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BY DAVID J.S. ZIFF
As a lawyer, you undoubtedly do a lot of writing, from motions to contracts to mediation letters. And you communicate your legal analysis in other ways: anything from oral arguments to client meetings. For each mode of communication, you’ve likely developed a strategy and method of preparation. You don’t just show up to the Court of Appeals and wing it.
But you might not be giving proper attention to one common type of communication: digital presentations. Slide decks, PowerPoints, or whatever else you might call them, are inescapable in modern legal practice. Whether your audience is a jury, an adjudicator, a client, or other attorneys, chances are you’ve spent some time creating digital presentations.
Unfortunately, these presentations often don’t receive the same lawyerly attention as the more “traditional” forms of legal communication. Moreover, responsibility for digital presentations might be farmed out to paralegals or vendors, with little direct involvement from the attorneys supervising a project.
That’s a mistake. Digital presentations are a form of legal communication. And though lawyers should certainly seek help from paralegals or other specialists, we should not abrogate our responsibility to create a presentation that best serves our client’s needs. You don’t subcontract out your motion practice; neither should you take a hands-off approach to your digital presentations.
Easier said than done, of course. Even if you wantto be more lawyerly about your digital presentations, you might not know how. You’ve learned to write briefs, draft contracts, and present oral arguments. You have expertise and experience in those settings. But slide decks? Not so much.
Or perhaps you avoid digital presentations altogether. I can’t blame you. Bad digital presentations are quite bad. They somehow manage to be both boring and distracting. But that’s no reason to eschew digital presentations entirely. After all, you wouldn’t give up on The Beatles because you heard a fourth grader play I Want to Hold Your Hand on a trumpet.
Fortunately, we can do better. Jonah Perlin, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center, has written an article to save us from ineffective digital presentations.11 Jonah Perlin, “Making Your (Power) Point: An Introductory Guide to Digital Presentation Design for Lawyers,” 18 Legal Comm. & Rhetoric: JALWD 81 (2021). In researching the article, Professor Perlin collected information from design experts, surveyed the academic literature on visual rhetoric, and borrowed from the fields of marketing and cognitive science. He did the legwork, so you don’t have to.
And unlike many law review articles, Professor Perlin’s article is written with practicing lawyers in mind. He understands that you don’t need (or want) a theory of slide design or ruminations on the nature of communication. You’re a lawyer, not an academic. In the words of Elaine Benes: “Give me something I can use!”
The article delivers. Professor Perlin provides a practical workflow: six steps you can use, right now, to create effective digital presentations. His advice is pragmatic, includes visual examples, and should be read by everyone in your firm. Seriously. You can stop reading this right now and download the whole article.22 The link is right here: https://alwd.org/lcr-archives/fall-2021-volume-18/620-making-your-power-point-an-introductory-guide-to-digital-presentation-design-for-lawyers.
You’re still here?
Well, if you want more information before downloading, like a tasty sample from the Costco grocery aisle, here’s my summary of Professor Perlin’s “efficient, effective, research-based, and battle-tested” workflow for digital presentations. The process has six steps, each of which Professor Perlin explains and expands upon:
1. Consider the purpose and audience of the presentation.
2. Create the substantive content for the presentation.
3. Rely on Step 1 and Step 2 to create a storyboard based on your understanding of different slide types.
4. Ensure a consistent brand for your presentation.
5. Use your program of choice to create the slides using your brand and based on the storyboard.
6. Edit, edit, edit, just like you would any other piece of work product.
Sounds simple enough. But as with all modes of legal communication, the devil is in the details. And the details of digital presentations are different from what you might employ when drafting a motion or presenting an argument. Professor Perlin’s article therefore provides guidance for each step.
1. Consider the Purpose and Audience.
This is familiar advice. But few appreciate that purposes and audiences are more complicated for digital presentations. A motion, for example, has a clear audience and a clear purpose: The audience is the judge (and perhaps her clerks). The purpose is to get the judge to rule in your favor.
Digital presentations, however, are more versatile. A presentation might be projected during a speech or distributed in print. It might be viewed at a specific time, referenced afterward, or both. Your process should therefore start with a clear understanding of the various “hows,” “whos,” and “whys” of the presentation.
2. Create the Substantive Content.
This step shouldn’t be new. Unfortunately, the flashiness of digital presentations can cause lawyers to skip the rigor they’d devote to a traditional written product. But no matter the medium, your underlying analysis must be precise and robust. Sure, a digital presentation won’t contain footnotes and case citations. It must still be reliable.
3. Create a Storyboard.
Lawyers know that outlining is an important part of writing. Storyboarding is, essentially, outlining for the digital presentation. But storyboarding requires an extra layer of difficulty, since the digital presentation operates in multiple dimensions. By contrast, the outline of a brief need only include a structure and an order. That’s it. The outline is simple because each entry contains the same type of content: a block of text.
