Shooting Ourselves in the Foot with Bullets

by Ben Carter

We are out of control with our PowerPoints. 


As a group, lawyers are the worst presenters I know. As a group, lawyers should be the best. We make our livings telling stories to clients, judges, and juries. Yet, give us a Powerpoint and we will oppress an otherwise interesting and important story into a brutal deathmarch of text-laden slides worthy of the Jackson Administration. We read from our slides (which consist of the notes for our talk) until a woman in the audience begins to wish that the bullets on the screen were lodged somewhere in her prefrontal cortex.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

Never has it been this easy to give[1] a great presentation. Whether you use Microsoft PowerPoint or Apple’s Keynote, either program can quickly incorporate interesting images that capture a key concept. You can find these images online and save them to your computer in an instant. The fonts available to us are limitless.[2] Beautiful templates are prepared for us and baked into the software.

Never has it been this hard to give a great presentation. I have been traveling the state with the Kentucky Law Update series to talk about our enduring foreclosure crisis. I present after lunch. When I walk in the room during the break, I see the half-finished crosswords. I see the Amazon Kindle’s poking out of purses, the iPads filled with games and email. I know what I’m up against. The demands on our audiences’ attention have never been greater.

It has never been harder to get and keep an audience’s attention. I am here to tell you a hard truth: your deep knowledge and compelling series of bullet-pointed slides that explain everything so obviously and logically is not enough. Not even close. If you want your audience’s attention, you are going to have to rip it out of their iPad’s cold, dead hands.[3]

For trial attorneys like me, our livelihood depends on our ability to give a good presentation. Having someone’s attention is a precondition to persuasion. But, even if you are never going to set foot in a courtroom, you still need to know how to give a good presentation. You still have a stake in helping us all become better presenters.

There are 17,000 members of the Kentucky Bar Association. Each of us are required to gather 12.5 hours of Continuing Legal Education credit each year. We comply by sitting through lots of presentations. Multiply our membership by a 25-year career and collectively we will endure about 5,312,000 hours of presentations before we retire.[4]

That’s a lot of crummy presentations.

There are some basic things we can do to make our presentations instantaneously less awful. First, do whatever you need to do to keep your audience’s attention. If the only way you can do this is by butchering a chicken while talking about subrogation rights or ERISA plans, bring a tarp to make cleanup easier. Let’s stop pretending this isn’t a show and that we’re not, in part, ringleaders.

Next, adhere to Guy Kawasaki’s 10–20–30 Rule. No more than 10 slides. No more than 20 minutes. Nothing less than 30-point font on your slide. Look, your slides shouldn’t be your notes.[5] Your notes are your notes. After you create your crappy presentation that just reflect the main things you want to say, hit “Print”. Those are your notes. Congratulations. Now create your presentation with 10 words–one per slide that capture your points. Better yet, pick ten pictures that enliven the concepts and entertain while you use your notes. Your slides should be in conversation with your words, not an echo of them.

Third, get curious about how to make your presentations better. Read Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds or Beyond Bullet Points by Cliff Atkinson.

Finally, it’s time we start expecting more of ourselves and our colleagues than dry marches through case law and statutes. Obviously, imparting substantive knowledge needs to happen, but it’s time to stop pretending it’s our audience’s job to already be interested in our topics and it’s their fault if they don’t give us their undivided attention. Their failure to pay attention is our failure to capture it. Be brutal in evaluations. Demand more. If a presentation wasn’t great, give suggestions to make it better. If the presenter just phoned it in, say so.

Presentations matter. They matter to colleagues, clients, opposing counsel, and juries. At a minimum, five million hours of smart people’s time is at stake. Don’t let a bad presenter waste another hour of yours.

Ben Carter is an associate at Morris and Player, PLLC, a firm for plaintiffs. He is a consultant to the Network Center for Community Change on issues surrounding foreclosure, tax liens, and vacant and abandoned property. He welcomes your thoughts and ideas:

  1. When I say “give”, I mean it: a great presentation is a performance that stays with the audience. It is a gift.  ↩

  2. Please, stop using Calibri. When I see Calibri on the screen, the words I see are, “default.” As in: “The fact that this presentation is awful is default of the presenter.”  ↩

  3. I am aware that iPad’s do not technically have hearts and that they are, in fact, cold and dead already. You do not need to email me on this point.  ↩

  4. This doesn’t include all the time we spend in internal firm meetings that resemble the eye-popping scene from A Clockwork Orange ↩

  5. When was the last time you went to a movie and the screen was bifurcated: one side with the action and actors and the other side with a scrolling script? Exactly. Time to raise your game.  ↩