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Courtroom and Boardroom Presentations: Comparing and Contrasting
By Larry Tracy   Printer Friendly Version

Legal presentations and "boardroom" presentations have much in common, but there are significant differences that impact on the attorney called on to present within a non-courtroom context. While the term "Brief" has a particular meaning for lawyers, it should be viewed within the business or government world as "Bottom Line Up Front-Get to the Point-Don't Waste Valuable Time." Brevity and clarity are the keys to presenting to senior corporate executives, potential clients, or government officials, and, at least theoretically, the presentation should be an objective statement of the facts, not an exercise in advocacy. The use of visuals, still somewhat rare in the courtroom, has become commonplace in business presentations.

Persuasive speaking may have had its origins when Eve convinced Adam to take a bite of the apple, but the teaching of speaking as discipline had its origin in Ancient Greece, or to be more precise, Ancient Sicily, which was a part of the Greek empire 2500 years ago. Corax, a philosophy professor, and his pupil Tisias, developed a training program around 460 BC to help Sicilians prove their ownership to property taken by a dictator, who had been overthrown and replaced with a democratic government. Corax's followers became the Sophists, itinerant teachers of rhetoric, or public speaking, in Greece. Tisias is supposed to have written the first law book. That there were no lawyers at this time probably limited sales of this text, but it became a self-help guide for citizens of the litigious Greek empire.

Aristotle proceeded to write The Rhetoric, the book upon which modern speaking principles are based.. This system emphasized the importance of the audience, and saw effective speaking composed of three parts-Ethos (Credibility of the speaker), Pathos (Arguments appealing to the emotions), and Logos (Factual data). These elements are certainly recognizable as characteristics of effective trial lawyers and business presenters.

There are significant and subtle differences between legal and business presentations, despite the fact they spring from the same source. In the judgement of this writer, who is not a lawyer but has considerable experience in training business executives, government officials and lawyers in the art of speaking, the most significant differences revolve around the issues of advocacy, brevity and the use of visuals.


The Legal Presentation. The heart of our legal system, as it has evolved from English Common Law, is the adversarial system. The lawyer has been trained to be a strong advocate for his or her client, whether that client is a person or the state. Persuasion is at the center of the courtroom presentation, and this is understood by judge and jury. The attorney who makes the best use of the evidence, incorporating Ethos, Pathos, and Logos, is likely to receive a judgement in his/her favor.

The Business/Government Presentation The lawyer who carries law school/courtroom advocacy to corporate boardroom filled with senior executives or potential clients is courting trouble. Such executives/clients normally want an objective statement of the facts, and the presenter, at least in theory, is not supposed to "push" one side or the other of the issue. In the competitive sales presentation, of course, more leeway is granted, but "courtroom tactics" could well backfire with potential clients who may believe they are being manipulated by a shrewd litigator.

In reality, virtually all presentations have a persuasive component, and "spin" cannot be entirely removed. The lawyer suspected of either being too strong an advocate for a particular issue, or of using "Legalse" to support his or her position, may lose credibility with non-lawyer audiences in the corporate or government world. A lawyer making a presentation in a boardroom must be both defense attorney and prosecutor, thereby permitting the "Judge"—the senior executives and/or clients—to make the final decision. This requires a certain discipline and "unlearning" of ingrained habits.


Legal Presentations. It is sometimes said by legal pundits on television that the most difficult task for the trial attorney is to know when to stop talking. This flows directly from the "Advocacy-Adversarial" nature of our legal system. The immense amount of data obtained during discovery can aid the attorney's position, but too much can bore and alienate both Judge and jury. A friend of mine, a Judge in the Los Angeles Superior Court, has told me that when a lawyer "drones on, belaboring the point he or she made five minutes ago, I say ‘Counsel, is this plane ever going to land?' " He tells me this remark has a definite chilling effect on long-winded lawyers. But even with such admonitions from the bench, the courtroom permits much more time to develop a case/make a point/explain an issue than does the corporate of government or corporate conference room.

Boardroom Presentations. Lawyers in the corporate/business environment making a presentation on legal issues, will still probably be granted more time, as these senior executives realize they need legal advice to stay out of trouble in contracts and other potentially litigious matters. In general, however, business and government presenters are expected to get right to the point, the verbal equivalent of the of the Executive Summary of the written document. The presenter is expected to provide only what the decision maker requires to make the decision, or to stay out of trouble, and they are urged to avoid extraneous information.

To illustrate this point, let me draw from my own experience. When I headed the Defense Intelligence Agency's Presentation Division, in our daily briefings to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and eight Three Star Generals, we were limited to ten minutes to cover the world, and this was at the height of the Cold War. Such a time limit does not permit an in-depth treatment. We were rarely off the platform in less that 30 minutes, however, as the briefing normally stimulated at least 20-30 minutes of discussion and questions. You must, therefore, go into the presentation with your verbal "Executive Summary," but prepared with extensive backup information. The best way to prepare for a challenging presentation is with a rigorous "Murder Board," which is discussed below.


