You could use a flip chart if you wanted to. Or you can use a blackboard. Doesn’t matter what tool you use, as long as the visuals are helpful to the listener.
As between a flip chart (or foam board) and Powerpoint, I’d recommend that most lawyers use Powerpoint. Having to manually draw one page across on a flip chart can be awkward. And if you pay someone to create foamboards you need to make sure that you know exactly what you want way ahead of trial. Foamboards are expensive even if you allow the graphic service some lead time, but if you ask for one-day turnaround it will cost a lot more.
Powerpoint is pretty much the same as a foam board or flip chart, except that it’s easier in a couple of respects. First, it’s easy and reliable to advance from one slide to the next (no awkward and noise page rustling as with flip charts). Second, you can make changes easily to slides in Powerpoint. The only thing that you need to pay for to use Powerpoint is the software (about $150, or the cost of a couple of foam boards) and a projector (about $600). Many courts will supply the projector if you ask, and most will have screens in place. If you need to buy a screen then factor in another $125 or so.
The cost savings of Powerpoint kick in once you’ve used it a few times. But once you’ve made the initial investment in equipment you don’t pay for anything except electricity. The real roadblock for most lawyers is not that they don’t want to buy the equipment, but rather that they don’t know how to use Powerpoint software and are afraid of learning how.
We’ll leave the instructional discussion for another day, but for now let me say this. If you want to learn to use Powerpoint in a way that can help you as a lawyer, don’t obsess about all the fancy tricks you can use. Focus on the ‘vocabulary’ of visual explanations. Today’s average TV viewer is familiar with this vocabulary because they’ve been bombarded with it since they were toddlers. Most people can’t tell you want the ‘rules’ are for visual explanations, but they instinctively recoil when the rules are ‘broken.’
So, more than software instruction what you need to do is start paying attention to how visual explanations are used. Movies and dramatic presentations on TV are one way to learn this vocabulary. But probably the most ‘mainstream’ use is in TV news accounts. If you watch the news (local or national) pay attention to how the words that are spoken relate to the visual images being presented. Are the images static for long periods of time? Or do they transition quickly? How quickly do the images transition? What kinds of transitions are common?
Pay attention to this and you’ll learn a lot. That’s the kind of thing you need to know in order to use Powerpoint effectively. The software is complicated, sure. But you only need to know a few things, and what those few things are will be obvious once you understand the common vocabulary of visual communication.
So next time you watch the news on TV start paying attention to how they use visuals.