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83 – Cliff Atkinson – Beyond Bullet Points: The Art of Visual Storytelling

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with consultant Cliff Atkinson. Cliff has worked with some of the top trial lawyers in the country to help them better tell their clients’ stories. He and Michael discuss his path to success, what he’s found effective for telling stories at trial, how to use the visual medium to help tell a story and where to find good visuals, the creative process, and how Zoom effects our ability to present information.

Cliff and Michael begin the episode with a look at Cliff’s backstory. He shares how he first used PowerPoint for a business school project in the late 90’s, where he added bullet pointed information into the slides like everyone else. A few years later while looking at some blank slides, he realized it could be SO much more than that. As he began writing articles about using PowerPoint as a creative medium, he began receiving attention. After consulting with General Electric’s board, he was approached by Microsoft to write a book about using PowerPoint creatively, which became the bestseller “Beyond Bullet Points”. After Mark Lanier read his book and couldn’t put it down, he was brought in on his first case- Mark’s legendary $253 million verdict against Vioxx, and the rest is history.

Michael then digs deeper into what Cliff has found effective for telling our stories at trial. While Cliff is well-known for his PowerPoint prowess, he insists the story needs to be crafted before you can even THINK about the visuals. Once you have your story, the visuals ride on top of it, magnify it, and make it more powerful.

Michael notes how it can be a challenge to distill the vast number of facts in a case into a story, and asks Cliff for his advice on how to craft a compelling story. He starts with finding the structure using a 3-part story tool template. It’s about making it clear, concise, and powerful. But Cliff insists that it’s NOT about dumbing it down for the jury, it’s about distilling it down. Michael wholeheartedly agrees with this statement and adds that it’s about trusting and respecting the jurors – a recurring theme in this podcast. Cliff then refers to a concept from the book “Made to Stick” called “The Curse of Knowledge.” If you’ve been working on something for a long time and you’re explaining it to someone who hasn’t seen it before, you’re going to have a hard time looking at it like a beginner.

Cliff then begins to elaborate on how to incorporate the visual medium into your story. After sharing an inspiring example of this being done successfully in Mark Lanier’s Vioxx trial, Cliff eloquently explains this verbiage is the infrastructure for the visual. Once you find your engaging thematic element, the visuals are easy to find. He likes to keep images simple and shares an example from a very complex financial case. He used a blue bucket to demonstrate the key facts of the case, and it simplified the case so well the jurors were asking about it after the case and it undoubtedly helped the attorney win. The key is to make the experience fun and entertaining for the jury.

After a brief but insightful discussion of high tech vs. low tech visuals, Cliff highlights some of his favorite ways to find visuals. The largest source would be items you already have, including documents, PDFs, screen captures from Google Earth, and dashcam video. Once you have all of those visuals, you can do custom 3D constructions, or just do a Google image search to see what’s out there. If you find something close to what you’d like, you can easily hire a freelance graphic designer to create the image you want. Michael then shares some of his favorite low-budget visuals he’s created in his career, and urges listeners to think outside of the box before shelling out $20,000 for an elaborate model.

On the topic of creative thinking, Cliff highly recommends setting aside space in your office for a “creative room.” Keep all the courtroom toys in there, and encourage your lawyers to spend time exploring the visceral part of communication they can so easily feel removed from. Michael shares how some lawyers can be scared to get creative and break away from what’s been done in the past. Cliff agrees, and suggests those lawyers focus on wanting the jurors to have fun. Then, have fun with helping THEM have fun.

Lastly, Michael and Cliff discuss how to tell a story effectively over Zoom. Cliff’s main takeaways involve doing the little things to get an edge over the other side. Things like upgrading your webcam, microphone, and lighting can make a massive difference in your ethos and how the jury perceives your story. He likens a messy background in a Zoom meeting to wearing a crappy suit in court, it worsens your credibility.

To take it a step further, Cliff recommends looking into software you can use to enhance the experience even further. He highly recommends ECAMM or Manycam if you’re on a tighter budget. These tools allow you to be your own videographer and can even create a more engaging experience than if you were with them in person.

If you’d like to learn more about or work with Cliff Atkinson, visit his website. He offers full-day private workshops on storytelling and a course to teach you how to implement these techniques yourself, which Cliff believes is the future.

This podcast episode also covers more details on Mark Lanier’s Vioxx trial, how haikus can help you become a better advocate, why the “Rule of 3’s” exists, whether high tech or low tech visuals are more effective, how Zoom can be even better than in-person videography, and so much more.

