We have all read the many litigation community blogs and articles that warn about “Death by Bullet Point” text presentations. Numerous Government, Education and Cognitive Psychology studies have statistically shown that Visual Presentations – oral presentations with supporting graphics – enhance audience engagement and memory retention by 30% to 65% over bullet point text or unaided oral presentations.
But why? Understanding the mental mechanics of how a juror processes & retains visual information can better inform a trial team on how to most impactfully design those visual aids, individually and collectively. A rigorous 2009 study by Cognitive Psychologist Dr. Chris Atherton finally gives us the answer in neuro-processing terms, to the end-effect on the juror, and why you want to cut down on those bullet-lists and rely more on graphical presentations to best imprint and compel your argument.
Sharing the “Cognitive Load”
Dr. Atherton conducted an extensive study on “The Effects of Visual and Auditory Presentation on Cognitive Load”. She compared two audience groups, of whom each were presented with the same presentation content, but with different presentations modes: One she called the “Traditional PowerPoint”, with reliance on text descriptives, bullet-point lists and only the occasional diagram or other graphic; The second presentation she called the “Sparse Slide”, with the same diagrams and graphics, but sparse on text. The oral presentations that accompanied each PowerPoint were essentially the same.
Two sensory-processing areas of a viewer’s brain were at focus in the study: One, the Auditory Cortex – the functional area for processing spoken and written words, and; Two, the Visual Cortex – the functional area for processing visual/graphical information.
The results: Dr. Atherton found that the rate of both long and short term information retention was roughly double among the “Sparse Slide” viewers.
Doubling the retention rate of jurors would make for a huge advantage. But again – How and Why?
Too Many Hats To Wear for One Cortex
Dr. Atherton theorizes that the “Traditional PowerPoint”, a text-heavy presentation, is a cognitive bullet(point) to the Aural Cortex. Though text is visual, the human brain relies on the Aural Cortex to process written, as well as spoken, language. So when the decision-maker is simultaneously reading and listening to most of the information at hand, that decision-maker relies solely on the one single cortex to do all or most of the heavy cognitive lifting. The “Cognitive Load” is too heavy for the over-taxed cortex to handle. Result: Impaired processing and lower retention.
With the “Sparse Slide” presentation, the viewer is listening to the speaker with his/her Aural Cortex while engaging the Visual Cortex for the processing of the visual, graphical content – dual processing – dividing up the “Cognitive Load”. It should also be noted that we humans process graphical visuals 60 times faster (!) than information processed with the Aural Cortex (spoken word and text).
While sharing the cognitive load between two cortices, the “Sparse Slide” viewer’s mental acuity lasts longer and processes the collective information far more economically & accurately. Attention holds. Retention is higher. As Dr. Atherton puts it, “Farming out tasks to separate (neuro) pathways buys more processing power.”
Summation: A bullet-point/text over-loaded Aural Cortex makes for an at-risk juror. While a brain firing on both cognitive pistons – viusally and aurally – makes for a mentally fresher, better-informed juror.