Creating a trial presentation is a balancing act. We must balance advocacy with ethics, aesthetics with function, narrative with evidence. We are told that the most effective presentations show instead of tell, but in reality, the showing and the telling are also aspects of the presentation which must be balanced—the testimony of the witness or attorney argument is combined with the visual evidence to create a compelling story.

In previous articles, we critiqued two proposed methods of presentation using PowerPoint – one that claimed the software was “evil” in that it encouraged bad design and inefficiency in communication, and one that called for a different way of presenting using a three act structure and appeal to emotion. We found both ideas had some merit, but that, for the particular creation of trial presentations, both approaches were inadequate.

However, another technique exists that we believe is specifically applicable to and useful in trial. It is called the Assertion-Evidence Structure.

What Is Assertion-Evidence?

The Assertion-Evidence Structure of presentation design consists of two parts: an assertive headline stating the point of the slide, and the visual evidence supporting the asserted point.

Also called “alternative design,” the design was developed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and championed in writings by scientists Michael Alley and Kathryn A. Neeley. A similar design model was independently developed by French designer Jean-Luc Doumont in response to Edward Tufte’s “The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint.”

As described by Alley and Neely in their article “Rethinking the Design of PowerPoint Slides: A Case for Sentence Headlines and Visual Evidence”:

Two features distinguish the alternative design from the traditional design: the succinct sentence headline as opposed to a phrase headline, and the use of visual evidence as opposed to a bulleted list. Using a succint sentence headline is not a new idea. Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory has been advocating such a headline since the 1980’s. Such a headline responds to the traditional design’s falure to clarify the purpose of each slide. Likewise, relying on visual evidence is not new either—many advocates of the “intelligent use” of PowerPoint have made similar calls.

Alley1 Alley2 Alley3

A series of slides accompanying Alley and Neely’s article demonstrating how to convert PowerPoint’s default template to the Assertion-Evidence model. The third slide compares the two slides’ effectiveness.


Alley and Doumont agree that the sentence headline should state the purpose of the slide succinctly, using no more than two lines of text. Short, clear, declarative sentences are best – more Hemingway than haiku. The audience should be able to quickly grasp the point you wish to make and move on to the visual evidence, which you will explain orally. Vague slide titles can confuse the audience as to what the purpose of the slide is. A title like “Timeline of Events” adds nothing of value to a slide. The audience knows it’s a timeline of events, but what is the point of showing these particular events? “Timeline of Defendant’s Violations” is better, but still too vague, and not very persuasive. “Defendant Repeatedly Violated the Contract” tells the audience exactly what you are going to show them.

Stating the point of the slide boldly and succinctly has the added benefit of focusing the slide. Asking, “What do I need to say?” makes the responsibility of the visual evidence very clear: it must support the thesis. The claim can’t be made unless it can be backed up with visual evidence. This adds credibility to the argument.

It also helps the audience to see how a piece fits within the whole body of evidence, developing themes and stories into a narrative built with purpose. One headline leads into the next and the pieces begin to form a picture. Sometimes people shy away from using strong headlines, but as advocates, we owe it to the audience to help them understand what we are trying to say. Even with the best made slides, juries can get confused. A strong headline is a way to lead a jury through the many parts of a case using a clearly marked path.

If one is worried that a judge might sustain an objection to an assertive title, simply remove the assertion from the slide – but do not remove it from the presentation. Remember, your presentation is both the showing and the telling. Tell the jury, overtly or in a question to the witness, what the assertion is, then show them the evidence.


The evidence portion of the slide can be any visual that backs up the assertion made in the headline. Chart and graphs, timelines, diagrams, photographs, animations, and documents are some of the options for evidence. The evidence should be presented as simply as possible while still supporting your point, leaving out extraneous labeling and details. Excessive color and decoration limit the effectiveness of the slide, giving the audience unnecessary and distracting information to process. This violates the cognitive theory of multimedia learning, which we will discuss in a moment.