Although visual aids are starting to be used in courtrooms, they are not as prevalent as they are within presentations in the business and government worlds. The following is a summary of advice on how to employ visuals, with a special treatment of the perils of Microsoft's PowerPoint.

People learn best when they can see as well as hear. Visual aids, however, must support the presentation, not be the presentation. The purpose of the presentation is to transfer knowledge, not dazzle an audience with visual art. Many presenters, unfortunately, use visuals as a crutch, not an aid. Because visuals appeal to the eye, which can be more sensitive than the ear, they call attention away from the speaker. The presenter wishing to establish strong credibility should avoid playing Master of Ceremonies for a projector. These "tips" help you in making presentations:

In using visuals, always keep the audience in mind. Can the person sitting at the most distant point from the screen easily read the words? When designing the visuals, know the dimensions of the room in which the presentation will be given. For example, if the distance between you and the most distant person is 50 feet, the letters on the screen should be at least an inch high.

Is the visual consistent with the words being spoken when the visual is on the screen? This requires practice, and, if using an assistant, thorough teamwork to achieve precise timing. A technique that can facilitate blending the verbal message with visual is to ask a rhetorical question, with the visual then coming on the screen to provide the answer.

In depicting complex data, use large lettering to facilitate audience comprehension, and consider using the "overlay technique" if using overhead transparencies. Place the basic drawing on one acetate sheet, then additional data on other acetate sheets that are then superimposed on the basic transparency. Audience members can more readily grasp relations among data points sequentially, rather than becoming confused with all the data presented to them simultaneously. This is especially so with quantitative presentations explaining data that requires displaying several variables.

The same procedure, of course, can be used with vertical or horizontal bar or line graphs. When using "bullet outlines" or "laundry lists" on overhead transparencies, a frequent problem is that audience members may concentrate on, say, the fourth line while the speaker is referring to the first line. To avoid this and focus the audience's attention where you want it, try the "revelation" technique. Cover all the lines you are not addressing with a piece of paper, and "reveal" each line as you come to it in the presentation. When using a graphics program such as PowerPoint, the program itself allows highlighting of points being discussed.

The advice above is applicable to all presentations using visual aids—overhead transparencies, 35mm slides, flipcharts, and, of course computer-driven graphic programs..PowerPoint is the most powerful graphics tool available, is relatively easy to use, and has become a metaphor for graphics programs, much as Xerox has become the generic word for copying documents.

PowerPoint has built-capabilities that have made it the state-of-the-art presentations program. Below is some advice on what bells not to ring, what whistles not to toot. By following the dictate "less is more," you will become a better presenter, and will truly maximize the tremendous advantages PowerPoint gives you to get your point across:

Fonts: A problem presented by any computer program is the multiplicity of fonts available. Occasional use of different fonts can enliven a page or screen, but using several types of fonts can make the speaker appear to be a graduate of the "kidnapper's ransom note" school of presentations. Additionally, make sure to use fonts large enough to be seen in the back of the room. This forces you to not put too much information on one slide.

AutoContent Wizard/Templates: For the person new to PowerPoint, the AutoContent Wizard and Template capabilities make the rookie appear the veteran. Don't let your ego get in the way—your job is to develop interesting and compelling content. You are an expert in the law; take advantage of the experts of Microsoft who have developed the built-in formats.

Transitions/Colors/Animations: Be careful with the transitions from one slide to the next. PowerPoint will help you gain audience attention, but overly flashy transitions and animations can also annoy and distract the audience. Consistency in colors--and the appropriate background sets the stage for the text colors--is vitally important to maintain audience interest and attention. Be consistent in the use of transitions to maintain audience comfort level and increase attention span. Keep in mind that approximately 3% of the American population has a degree of color blindness with regard to red and green.

You are the Presenter: Above all, remember that YOU are the messenger, and PowerPoint exists only to help you. Don't look at the screen-maintain eye contact with the audience; Don't marvel at your own visuals; Don't use too much clip art; Don't read off the screen (although you may do this with foreign audiences.) The

Bottom line: Let PowerPoint work for you, but always keep in mind that content normally trumps pizazz with serious, intelligent audience members. Your job is to transfer information from you to your audience. PowerPoint can help you implant your information so members of your audience will remembers it, but excessive reliance on gee-whiz aspects of the program could result in your audience recalling how great were your visuals, but they may not remember the message you were attempting to convey.

Copyright © 2000 by Lawrence L. Tracy
All Rights Reserved.

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