We often get questions about what presentation software to use for presenting documents at hearings, arbitrations, and trial. As is so often the case, using the tool best suited for the situation can really make a difference in the outcome – and the wrong choice can leave you holding a stick in a sword fight.
Attorneys have a lot of options when it comes to presenting documents in the courtroom. But when it comes to your main workhorse software, the decision is usually between general presentation software like PowerPoint, and more specialized software like Trial Director and OnCue.1 Neither tool is inherently better or worse than the other. Both are very powerful. They just have different strengths and weaknesses, better suited to some situations or presenting styles than others. This is not a Chevy vs. Ford comparison – more like Helicopter vs. Airplane. You need to know your tools in order to make a good decision.
So, what kinds of situations lend themselves to PowerPoint? When should you rely on Trial Director? This post outlines the major pros and cons of both – so you don’t have to learn through time, trial, and error.
[Naturally, presentation software like PowerPoint can perform many tasks, but we’re focusing here on its use in the courtroom to present documents.]
PowerPoint is best used to tell your case story in a step-by-step style. It can be extremely effective at leading jurors through the story by presenting each document and callout in context, and deliberately focusing jurors on important segments and themes before moving on.
- Linear story-telling. Well-suited for openings, closings, and direct witness testimony, since the vast majority of these scenarios are well scripted and presented in order. Having a well-planned presentation in this style allows you to perfect the pacing and focus on the chronology of your case story and the themes you want jurors to remember. In one case we worked on, for instance, a major goal was to help jurors understand the extent and nature of changes made to an agreement. So, our slides worked through each deviation in the lengthy document one by one. Then, slides like the below acted as a running summary of those many changes, periodically driving home the story with a visual overview. (Note the color coding to designate the various types of changes made.)
- Ability to add slide titles and subtitles. Too-often underutilized, such headers serve as perfect primers and summary points for jurors. They’re a great place to plug your case themes.
- Having a set document order in advance lets you take advantage of PowerPoint’s animation and zoom-in features, allowing you to spoon-feed challenging or complicated documents easily and attractively to your audience. This can fulfill the crucial goal of presenting documents and document callouts within their full context. For example, start with a full document page, then zoom right in on the key highlighted lines/words that make your point. (You can also do the reverse, zooming out from opposing counsel’s cherry-picked language to reveal missing context that they tried to obscure.)
- Documents are highly customizable. You can rearrange elements spatially on each slide and incorporate sophisticated annotations to highlight key points or summarize/rephrase wordy or complicated text. For instance, we used images like those below to help our client show the jury that a USPTO examiner had in fact based his findings on the opposition’s brief rather than on the original “state of the art” study (dubbed “Jones” in the images). With various icons, highlights, and overlays – along with a layout that facilitated a side-by-side comparison of the three articles in question – we demonstrated that the examiner’s article and our opponent’s brief even shared the exact same misquotes of the original article.
- As mentioned, your presentation must be planned out and prepared in advance. There simply isn’t the same level of immediate freedom and flexibility that trial presentation programs like Trial Director or OnCue offer. While little things in PowerPoint can be modified relatively easily in real time (“on the fly”), the majority of situations are not conducive to such modifications. There isn’t much time for sudden slide adjustments in the middle of your cross-examination. This means that once things are underway, you really can’t add much to what you already have. It’s generally too late to change your mind about which portions of a document you’d like to present. You can’t decide on a whim, “Oh, let’s show the paragraph before this one, too.”
Trial Presentation Software
[Like PowerPoint, software like Trial Director and OnCue can do more than just presenting documents (e.g., witness video), but we will focus here on its use as a document management tool.]
Trial presentation software’s forte is its ability to perform needle-in-a-haystack searches and call up documents at a moment’s notice. You could have literally 500k+ images in your case and bring any one of them up in seconds – an amount not at all practical for PowerPoint. When you need to react quickly, that’s when it’s best to go with this type of software.
- Excels at basic presentation of documents in the courtroom.
- Functions as a complete database. You have easy access to any portion of a massive amount of information; every piece of evidence in the record is available at the push of a button.
- Entirely flexible, requiring much less planning and preparation than PowerPoint. Because you’re not committed to a preset linear path, Trial Director/OnCue are superior for working with witnesses – particularly adverse witnesses. You can react swiftly to whatever the situation throws at you.
- On-the-fly annotation of documents in front of the jury. Trial Director and OnCue have several universal annotation tools like callout boxes, highlighting, and all the classic drawing tools you would find in most Windows applications like arrows, boxes, and circles.
- Fewer possibilities for elaborate formatting of text, shapes, and overall screen layouts.
- Minimal options for sophisticated annotation of documents.
- Lack of animation options to bring up document callouts. This may seem superficial, but it really can aid in jurors’ attention and comprehension.2
As you can see, the case can be made for either type of presentation software. But when you take a look at their pros and cons, it becomes clear that both play an important role in any one trial. Certainly, it has been our experience over the years that it is prudent to have both programs in your tool box for every case. PowerPoint tends to work best for opening, closing, and often direct testimony, while Trial Director/OnCue are best used in cross-examination or a rebuttal.
In the end, your case circumstances and the extent to which you anticipate changes or surprises should guide your decisions on when and how you use both of these powerful tools. At what point in the litigation are you? Are there rulings pending? How predictable is your opposition? To what extent have they been required to “show their hand”? Your level of confidence about what you’re walking into can determine the balance you strike between planned/scripted and reactive/flexible. And of course, you may also find alternative uses for the software that best fit your personal methods and your specific case.
If you’d like to learn more about presentation software and presenting documents effectively at trial, we invite you to reach out to us!
By: Adam Wirtzfeld – Director, Visual Communications & Adam Bloomberg – Managing Director, Visual Communications
1 This blog focuses on PowerPoint and Trial Director/OnCue by name, but most pros/cons discussed apply to comparable general presentation software (e.g., Keynote) and trial-specific presentation software (e.g., Sanction), respectively.
2 That said, the software does have a “Save Stage” option where you can essentially take a screenshot of any part of the screen. You could conceivably take several of these screen shots and place them into a script file to simulate the appearance of a document callout animation, then another one of the actual callout, and a third one of a highlight. …A plausible workaround, but definitely not ideal.