“Analysts Agreed There Had Been an Overreaction” This assertive statement is backed up by clips from multiple reports where analysts state their determination that the market overreacted to news of negative court judgments.


“EOR Told the Market When Pending Claim Numbers Increased” Fighting a fraud claim, company EOR needed to prove that they did not try to hide the number of claims against it from investors. This timeline chart shows the number of claims made against EOR from quarter to quarter, and that investors were told when the claim numbers spiked.


“Playtex’s Patent Application Was Filed to Late” This timeline’s single purpose is stated in the title, and needed just three dates to illustrate the point.

Warning Signs

“Warning Signs Appeared Throughout the History of the Culvert’s Construction” This timeline traces the troubled construction of a culvert, showing both the milestones (in blue) and the problems (in orange) and finally the collapse of the culvert (in yellow). In addition to the text on the slide, there are icons which link to photos and documents of the underlying evidence.

Examples of types of visual evidence: testimony slides, documents, graphs, charts, timelines, tables, math, video, animations, illustrations, figures.

In presenting these graphics, one first states the assertion (which is written on the slide), then walks through the proof of that assertion, then state the assertion verbally again after the evidence has been presented. This Aristotelian formula has been an effective presentation tool for 2,400 years, and works especially well with the Assertion-Evidence model.

Well thought out analogies, metaphors, and abstracts can also be effective in an Assertion-Evidence slide. As stated by Carmen Taran in “Rethinking PowerPoint”:

What I think that a lot of PowerPoint users don’t do very well is visualizing abstracts… We all need some more training in visualizing abstracts. How do you bring to life something that you can not touch or put your finger on concretely? For instance, how do you visualize being an alien in a country? How do you visualize feeling alienated? How about a barbed wire. How would you visualize revenge? We used a picture this morning of this Porsche that had a license plate which said WAS HIS. That is how you can visualize revenge. The minute that you put a little extra effort into visualizing abstracts, now you open up new possibilities in your users’ minds.

However, a poorly thought out metaphor can damage your message. We’ve seen mock jury deliberations where metaphors that are widely used in litigation presentations are flatly rejected, and called the presenter’s credibility into question in the mind of the audience.

Multimedia Principles of Learning

In his book “Multimedia Learning,” Richard E. Mayer introduces five multimedia principles to help audiences learn when being presented with multimedia presentations. Using these principles reduces extraneous processing, the processing of irrelevant information which can interfere with learning. Here are the five principles and some easy-to-follow advice on adhering to them.

Coherence – Delete extraneous words, sounds, or graphics.
Signaling – Highlight essential words or graphics.
Redundancy – Delete redundant captions from narrated animation.
Spatial Contiguity – Place essential words next to corresponding graphics on the screen or page.
Temporal Contiguity – Present corresponding words and pictures simultaneously.


In “Rethinking PowerPoint,” Dan Roam says, “The essence of communication is trying to get what’s in my head into your head in the fastest and most efficient and most believable way possible.” There is not a single solution that works in every situation, but to communicate effectively, knowing which tool to use for every task is vital.

The idea that PowerPoint is evil or inherently produces bad design is simply wrong. The Three-Act Play model is useful in some situations, such as an opening statement. But, when openings are over and all eyes are focused on the presentation of actual evidence with the goals of understanding and persuasion, the Assertion-Evidence model rises to the fore. It meshes with the question-answer format of a trial. It fits well with the way we prepare witnesses and craft outlines. In short, it is the best model we have seen for working attorneys and visual advocacy specialists to use in preparing materials for trial.

Brian Patterson has been a graphic designer since 1990. In 1998, he began work in litigation graphics, working first at DecisionQuest then at Barnes & Roberts. He now works for The Focal Point as a Senior Trial Consultant.

Jason Barnes has been a trial consultant, designing demonstrative evidence and presentations, since 1990. With over 28 years of experience, he has prepared presentations and provided on-site support for hundreds of cases. He writes regularly for The Jury Expert where he is also the Associate Editor.