By the very nature of our trial system, the presentation of evidence and testimony often suffers from a lack of context. The jury hears the evidence first from one witness, who can only recount events as relate to them, in the time period relevant to their experience. Opposing counsel then attempts to refute or distract from the narrative laid out in direct examination. Often these questions skip from time period to time period, further clouding the picture. Then it is on to the next witness, whose testimony may or may not relate in time or content to the previous witness. And on it goes.
The jury really has two opportunities to hear the whole story. First, during opening statements when they have no idea of who the witnesses are or what the evidence looks like. Then again at closing arguments, after all the evidence is presented and there is no opportunity to hear the testimony with the arguments in mind. (I liken the jury trial process to watching a game from a sport you've never seen, having the rules explained to you at the end, and then having to decide who won). Again, what is often missing from the process is context.
Visual communication, when done right, can fill this void by providing the context that is sorely needed. Maps, diagrams, timelines, and process graphics can all bring together the disparate strands of information spread over multiple witnesses and documents into one cohesive whole.
However, even when using visuals lawyers often miss an opportunity to contextualize the evidence and tell their story. Instead, they present graphics that illustrate only one piece of data. This can still be a very effective way of presenting that data and, depending on the significance of that data, critical to the case. Opportunities exist, though, to bring together multiple sets of data to tell your story in the most effective way possible.
Below is a video of a very effective graphic. Take a look.
The graphic is effective for a variety of reasons, some of which will be the subject of later blog posts. I'd like to focus on one aspect of the graphic - the concept of showing multivariate data and its importance to providing context.
Simply put, show as many relevant types of data as you can, as long as it is clear and your story is being told effectively. In the above video, the graphic showed six types of data:
- Time (by year)
- Life Expectancy
As the narrator notes at the end, there are 120,000 points of data used to create the graph. The power of good multivariate design is that all the data is clear and easy to see. Each type of data is shown not only on its own terms, but in relation to every other piece of data. The viewer can explore the content of the graphic and make many more connections than on a graphic with one or two typess of data. For example, the viewer can compare the progress of continents, for example, or in terms of population.
In addition, a graphic that contextualizes lots of data has a massive amount of credibility with the viewer. Sparse graphics with incomplete data sets make it seem that the presenter is hiding something. A graphic like the above video, with all countries over a large time period, makes it clear to the viewer that they are getting the whole story. The value of a credible graphic in a jury trial is obvious.
Lastly, the context and the credibility enhances the graphic's ability to tell a story. The narrator does a great job verbally explaining human progress, but with the graphic his conclusions are next to impossible to dismiss.