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Litigators Can Learn a Lot About Trial Presentation from Nancy Duarte

Ken Lopez
By: Ken Lopez

Trial Presentation, Presentation Graphics, Storytelling, Nancy Duarte


by Ken Lopez
Founder/CEO
A2L Consulting

Nancy Duarte is a well-known graphic designer, author and speaker who is probably best known for helping Al Gore put together his slide presentation for An Inconvenient Truth. The design philosophy and communication lessons she espouses are equally valuable to corporate presenters and litigators preparing trial presentations.

Last month, I was excited to learn that Nancy Duarte and I were speaking at the same conference, and I made it a priority to attend her session. For me, listening to Nancy is like being a cat and having catnip tossed in my direction.

My firm, A2L Consulting, and Nancy's firm, Duarte Design, are quite similar. Both are storytelling consultancies that emphasize good presentation design. However, we do focus on different markets. Duarte's market is a general corporate market whereas A2L Consulting's market is focused on litigation and influencing decision-makers involved in a variety of disputes.

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If you have read A2L's blog over the last few years, you have surely noticed that storytelling is a frequent subject of our articles and ebooks. Some noteworthy titles include our ebook on Storytelling for Litigators and articles such as 5 Keys to Telling a Great Courtroom Story, Storytelling in Apple v. Samsung and 10 Videos to Help Litigators Become Better at Storytelling.

I think Nancy's approach to storytelling is quite compatible with the advice we give to litigators. Her recommendations for effective storytelling are included in this video below:

When I saw Nancy present last month, she offered a new and imaginative way of looking at storytelling and effective communications that I think can be helpful to litigators and those who prepare trial presentations.

A typical three-part story takes us through the journey of meeting a reluctant hero who overcomes obstacles and then triumphs as the hero is transformed in some way. Nancy looked at some famous speeches and found that they did necessarily follow a typical hero's journey structure. Instead, the speakers make the audience the hero and follow a juxtaposed pattern of "what is" and "what could be" (both repeated), followed by a colorful description of a new hopeful reality. The photo at the top of this article shows the general pattern. Valleys describe what is, and plateaus describe what could be.

Her analysis does not stop there, as she goes into considerable detail about elements of a great speech. Below is a chart she prepared analyzing Martin Luther King, Jr.'s I Have a Dream speech. Phrases with common traits are highlighted along the lines showing what is v. what could be.

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Any communications junkie will enjoy this analysis and anyone involved in the trial presentation creation process will benefit from learning it. A video going into considerable detail about the speech and the charts shown above can be found here.

I think the takeaway from all of this analysis is that there is more than one way to present well, and there is more than one way to design a great trial presentation. You need not always portray the client as a hero, and you need not always follow classic storytelling patterns. In fact, very often, a presentation that follows a "what is" vs. "what could be" format may serve as a great opening or closing argument.

At the very least, one can thoughtfully include the elements found in great speeches into one's trial presentation when one understand them. Nancy's analysis is a helpful reminder that rarely does a great speech, a great opening statement or a great trial presentation simply include a chronological recitation of the facts. 

Materials related to storytelling and trial presentation on the A2L Consulting site:

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