Graphics Double Comprehension


We all understand that we should incorporate graphics to strengthen the power of our presentations. It’s a maxim supported by our personal learning experiences, our observations of others, and by numerous scientific examinations. But, why does it work, and how strong is the effect in the courtroom? The answer to these questions can be found   within the very structure of your   brain.

You remember what you see far more than what you hear.

As humans, we experience our world through our eyes. Your retinas contain 70% of all    sensory receptors in your body and are actually outgrowths of your brain! Your brain’s visual system occupies up to 40% of your cerebral cortex. For comparison, touch takes up about 8% of the cerebral cortex and hearing accounts for only 3%.    [1][2]

We are visual creatures – but our ability to use language is a defining, though not quite exclusive, human characteristic. Even so, our linguistic abilities arise from much smaller areas of the brain found almost entirely within one hemisphere – Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. [3] [4]

This visual dominance explains why our ability to remember visuals is far greater than our ability to remember words. Studies consistently demonstrate that people shown over 2,000 images for a few seconds each can remember having seen them or not with an accuracy exceeding 90%, even after 3 days. [5] People’s ability to accurately recall what was said to them is about 50% immediately following a presentation and falls to about 25% after only 1 day. [6] Worse, research suggests that about half of what you remember is actually incorrect. [7]

Words and pictures interact to form more meaningful connections.

So, now we know that jurors can remember less than half of what they hear and almost all of what they see. But simply remembering the evidence is not enough. We need jurors who understand the evidence, who can fit that understanding into their larger world-view. And    we need jurors who can work as our advocates during deliberations, using their  understanding of the evidence to craft new arguments as they work with other jurors to   reach a verdict.

Neuroscientists describe the visual and verbal systems of our brain using a “dual coding  model” in which each channel operates independently to process information. Both channels have limited bandwidth and can be overwhelmed by too much stimulation – too many words  or images coming too quickly – but they do not interfere with one another. [8] Instead, raw data from both the visual and verbal channels are buffered in working memory where information and meaning are extracted, tested against information we already know, and if deemed important enough, stored in long-term memory for later   recall.

Importantly, while information is in working memory, the visual and verbal channels can interact with one another. When the information from each channel “fits together,” it forms something stronger and more meaningful. Like cement mixing with sand and gravel to form concrete, the interacting information is changed into a self-reinforcing amalgam, an idea not

only remembered but understood. This interlocked understanding linking the words and the picture together can then be stored in long term memory. When we think of the words, we see the images. When we think of the image, we also hear the words. The interlinking is what gives meaning to each.


Combining visuals and words doubles comprehension.

Some remarkable research from Dr. Richard Mayer at the University of California shines a light on putting pictures to our words, what he calls the “multimedia principle.” Not only does his work validate what we know about dual coding with the visual and verbal channels, he has measured the improvement in learning – not just memory, but understanding of the subject matter.

Briefly, he gave one group of subjects a lecture on how a tire pump works while another group heard the same lecture synchronized with an animation of the tire pump in action. Dr. Mayer wanted to know which group understood the material better. To  get at this information, he posed questions designed to test recall and application of the facts. For example, one question asked participants how to improve the pump’s efficiency and another question asked them to troubleshoot a malfunctioning pump. These ideas were not covered in the presentation. To answer, subjects would have to demonstrate an understanding of how and why the pump works. The results were dramatic.


“Subjects were scored based on whether their answers to the problem solving scenarios were considered plausible or acceptable by researchers conducting the study. They were given four questions, with 2.5 minutes to come up with as many solutions for each question.”


The lesson for trial advocates is clear.

If we want jurors to not only remember our evidence and our arguments, but to also understand them, we must use visuals to strengthen our words. If you are explaining a business deal, draw a flow-chart. If you are explaining technology, narrate an animation. If you are telling a story, use a timeline, photos of the characters, maps, etc. to illustrate each   scene.

We must be careful to remember that the jury is always looking; their visual system is a 24- hour news channel that can’t be turned off. We should, as much as possible, control what      they see. There is a time for demonstratives and visual evidence, certainly. But, there is also a time for having the jury look at the squirm of a witness, the grim expression of the defendant, the eyes of the attorney delivering a passionate closing argument. We may even want to visually distract when things are not going so well. Everything they see is visual evidence – make certain it works to your benefit.

Turning Timelines Into Plot Lines: Trial Graphics as Storytelling

Consider the humble timeline. A trial graphic staple, it is often the first demonstrative on your list. There are many computer applications devoted to the automatic creation of timelines. However, in spite of the widely held opinion that storytelling is the most powerful means of communication, we often fail to tell our story in the one demonstrative especially suited for that purpose.

