To PPT, or Not to PPT (In Court), That Is the Question

To PPT, or Not to PPT (In Court), that is the question:

After my last column Lloyd Duhaime, a renowned Victoria lawyer and humourist (read his book Hear! Hear!) wrote to say how disappointed he was when he used PowerPoint (PPT) in court. The disappointment came when the judge raced (as in read) ahead in his PowerPoint thus missing Lloyd’s no doubt persuasive submissions.

This highlights the downside of PowerPoint: it is not a good medium to carry a text message.

Well to all the Lloyds’ out there, here’s how you can use PowerPoint successfully: CUT THE TEXT!

Use PowerPoint to carry a visual message. PPT presentations are complete duds when the slides contain the text the speaker is reading. It is simply an ineffective and counterproductive way to use the application. The results can reach beyond boring, they can be disastrous.

The worst example of the misuse of PowerPoint is discussed by Yale University Professor Edward R. Tufte in his September 2003 work The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint published by Graphics Press LLC. Professor Tufte analyzes how misuse of PowerPoint contributed to the NASA Columbia Shuttle tragedy when it disintegrated on re-entry February 1, 2003. In his analysis Tufte reviews how Boeing engineers used PowerPoint to communicate their assessment of the wing damage sustained on lift-off. The Boeing PowerPoint presentations were directed to NASA officials making key decisions. Tufte demonstrates how the use of the typical hierarchy of bullets points and compacted text in three critical PPTs created a barrier to a proper assessment of the real danger. Bullets outlines he concludes “failed to bring clarity, focus, or credibility to the presentations”. He goes on to say simply “PowerPoint will not do for serious presentations”.

So how should a PPT be used in court, where it’s all about serious presentations?

PowerPoint is a superbly useful trial tool for openings and powerfully persuasive for closing. But only when the words come from the barrister and visuals come from the PPT. 

As an aside PowerPoint is also a useful tool to present evidence. Loading your digital images (previously known as photographs), maps, diagrams and embedded video files into PPT allows the evidence to be presented seamlessly with a projector onto a large screen or through a series of monitors. Having evidence in digital format in the PPT then allows the evidence to be incorporated easily into the opening and closing. Just cut and paste and you’re in business.

To be crystal clear, a good PPT on opening and closing definitely should NOT look like the over 99% of PowerPoints out there. We’ve all seen them – the text fills the screen in a cascade of cute bullets with diminishing text size that make you feel like you’ve just had an eye examination.

A good courtroom PowerPoint has but the tiniest bit of text and loads of visuals. The presenter supplies the text, orally.

For openings or closings, text on the slide should take the form of headlines or signposts or topic headings. Anything more and the text becomes a distraction and a barrier to effective communications. The distraction is akin being at a cocktail party and trying to listen to the person speaking in front of you while trying to eavesdrop on the conversation behind you. You end up doing both poorly. You can’t accurately recall and recount the particularly delicious parts of the conversations. You’ll only get it half right or worse, half wrong.

Having a jury or judge read text on a slide while you are talking at the same time divides their attention. They will half listen to you and half read the text. But those two halves will not make a whole. If anything they’ll misunderstand both.

On the other hand enhancing a barrister’s orations with visuals will not only solidify what is being said but it will also improve retention. Recall the words of Confucius, “I hear and I forget, I see and I remember”. The TV ad industry has been dining off this wisdom ever since the test pattern was invented. 

Here’s a little more wisdom: Don’t rush to use a PowerPoint in every case (like I’m regularly accused of!). Consider that the strength of your case lies in a coherent persuasive story line. If that story line can be improved by using visuals then PowerPoint is for you. On the other hand if visuals will get in the way or remove the emotional force of the story then rely on traditional advocacy. Don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole.

There are some, thankfully few, cases that do not lend themselves to a rousingly good PowerPoint. I’ve met only a few myself. Being a prosecutor the ‘don’t use PPT’ cases are ones with only a few witnesses that turn on a simple single event that is as easily described in words as it is in visuals.

But for the vast majority of cases in the trial courts visuals will enhance interest, retention and persuasiveness and thus a PowerPoint is in order. It is a simple tool to use that is wildly effective when properly employed.

Use PowerPoint where appropriate. Your audience will thank you.

For an answer to the first question: To PPT or not to PPT in court, I turn to Lord Tennyson (with apologies): 

‘tis better to have PowerPointed and lost
Than never have PowerPointed at all.


  1. One caveat I would suggest: PPT is a good tool for presenting text that should also be presented visually, such as specific dates/figures and hard to pronounce/spell names and technical terms.

  2. Nils: cross the street. We’ll welcome you from Moka House to Starbucks! Don’t just look longingly with your pupils dilated. I’ll hug ya!

    Seriously, I get it now. I had an epiphany recently when I realized the Notes feature of PP was the advocate’s secret thingie. I don’t need to overload the slide(s). It’s a play between the two; the visual, as you call it, and the lawyer’s Secret version, only the latter including the Notes. But knowing the aggregate result means you can play it like a symphony; I can tether the Court along like a fish on line.


    The Humanity!

    The Court hasn’t a chance!