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Maybe you really should use PowerPoint in court!

Monday, May 13, 2013
posted by Douglas Keene

powerpoint-basicsPowerPoint is often maligned but new research shows a courtroom PowerPoint effect that is nothing to dismiss! When Plaintiff attorneys used PowerPoint slides, mock jurors thought the Defendant was more liable for the alleged behavior. When the Defense used PowerPoint slides, the Defendant was less liable in the eyes of the mock jurors. Seriously? Because of PowerPoint slides? Let’s look at what they did.

Researchers wanted to examine whether “PowerPoint slides may influence mock juror decision making in a civil case”. They predicted that “when either party used PowerPoint, liability judgments would be more favorable to that party”. They also examined what happened when only one side used PowerPoint. They conducted three separate studies, each with close to 200 participants.

We also need to mention the design of the PowerPoint slides used in this study. The researchers avoided “bells and whistles” and instead focused on displaying “graphs and charts to explain statistical evidence and modest animations to enhance visual contrasts”. They did not want the slides to entertain particularly–but to educate.

The study used actual case facts in which a railroad company was sued for racial discrimination by African-American employees. Participants watched one of four versions of trial videotapes. The videotapes contained only opening statements by Plaintiff and Defense attorneys. Each side was allowed 27 minutes, so the entire video was 54 minutes long. The researchers ultimately report that “lawyers’ use of PowerPoint can effect legal decision makers’ liability judgments”.

Study 1: 192 undergraduate students enrolled at two different universities were recruited (56.1% female, 59.9% White, 13.5% Asian-American, 10.9% African-American, 8.3% Hispanic-American, and 7.4% “other or missing”).

Study 2A: 180 participants enrolled in a US university as undergraduates were recruited (56.7% female, 28.9% White, 40% Asian-American, 5% African-American, and 26.1% Hispanic-American). The experimental design involved comparing 1) whether the Plaintiff used Powerpoint or not, and 2) whether the Plaintiff went first, or the Defendant. Before we go farther, we know as well as many of you that testing for an ‘order effect’ in court makes little sense legally since you start the trial with the Plaintiff opening, not a coin toss. But hey, order effects are real, so it’s good to test them.

Study 2B: 189 undergraduate university students were recruited (59.2% female, 28.6% White, 36% Asian-American, 6.9% African-American, 24.3% Hispanic-American and 4% “other or missing”). The experimental design was also a 2×2, with 1) Defense using PowerPoint or not, and 2) order of presentation– either Plaintiff first or Defense first.

When Plaintiffs used PowerPoint along with their spoken presentations, mock jurors held the Defendant company more responsible for racially discriminating against African-American employees. Conversely, when the Defense used PowerPoint slides, mock jurors saw the Defendant company as less responsible for the alleged racial discrimination. In other words, if you use PowerPoint, it strengthens whatever side of the case you represent.

On Study 1, although not in Study 2A or 2B (where PowerPoint use was manipulated by one party only), if only one party (either Plaintiff or Defense) uses PowerPoint, the effect was more extreme.

In Study 1, mock jurors recalled more information when the Defense attorney’s used PowerPoint. Defense use of PowerPoint resulted in mock juror’s more positive perceptions of the Defense attorney. In Study 2A and 2B, when an attorney used PowerPoint, participants recalled their evidence better and thought more highly of the attorney’s using PowerPoint.

Using PowerPoint also resulted in jurors endorsing the attorney’s case narrative and holding the Defendant more responsible (when the Plaintiff used PowerPoint) or less responsible (when the Defense used PowerPoint).

The researchers say that using PowerPoint helps jurors understand trial information better. At the very least, it affirms that it’s reasonable to call PowerPoint (and Keynote, and others) “Presentation Software”. It helps you construct a more effective presentation. The research on learning styles and recall of presented material makes this a pretty easy call. If you learn via multi-sensory approaches (seeing as well as hearing), your learning is going to be greater. There are ways of screwing it up (mostly by overwhelming jurors with graphic complexity and sensory overload) that can actually diminish recall and persuasion. So, use presentation software. Correctly.

This is a powerful initial foray into the role of PowerPoint in visual persuasion for the courtroom. While, as the authors say, we need more of this sort of controlled research, this information would say you likely need to use some visuals along with your verbal presentation. If you don’t, both you and your client (at least according to this study) will do less well than the opposition.

Park, J., & Feigenson, N. (2013). Effects of a Visual Technology on Mock Juror Decision Making. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 27 (2), 235-246 DOI: 10.1002/acp.2900

For more information about research on multi-sensory learning and how to ‘get it right’, We recommend the following books:

Mayer, Richard E. Multimedia Learning. 2001 Cambridge University Press, New York, NY

Atkinson, Cliff. Beyond Bullet Points. 2005 Microsoft Press, Redmond, WA

Chosen, Stephen M. Clear and to the Point. 2007 Oxford Univ. Press, New York, NY


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