Properly conceived and executed, a timeline might more accurately be called a Plotline. Whereas a timeline simply arranges discrete events in chronological order, a Plotline weaves each event into a single, logical flow of information. A Plotline does not limit itself to the who, what and when. Rather, it adds the why and the how; the cause and effect; the motive, means and opportunity. In other words, it tells the story.

In the best stories, writers, directors and editors are careful to link one event to the next in a seamless progression. They work to provide the characters’ context, motivation and actions in sufficient detail for the audience to be immersed within the story – to emotionally identify with the characters. While litigators don’t have all of the devices available in the art of novels and movies, with a few slides and some boards, litigators can strengthen their storytelling to great benefit.

To illustrate the issue, I have created two graphics. The first example is typical of what we have all seen in trial and what might be produced by timeline software. With a nod to some great SciFi movies from the ’70s, I made up some facts surrounding an imaginary case between Omega and Soylent which involves claims for breach of a joint venture agreement, employee raiding and theft of trade secrets.


demonstrative timeline

The first timeline has the facts arranged in neat boxes with easily read text and a pleasant color scheme. However, it tells the audience virtually nothing about the story we wish to communicate. It does not provide character motivation or illustrate cause and effect. Its layout does not provide an easy framework for the mental insertion of other details that will be exposed during the trial.

In the second example shown below, the Plotline, I’ve attempted to correct the deficiencies of the timeline shown above.

demonstrative timeline 2

I would like to point out a few features:

  • A Working Title: The title explains the meaning of the Plotline, makes a promise to the viewer that all will be explained, and includes a double entendre using “GREEN” to mean both the product and the profits.
  • Structural Elements: Some elements, such as the timeline and the graph scale lines, provide structure and a frame of reference but are not particularly interesting to the viewer. Like grid lines on a map, they should recede into the background. Here we have colored them in light grey with just enough contrast to be legible, but not so much as to draw the eye away from the important elements.
  • Color Grouping: Color is a good way to organize information thematically. For example, following the double meaning in the title, we have green coding both the stolen trade secrets as well as the revenues derived from that theft. Cause, meet Effect. Similarly, we have placed a large, medium-grey block around the timeline entries detailing the employee raiding and trade secret theft and anchored that with a black bar below the timeline to indicate the period during which this special group of entries took place. Lastly, we have a large red bar that follows from the black bar (with an arrow for good measure) with another cause:effect relationship. If it isn’t obvious, red is the single most powerful color (at least in the Western world). Used judiciously, it is almost impossible to ignore.
  • Summary Statements: Let’s face it. Jurors sometimes have short attention spans (more on that below) so we shouldn’t imagine that they will always read everything. We have tried to alleviate this risk by including some summary statements describing, in broad terms, several entries. You can almost always trust an audience to read the title. Then we have added, twice, the words “EMPLOYEE RAIDING and TRADE SECRET THEFT” and followed that with, “SOYLENT MAKES $2.7B USING STOLEN OMEGA TRADE SECRETS.” Through the title and these summary statements, we ask the question and give the answer. The audience can understand the entire chart without reading another word.
  • Limited Information in plain language: The timeline entries are brief and written plainly. They should be easily understood but need not contain every detail. Remember, an attorney and a witness are available to explain and enrich (with evidence!) each entry.

Admittedly, the Plotline is a more challenging demonstrative for our audience. But, it is orders of magnitude more interesting. We often see complex information graphics such as this Plotline in newspapers and magazines. They are packed with information but require the viewer’s curiosity and time commitment. In trial, by contrast, we cannot wait while the jury figures out how to understand our more complex demonstratives. For this reason, we have been trained to severely limit the amount of information on any one demonstrative. I won’t quibble with that basic premise – it is a good rule of thumb. I would, however, argue that the jury can understand and benefit from more complex graphics if carefully designed and presented.

It would be advisable, therefore, to introduce the information on this Plotline in step-by-step fashion through an on-screen presentation. How many steps and in what order would depend upon the presentation. If presented in opening statement, the information could be revealed chronologically. If presented through a fact witness, it may be that certain elements might come out of time due to limitations of that witness’s knowledge. Either way, the revelation of each element should be supported by some piece of admissible evidence. One possible sequence is shown below:


Regardless of the sequence, after fully constructing the timeline on screen, you may wish to have a trial board for permanent display in the courtroom. Placing a large timeline on an easel provides easy reference for attorney, witness, judge and jury alike. It also provides a framework for discussion of evidence not literally included on the Plotline.  For instance, Soylent emails to Omega employees can be framed into the “Employee Raiding” period shown on our demonstrative.

Neither our lives nor our cases are comprised of a series of discrete, unrelated events as we saw in the first conventional timeline demonstrative. Each event flows naturally from one to another through cause and effect, action and reaction. A good story follows this natural rhythm and so will a good Plotline.