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How to Make Complicated Things Simple to Understand Using Visuals

April 13, 2017 − in Uncategorized

Whether one has artistic capability or not, most of have experienced trying to explain a something complex or intangible to someone and have resorted to drawing basic sketches on paper or even a napkin to more clearly get the point across.

Data exists that proves most people learn and retain information better when they both hear and see it.  Combine this research with our society where we are surrounded daily with short simple visual messaging, it is logical that successful lawyers would want to use visuals to support them anytime during a dispute that they are presenting whether it is to a judge, mediator, arbitrator or jury.

Today most lawyers in the US recognize that they need to take some form of presentation with them to court.  It could be something as simple as an exhibit board, electronic document callouts, photos or a deck of PowerPoint slides.  Some of the visuals are effective and others may keep the lawyer on point but may not be terribly memorable or persuasive.

The question becomes, how does one go about developing visuals that communicate complex information to a judge or jury in a simple, clear and concise manner?

The Theme

Let’s start first with “the theme”.  Every story has a theme or message.  That theme describes what the case is about from one side’s perspective.  The case theme is expressed in a few words or a short sentence.  It is the most important point in your case and deals with what is just and fair.   For example, if you are representing a plaintiff in a patent case, your theme might be, “the other side copied our patent”.

In our experience, there are universal themes that occur in all types of legal disputes depending on whether you are representing the plaintiff or defendant.  Themes are not to be confused with the “issues” and what you need to prove.  Issues are more specific details of a dispute and must be clearly understood by a judge or jury in order for them to a decision to be made on the legal issues.  Again, using a patent case as an example, the key issues center around the difference in the unique way in which the new technology works.

Once you know your theme and issues, it is important to share that with your team, your subject matter experts and presentation consultants so everyone is on the same page.  By understanding your themes and issues, the team will be more efficient in sorting relevant documents, expert data and any useable visual materials so presentation experts can begin developing visuals that will clearly communicate your story.

Ideally, it is best for the lawyer to begin the development of the visuals early on and the dispute process may happen in stages.   “Early” can mean during discovery though it often means after expert reports are filed.  To some lawyers (and more often their clients) it seems more cost-effective to spend money on developing visuals until they know they are going to trial.   Actually, the opposite is true.
Our experience has shown that clients who take advantage of the developing the visuals so they can use them during the dispute actually spend 30-50% less than those who wait until the know they are going to trial.  In the scheme of the entire litigation budget the cost for the visual aids is minimal but the return on the investment is worthwhile in many ways.  Time and again, when the trial team sees their data transformed into visuals they literally see their case from a new perspective.  This can either strengthen their position or encourage a settlement.

Designing the Visuals

Designing the visuals begins as a collaborative process with the lawyer, experts, and visual consultants.  The visual experts review supporting information provided to them, discuss the themes and issues and ask questions including challenges, strengths and weakness of the case.  A list of visual recommendations with a cost estimate will follow to confirm that all are in agreement.

The visual consultants will develop their visual strategy by thinking of the visuals in terms of illustrating a story.  The first priority is to provide an overview of the story, educate the judge or jury on the essential issues without getting into unnecessary detail and then prove the legal aspects.

Common Visuals


Visual chronologies help audiences put order to events.  They are useful to refer to throughout the case but specifically in opening statements and in closing arguments.  Timelines are especially useful if the timing of events matters to the outcome whether it’s determining fraud, timing of performance obligations in a contract disputes or delays in a construction suit.

Cast of Characters

Without a visual reference it can be challenge to remember the different people, their role and involvement in the case.  Organizational charts, or lists or photos of witnesses with bios, titles, and involvement in the case can be helpful in recalling the various people and their role in the suit.


Most disputes involve technical terms common to specific fields that are lost on lay-people.  To make it easier for them to understand and follow, it is advisable to provide them with a basic glossary of terms, abbreviations, acronyms and referring to them over the course of the presentation.  This is merely a top-level list of the very most important terms.   It is not a list someone would memorize or study in school.


In complicated or highly technical matters, tutorials are useful in providing a basis understanding before addressing the substantive issues.  In some cases the judge or arbitrator may request a tutorial to learn more about a technology or process in advance in order to speed up the trial or hearing.  These tutorials are meant to be unbiased and merely educational.

In long, complex trials tutorials are recommended.  It is good to present them early on because it helps put the rest of the evidence in context.  Tutorials are used to explain how technology works, money laundering, how a building should be build v how, and numerous other topics.

Charts and Graphs

Every case has charts and graphic.  The information is typically provided by the expert and it may already be in chart form.   In some instance the expert’s charts can be used as is.  In other circumstances, the subject matter expert who knows his subject enthusiastically provides far too much information.  While useful for case analysis and preparation, it may not be so useful for his presentation.  Complicated charts and graphs can confuse the judge, arbitrator or jury, not to mention be mind-numbing.

Like any visual designed for presentation, the key to designing memorable and useful charts and graphs is to display only the most important data that is relevant and supports your key arguments.  Make the chart easy to read and follow by keeping the data to a minimum and use the charts and graphs to summarize the most important points that reflect the theme of the case.

Different Mediums

  • Self-contained interactive presentation

For hearings and smaller trials interactive presentations that great because they are modular, contain everything needed for the presentation and they can be sent to the judge or arbitrator for their review.

  • Video and Photography

Pictures provide reality to the dispute and should be used as much as possible.  Photos and videos can be displayed alone or imbedded into PowerPoint, interactive presentations, or animations.

  • Physical models and 3D printing

Whenever possible using the actual exhibit is the best but in many situations that isn’t possible.  Physical models have been used for years.  Today there  are many new types of materials that can be used to create models.  In addition, 3D printed models have become more mainstream.  They are made from CAD files and they can be used in combination with 3D animations

  • Virtual models

Having the ability to turn a 3D animation around and view it from 360 degrees is a great feature to have for case preparation as well as for presentation.  Specifically on large cases, trial teams use virtual models to visually analyze the issues of their case.  Virtual models are not only used in recreating events, large buildings or oil rigs that no longer exist or molecules that are too small for the naked eye.  Virtual models are useful when studying new inventions or medical devises and how they work.

Presentation Techniques

The theme is central to the case strategy and there are techniques in designing a presentation so that them comes across.  The first technique is repetition.  People process information through repetition.  It is important to state the theme in the opening, throughout the trial or hearing and in closing.  This applies to repeating any important key visual that supports the theme in opening, during the presentation and in closing.

People learn in threes so it is useful to provide no more than three key points that relate to your theme, that you want your audience to remember.

The repetitive use of icons and color are useful in associating a certain meaning to an important point.


Three important rules to follow when using visuals for presentation

  1. Choose the appropriate medium to communicate a specific point
  2. If you have a long presentation or lengthy trial, then use different types of visuals. You risk losing your audience if you use too many charts, documents and text slides.
  3. If the visual doesn’t advance the theme of your case then don’t use it.