Visual Story Telling: Four Key Principles in One Exemplar Slide

“The shortest distance between a human and truth is a story.”
– Anthony de Millo

Every litigator knows that jurors respond to a good story. Facts and Story – one gives credence to the other, prompting persuasive resonance with the juror.

But when strategizing trial demonstratives to help convey the facts of the story, often this same rule of thumb is ignored: When devising a key trial graphic, story is everything. Data, especially, needs to be conveyed via a clearly discernible story.

An Exemplar Case Study – The Four Key Principles of Visual Story Telling: The below graphic was crafted for a defense client accused of breaching an oral agreement with a fellow developer. The two were initiating adjacent, remote developments in 2004 and opened discussions around sharing of infrastructure costs that would serve both projects. But soon after those discussions, the economy wilted and the housing market crashed. Our client wisely mothballed their project while the other party blithely plowed ahead with building, placing new housing on a very dubious market. The plaintiff, our defense asserted, then sought to recoup subsequent losses through litigation.

To lay a contextual story foundation for the jury to better – and favorably – interpret the events of the dispute, our team sought to display expert data on 1.) changing home sales prices for the region over time, and; 2.) changing sales volumes in the region over time. A timeline of events also offered key, related information for this graphic. Here is what CaseArt came up with:

Scatter Chart-Timline smallerThe resultant scatter chart/timeline shown above serves as an effective exemplar for how to employ the four principles of good visual storytelling for maximal persuasive effect – principles garnered from my 15 years of experience & informed by the sage precepts of design guru Edward Tufte:

1. Compose content multivariate (2 or more quantities of information) and multi-dimensionally (time, quantity, degree, etc)

“It’s better to have information adjacent in space than stacked in time.”
– Edward Tufte

“One slide, one point”, is the primary rule of thumb in trial graphic design. But when several sets of data, when combined, reveal telling associations, and only when considered together can they assert that one key point, it is better to compose those data sets into one clean slide than to display them (and discuss them) sequentially to a jury. Sequential display, over several slides, challenges a juror’s cognitive and working memory capacity to reconstruct in his/her mind those disparate, individually displayed sets of information, and then link any relationship between them. Comparative information sets need be positioned within the eyespan, so that viewers make comparisons at a glance, as Tufte advises in “Envisioning Information”.

The above graphic, while combining multivariate information to make its point, also does so multi-dimensionally, bringing temporal, quantitative and qualitative (sales value) information into one cohesive and accessible “visual narrative”.

2. Integrate words, numbers and images sparingly

The graphic’s message, a composite of varying sources, is quickly and uniformly understood by the viewer. That is in part because of the clear relationships of those info sets when juxtaposed, but those relationships are better recognized because of the sparse and quickly absorbed composition. Text is used sparingly. Of the many proposed timeline events for a master timeline, only key events with a stark causal relationship with the data are included here.

3. Make Comparisons

The “sub-story” of the downward trend of the housing sales plot points (both volume and value) is clearly and quickly recognized, providing contextual meaning to the timeline events occurring below. Without the comparison to the graphed data, motive for the timeline events is broadly and dangerously interpretive. Conversely, without the timeline events, relevance of the housing data to the facts of the case are not obvious. But juxtaposed together – they tell a story.

4. Show Cause & Effect

With this visual juxtaposition of data and events, causation becomes clear. Motive for the ensuing events is not only established, but for the defense, imbued with the understanding of reasonable and acceptable action. Conversely, motive for the plaintiff actions seem irrational in light of the market data.

A second “bonus” cause and effect is also inferred with this juxtaposition: That the parties – and the jury – were in court that day only because the plaintiffs acted with imprudence, if not recklessness, and then sought to recover from their ill-advised actions with a frivolous lawsuit.

You ask your jury to engage in quantitative reasoning. Quantitative reasoning is based on the query “compared to what?” Applying these four visual storytelling principles to your trial graphics will help guide your decision-makers to a favorable answer to that question.