Seeing is Thinking

Tess Brady

By Tess Brady


The common phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” has never been more true. Jurors retain about 20 percent of the evidence presented in oral testimony alone, but, when oral testimony is combined with demonstrative evidence such as graphs, pictures or models, the retention rate jumps to 80 percent. In other words, no matter how well researched and stated your argument may be, if it is made up of words alone, there is little chance of your jurors remembering it all.

In the legal process where concepts are potentially overwhelming to a jury, a well-designed trial graphic can cut through the legal cacophony to simplify convoluted concepts, lay out a lengthy timeline or emphasize key arguments in a far more dynamic way than words alone.

While the potential benefits of using trial graphics are numerous, it is critical to do it well. If done poorly – whether because too much text is jammed onto one board, the color clashes, it evokes the wrong emotions or the sequencing is off – visuals can actually distract or confuse your jury, weakening your case.

So, how do you ensure you get it right? Well, following are my five tips to effectively present data.
1. Present data that matters to the jury (supports your theme). Don’t add data to a chart just because you have it. As an example in an age discrimination case, you don’t need to tell the jury if they owned pets, even though you have that data.
2. Tell a story, simply. Even if all the data collected is relevant, it has to presented in a way that conveys a coherent story. Even reasonably simple visuals can spark confusion if not done correctly.
3. Choose appropriate visualizations. It’s important to analyze the data and choose the proper format in which to present it. Not all data can be effectively understood in a pie chart or bar graph. There are myriad visual vehicles with which to convey your messages, but not every one will work for every piece of evidence.
4. Make sure graphic elements accurately reflect the data. Don’t mislead the jury by making a graphic disproportional to the data. Don’t add 3D elements and excessive colors that confuse or distract users. If sales are at 75 percent and you use a pie chart, that portion would be three slices of the pie. Don’t alter the visual to help your case because if discovered, it could harm your credibility throughout the entire trial and you could lose your case.
5. Don’t over-use text. The whole point of visualization is to communicate information quickly and visually. If well done there is no need for superfluous explanatory text that can clutter a graphic.

It is often overwhelming for the trial attorney to sort through volumes of data, pleadings, photographs, emails, records and testimony to figure out how to organize the information in order to tell their story in a simple concise way. Just remember, trial graphics are not legal pleadings. Less is more and working with a trial graphics consultant who is trained to help the attorney simplify can be priceless.

In Action
A good example of trying to simplify data happened on a recent case. The attorney gave me a 25-page excel spreadsheet of all the medication the plaintiff had taken in one year’s time. I created a different colored “pill” for each medication and visually stacked up each pill on top of the other creating a bar graph. I also had a key showing the pill and what it represented. When seeing thousands of pills stacked up, filling the graphic, it was extremely effective.

The famous data scientist Edward Tufte (dubbed the Galileo of graphics) pioneered the field of data visualization. Tufte discusses how diagrams help people see and understand without words. Tufte developed the Thinking Eye. The great advantage of effective trial graphics is to devote most of one’s brain-processing power to the seeing. Seeing is truly thinking and the best gift of all to a trial attorney is when the jury understands your client’s case by what they see.

Tess Brady is the former owner of Evidence Express, now a division of Computing Source, a Chicagobased full-service provider of legal support services. For litigation graphic samples go to Computing Source offers legal professionals one number to call for support throughout the lifecycle of their case. Visit, email or call (312) 554-1500 for more information.