Both scientific and legal training stress the importance of avoiding anthropomorphism. We are taught to study and apply the laws of science and society based on facts and logic; to remove our own personal bias from observation and communication. However, that very science, through the study of linguistics, for example, teaches us that human beings think, speak and experience the world through the lens of our own, rather personal, sense of anthropomorphism. In other words, people experience the world through human hands, human eyes and human ears all coupled to a human brain filled with human emotions. We are hard-wired to apply human emotion and reason to all we see and hear.
When it comes to trial presentation, patent lawyers (many with technical training prior to their entry into the law) and technical experts are at a distinct disadvantage. They live by the cold, harsh light of the scientific method, eschewing anthropomorphism in their work. There is nothing inherently wrong with the scientific method. However, to point out the obvious, jurors in technical cases are not typically scientists or technologists. Indeed, any scientifically trained juror is likely to be excluded based on that very training.
Now that we are faced with a jury of non-scientists and the difficult task of teaching technical subject matter to them, we must switch off the cold light of science, light a warm fire and settle in to tell a story.
Anthropomorphism has a long and great history in storytelling. In the jealous gods of antiquity and the animal players of Aesop, humans relate to the world around them through their natural capacity for anthropomorphism. Within the first five minutes of the Pixar(R) movie, Wall-E, I found that I had emotionally connected with a cartoon trash compactor. To me, the animated machine (twice removed from my own humanity) had a heart, a mind and a soul. He was lonely. My personal experience is not, strictly speaking, "evidence." But the popularity of this and other movies like it should tell us something about our ability to connect with the inanimate in very compelling ways. As trial communicators we should embrace this remarkable ability and exploit its power.
In my practice, I frequently encounter opportunities to anthropomorphize within demonstratives. This is particularly true in intellectual property cases where we need to explain technical subject matter in a way that is easily understandable to a lay jury. Consider these two statements:
1) Once authenticated, a stateful firewall enforces access policies such as what services are allowed to be accessed by the network users.
2) The firewall recognizes you by your name and password. It also knows what access privileges you have and will prevent you from doing anything you are not supposed to do.
In the following example (from a PowerPoint file with five animated slides culled from a much longer presentation), you can see how we have given voice to three computers in a network authentication system. Not only have we simplified the technical description of what is happening, we have also attributed motive and reasoning to the computer systems by portraying a conversation between them. The descriptions at the top of the slide satisfy basic evidentiary and credibility requirements for the expert's testimony. The speech balloons, on the other hand, allow jurors to relate to the computer systems on a personal level. (If you would like to see these slides in higher resolution imagery, follow this link: http://www.slideshare.net/jbarnes0/anthropomorphism-in-technical-presentation.)
Reading the dialogue, we hear our own voice. Unbidden, our brains immediately begin to relate memories, reasoning and emotion to the words. It is possible to read patent language in a dry monotone without inflection or emotion. Dialogue is exactly the opposite. Reading dialogue, whether aloud or silently, we automatically apply changes in inflection, meter and loudness. The words play like a movie soundtrack.
Obviously, it is possible to take anthropomorphism in your presentation too far. Pixar can get away with portraying animated robots as angry or lonely. Who among us has not thought our own computer was behaving belligerently or petulantly when it was not doing what we expected it to do? It would be ridiculous, however, in the context of a trial presentation, to portray our firewall from the example above as being angry when a user tries to exceed her privileges or lonely when no users are connected. Like most things in life, moderation is the key.
I hope that this discussion will prompt you to look at your technical presentations in a new, warmer light. Do you have some good (or bad) examples? Link to them in your response along with your comments. Thank you and good luck!
Jason Barnes, a.k.a. "The Graphics Guy" [firstname.lastname@example.org] is a graphic designer and trial consultant based in Dallas, Texas. He has been practicing visual advocacy since 1990 and has worked in venues across the country. He specializes in intellectual property and complex business litigation cases. You can read more about Mr. Barnes at his webpage [http://www.barnesandroberts.com].
Citation for this article: The Jury Expert, 2009, 21(5), 24-28.