Guest Bio:

Cliff Atkinson is an acclaimed writer, popular keynote speaker, and an independent communications consultant to leading attorneys and Fortune 500 companies. He crafted the presentation that persuaded a jury to award a $253 million verdict to the plaintiff in the nation’s first Vioxx trial in 2005, which Fortune magazine called “frighteningly powerful.

Cliff’s bestselling book Beyond Bullet Points (published by Microsoft Press) was named a Best Book of 2007 by the editors of Amazon.com, and has been published in four editions and translated into a dozen languages including Chinese, Korean, and Russian.  His work has been featured in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal, and Fox News.

 

75 – Delisi Friday – Keys to Success: Lessons From Zoom Trial Prep

In this episode of the Trial Lawyer Nation podcast, Michael sits down with his marketing “genius” Delisi Friday to discuss what they did to prepare for a Zoom jury trial. While the case settled one day before the trial was set to begin, they learned some key takeaways on what it takes to prepare a case for trial in this new and exciting format.

They jump right into the episode by discussing the need for movement in a virtual trial. Michael insisted from the beginning that he needed to be able to stand up and move in order to engage with the jury, especially for voir dire and opening. He compares this to a live TV show, versus a normal trial being like live theater. He also emphasizes the importance of proper lighting, the jury being able to see your facial expressions clearly, making “eye contact” with the jury through a camera, and practicing (and recording) every single aspect of your presentation to ensure it goes off without a hitch.

Michael then goes into detail about how he planned to conduct voir dire and maintain eye contact throughout – something he says, even with a ton of practice, “was weird.” They mitigated this challenge by displaying the jury on a 70 inch TV located above the camera. Additionally, they had a smaller screen located underneath the camera where they “spotlighted” the speaker. This allowed Michael to both see the entire jury panel and make “eye contact” with the juror he was currently talking to.

He then explains why “practice, practice, practice” is SO crucial for a virtual trial. This includes using ALL of the equipment you plan on using ahead of time, sharing an embarrassing test voir dire he did with a group of lawyers that was riddled with technical issues. You don’t want to be thinking about whether the tech will work or not, you want to be thinking about your connection with the jury. Delisi agrees and adds that you need to know when to stop adding new things in your effort to be better, give yourself enough time to practice with everything, and minimize the stress of last-minute changes.

They move on to discuss the advantages of a Zoom jury trial versus a regular trial. Michael shares how jurors no longer have to get up and go to the courthouse, they’re excited about the novel concept, and as plaintiff lawyers, you now control what the jury can see. Delisi agrees and shares that they learned so much through this process, including the (shocking) importance of using less visuals.

Michael continues by sharing how important his trial lawyer friends’ input was in this process. The love and sense of community he felt was extraordinary, and the process of practicing with them helped him hone his presentation and gave him a sense of confidence. Delisi agrees and adds that seeing the development of his opening statement was so “magical,” and that she could really see the difference and the growth throughout. She also adds how the Zoom medium and the excessive amount of practice allowed Michael to take more risks and resulted in a much more dramatic and engaging opening statement.

Michael then takes a step back to explain that even if you don’t have a “team of pro’s,” you can incorporate some of these steps as long as you have someone to help you. Delisi agrees and adds that most of the materials they purchased were very affordable – she even utilized a cardboard box to block sunlight from hitting Michael’s face!

They conclude the episode by discussing their main takeaways. Michael shares how he would have tried to have a pre-trial conference earlier to hammer out some issues ahead of time, and started practicing with the technology further in advance. Delisi adds that she learned how important simplicity was in this process, and next time she wants to consider that in how we aid in the storytelling process. Michael agrees and once again emphasizes that you need to practice, record yourself, and watch those recordings. He also reiterates that it’s not about the lawyer or their ego – it’s about the jury and your client. And when the jury trusts you, they’ll work through a technical issue with you. If you trust in them, it takes a lot of your stress away.

While Michael is a bit disappointed that the case settled and he didn’t get to try it, he knew that the settlement offer was what was best for his client and was happy to take it. This process still provided valuable practice for the next time he gets the opportunity to try a case by Zoom, something he firmly believes is the best option for getting justice on personal injury cases right now. He urges any trial lawyer listening to seize this opportunity if it’s presented to them.

This podcast also covers hand gestures, learning to use two cameras on Zoom, the importance of camera angles, light reflections, and considering the video of your witnesses who are not in your office.

SHOW NOTES:

Some of the materials discussed and used for their “Zoom courtroom” are linked below and available for purchase online:

  1. Grey backdrop (under $20)
  2. Headphone extension cable (under $10)
  3. Wireless lavalier microphone (under $80)
  4. Backdrop System Kit (under $70)
  5. Micro HDMI to HDMI cable (under $20)
  6. Cam Link 4K (under $125)

 

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