Digital presentations add a level of complexity. You still need to structure and order the content. But you must also decide how to display the content. The power of a digital presentation is that it can display various media: text, pictures, videos, charts, almost anything you want.33 If you don’t already incorporate pictures or other graphical media into your traditional written documents, you should consider doing so. To inspire your thinking about using images, I recommend reading Steve Johansen & Ruth Anne Robbins, “Art-iculating the Analysis: Systemizing the Decision to Use Visuals as Legal Reasoning,” 20 J. Legal Writing Inst. 57 (2015), available at https://www.lwionline.org/sites/default/files/2020-05/Johansen%20Robbins%20Articulating%20the%20Analysis.pdf; and my colleague Elizabeth Porter, “Taking Images Seriously,” 114 Colum. L. Rev. 1687 (2014), available at https://columbialawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Porter.pdf. That added flexibility requires added decision-making. A storyboard includes the “what” and the “where,” and then it adds the “how.”
As lawyers, we’re comfortable turning our ideas into words. For traditional writing projects, we know the tools in our toolbox, and we know how to use them. But digital presentations require a different toolbox—a more creative and (perhaps) daunting toolbox. Fortunately, Professor Perlin walks you through the tools at your disposal. He explains how, when, and why to use those tools.
In a digital presentation, your tools are the various types of slides you might use for different aspects of your presentation. I can’t do justice to Professor Perlin’s entire explanation (just read the whole thing!), but here’s a quick summary of his guidance:
- First, “guide slides” include things like titles, agendas, and headings for different parts of a presentation. And don’t forget background slides! These are the slides displayed when you want the audience to focus on the speaker.
- Second, “documentary slides” display extrinsic information like photos, maps, charts, video clips, and quotes.
- Third, “content slides” reflect lawyer-created content: bullet points, text, or other sorts of independent analysis.
With an understanding of how and when to use these slide types, you can storyboard an effective digital presentation.
4. Develop a Consistent Brand.
Any mention of “branding” might make you run and hide. Don’t be scared. In this context, “branding” isn’t about marketing or snazzy logos. Instead, your presentation “brand” is its cohesive set of design elements. This brand is not a one-size-fits-all style for your firm’s presentations. Rather, your branding decisions should reflect the specific audiences and purposes of the presentation. Basically, this advice is “Pick one font and stick to it,” expanded for the myriad style decisions in a digital presentation.
5. Create the Slides.
At this point, the presentation will almost (almost!) create itself. You have your brand. You have your storyboard. Just use your brand template to create individual slides from the storyboard.
Of course, you might run into some obstacles along the way. Don’t worry, Professor Perlin has you covered. For example, you might discover that one slide, once created, looks too cluttered. What to do? The article includes a helpful tip: the rule of six. A person can normally see and comprehend six objects at once. If you come across a slide with more than six things—images, bullet points, titles, etc.—consider breaking it up. The article contains many more similarly easy-to-implement tips.
6. Edit, Edit, Edit.
You would never file a brief without reading and editing it, start to finish, at least a couple times. So why would you treat a digital presentation any differently? Of course, reviewing and revising a digital presentation is a more complicated process. You can’t just read the thing. Your review process should mirror the process by which the intended audience will actually receive the presentation. That means, yes, you should read and edit the slides. But you should also deliver the slides in whatever manner they will eventually be delivered. Your review should encompass not only the slides themselves, but the entire presentation, including the slides, additional documents, concurrent speeches, a projection, and any other attributes of the final product.
Whether you’re a skeptic or devotee of digital presentations, Professor Perlin’s article is sure to improve your practice. Because once you understand how to develop effective presentations, you’ll start discovering new ways to deploy this new power. And your improved communication will undoubtedly lead to improved persuasion, understanding, and collaboration across a wide range of projects.
1. Jonah Perlin, “Making Your (Power) Point: An Introductory Guide to Digital Presentation Design for Lawyers,” 18 Legal Comm. & Rhetoric: JALWD 81 (2021).
3. If you don’t already incorporate pictures or other graphical media into your traditional written documents, you should consider doing so. To inspire your thinking about using images, I recommend reading Steve Johansen & Ruth Anne Robbins, “Art-iculating the Analysis: Systemizing the Decision to Use Visuals as Legal Reasoning,” 20 J. Legal Writing Inst. 57 (2015), available at https://www.lwionline.org/sites/default/files/2020-05/Johansen%20Robbins%20Articulating%20the%20Analysis.pdf; and my colleague Elizabeth Porter, “Taking Images Seriously,” 114 Colum. L. Rev. 1687 (2014), available at https://columbialawreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Porter.pdf.