Life and death by PowerPoint: The use of multimedia in the courtroom

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In order to understand how one side in the Ernst/Merck case engaged the jury successfully while the other did not, we must begin our analysis at the conceptual level rather than the practical one. We need to start with the approach that was used to conceive Lanier’s presentation before we consider the building of one. For most of two decades, I (Dr. Sase) have introduced the use of PowerPoint into my teaching at the university level. In addition to developing presentations to serve as learning tools for my lectures on Economics, I have continuously improved the integration of assigned term papers and student PPT presentations that amplify the subjects of these papers.

It is essential to understand that, when these students graduate and enter the professional world of work, they will need to communicate what they learned to a diverse audience effectively. This professional audience has become accustomed to using PowerPoint and similar slideware as the standard in government, business, and institutional meetings. I introduce my students to the subject of professional communication at the conceptual and philosophical levels.

I do so by discussing, recommending, and passing around the book “Presentation Zen” (New Riders, 2008; 3rd ed., ISBN-13: 978-0135800911) by Garr Reynolds ( In his top-down approach, Reynolds reminds us that the art of presentation—especially in professional circles—shares some of the same ether with the ancient practice of Zen.

Reynolds states that the objective of presentations is to communicate with more clarity, integrity, beauty, and intelligence through the use of restraint, simplicity, and naturalness. The goal is to win the case. Reynolds explains that Presentation Zen provides more of an approach to personal awareness and the ability to see and to discover. Presentation Zen involves restraint in preparation, simplicity in design, and naturalness in delivery. These produce greater clarity, both for the presenter and the audience. This approach should result in less suffering for all by engaging judges and jurors. After that, the mantle for success falls on the shoulders of the Attorney.

Our Conceptual Age

We live in a Conceptual Age where communication equates to the ability to convey emotion, not just information. We must design our communications well to accomplish this task. They need to convey a story that unites words, images, and colors symphonically and articulately. Also, our story must elicit empathy from our audience and must do so sincerely. In order to make this happen, we need to include the elements of play and humor, not just for comic relief but as a counterpoint to the grave and sometimes tragic realities that we must convey to a jury. Our communication must give meaning in ways that engage both hemispheres of the recipient’s brain—the emotional, musical, and moody elements along with agility, facts, and complex data. 

Where can we turn for practical inspiration? Since attorneys of the Old School already tend to be wordsmiths of the highest order, let us invest more of our page-space in the other two elements of presentation—color and images. Nancy Duarte, whom we cited in our opening quote, thoroughly covers the use of color and its power in her chapter “Using Visual Elements: Background, Color, and Text.” Duarte explains the necessity of developing a consistent color palette in response to three questions:

  • Who is your audience?
  • In what field or profession are you working?
  • As the hookah-smoking caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland is wont to ask, “Who are you?”

Using the color-pickers developed from the Newtonian color-wheel, Apple and Microsoft provide the platform for a practical discussion of Monochromatic, Analogous, Complementary, and other color-wheel relationships. These help to emote feelings that range from earthy to strong, calm to powerful, or masculine to feminine, to name but a few.
For the more daring, we suggest reading the masterpiece “Theory of Colours” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1810; Dover reprint, 2006;; null edition, 2016) and Rudolf Steiner’s lectures from 1914 through 1924 published as “Colour” (Rudolf Steiner Press; 2nd ed., 1997).

Goethe wrote his groundbreaking tome in the time after the Wavelength Theory of Light and Color had been firmly established. He contended that the theory resulted from mistaking incidental result for elemental principle. Rather than drawing on his knowledge of physics, Goethe asserted that this knowledge actually hindered the understanding of color.

As an example of what may raise one’s consciousness, Steiner describes the polarity between the colors red and blue, paraphrased as follows: We see the color red in sunrise and sunset because we are looking at the light through the darkness. However, the sky appears blue during the day because we view the darkness of space through light. (Let that bake your noodle for a few moments.)

Images play a prominent role in the composition of slideware presentations. In order to understand this point better, we suggest that our readers watch and study the variety of high-quality documentaries produced for the History Channel, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS), the National Geographic Channel, and other forums. Not only will these shows offer education in terms of what types of images work well in presentations, but the production-work also demonstrates the appropriate use of unobtrusive zoom and movement that help to hold the interest of viewers.

Unless the fair-use doctrine covers the pictures that you want to use, Attorneys or Experts may need to search for appropriate images. Garr Reynolds includes a list in his chapter “Presentation Design:  Principles and Techniques.” Having shopped around the sites that he recommends, we find that most royalty-free images cost less than $10. These sites include,,, and Also, some sites offer free images. These include and Your Forensic Photographer or “day-in-the-life” Videographer may be able to help as well, especially with stills or footage shot locally. Assuming that you have engaged the jury in your presentation, you do not want to make their heads explode by pushing too much information at them and doing so too quickly.

The simplest way to understand the Gestalt Theories of Information-Processing and Memory-Retention is to imagine two kitchen funnels taped together. Imagine taping together the two narrow tubes of the funnels so that you have a large opening on the left, a space narrowing to the middle where the two funnels connect, and the space enlarging again on the right.

You have the task of pushing information past the jurors’ sensory preceptors—eyes and ears, mostly—at the left-side opening, through the narrow tubes of their short-term working memory, and out to their long-term memory on the right, where they organize and store thoughts. A problem arises if PPT slides contain too much information and move too fast. This overflow results in either no learning or, at best, incomplete learning. However, a well-managed flow of information produces meaningful learning and fuller long-term retention.

Unfortunately, traditional bullet-point or data-table slides ignore working memory limits—that narrow tube section where the two funnels connect. Too often, the outcome is incomplete. As the short-term memory processors overload, there can be no learning at all. Kaboom! Some truth exists in the old joke “How does one eat an elephant?—One bite at a time!” To communicate effectively, we use visual cues to highlight the organization of the PPT presentation.

Furthermore, we must present our information in bite-sized pieces. Next, we need to remember that we are working with a dual-channel system—verbal and visual. Therefore, we must match our verbal content carefully to our visual information. Studies have determined that splitting the attention of our audience among multiple sources results in them having difficulty integrating mentally. One of the most common errors in making presentations occurs when the presenter reads his/her text verbatim. Rather than strengthening communication, this text-redundancy reduces understanding and comprehension. For additional information, we refer our readers to the “Cambridge Handbook of Multimedia Learning” (Richard E. Mayer, editor, Cambridge University Press, 2005) and “Working Memory” by Alan D. Baddeley and Graham Hitch in “The Psychology of Learning and Motivation: Advances in Research and Theory” (G.H. Bower, editor., Volume 8, Academic Press, 1974). The takeaway points of these sources are:

• People learn better from a mix of words and pictures than from words alone
• Speak extemporaneously about your subject rather than reading the text off of the screen

As with the entire presentation, the organization of the flow of information in the individual slides is critical. Our western mindset has led us to follow the path right, or from top to bottom. Therefore, we emphasize the importance of prioritized information by the direction and sequence of flow. Since the minds of viewers are active, not passive, prioritizing helps jurors to understand by guiding the attention of their working memories to the most essential visual and verbal information. 

During this “New Normal,” we find ourselves combining PPT within the House of Zoom. This challenge requires the Zoom process of Screen Sharing along with the art of composition. Many users rely upon a twelve-inch laptop screen rather than on a twenty-eight-inch 4K gaming monitor. Therefore, the Rule of Thumb for font type and size is as follows: Use at least a 32-point font for titles and at least a 28-point font for text. Due to “pixalization,” Sans-Serif font images such as Arial and Calibri remain subtly more readable than Serif fonts such as Times New Roman and Georgian. This approach to font choice makes viewing from a distance easier on the eyes for most people. The ultimate ideal of digital composition is to keep the images and words on the screen as clear, uncluttered, and comfortable to read as possible. Many presentation gurus suggest limiting the number of words in the text of each slide to no more than twelve. Abiding by these rules leads to a presentation that is not only effective on a small monitor but provides a greater attention-holder and impact on large 80-inch projection or video screens in the courtroom.

We hope that our exploration of PPT has provided our readers with helpful guidelines and suggestions that will result in better presentations and perhaps more success at trial.
Dr. John F. Sase teaches Economics at Wayne State University and has practiced Forensic and Investigative Economics for twenty years. He earned a combined M.A. in Economics and an MBA at the University of Detroit, followed by a Ph.D. in Economics from Wayne State University. He is a graduate of the University of Detroit Jesuit High School (

Gerard J. Senick is a freelance writer, editor, and musician. He earned his degree in English at the University of Detroit and was a supervisory editor at Gale Research Company (now Cengage) for over twenty years. Currently, he edits books for publication (

Julie G. Sase is a copyeditor, parent coach, and empath. She earned her degree in English at Marygrove College and her graduate certificate in Parent Coaching from Seattle Pacific University. Ms. Sase coaches clients, writes articles, and edits copy (