Friday, January 5, 2007

Animators at Law Study of Communication Style

Animators at Law, a company that creates animations and graphics for trials, has released the results of a study of communication styles. Press release: Animators at Law Releases 3-Year Study Revealing That Attorneys and the General Public (e.g., Juries) Learn and Communicate Very Differently, Jan. 2, 2007.

Animators at Law, a consulting firm that helps litigators maximize the effectiveness of their communications with judges and juries, releases a first-of-its-kind study today. The study has wide-ranging implications for the legal profession and for those who interact with it. Using a survey designed by communication and learning experts, 387 attorneys and 1657 non-attorneys were surveyed over a three year period to determine how they fit into one of three learning/ communication styles: visual (seeing/showing), auditory (hearing/ speaking) or kinesthetic (feeling).

Results of the study show a marked difference between how attorneys and non-attorneys prefer to communicate. For example, only 18% of the non-attorney population learns best by hearing information, as compared to nearly 29% of attorneys. Further, 61% of the general population prefers to learn from visual information, while fewer than half of attorneys prefer to communicate with visual information. Since people tend to communicate the same way they learn, the everyday implications for the courtroom are especially significant.
I wrote to Kenneth Lopez, the CEO of Animators at Law and the person who sent me the press release, and I asked him more about the study. They are still working on the narrative that will give greater detail about methodology. So far, the study strikes me as suggestive, but not rigorous: the survey instrument was a quiz they offer on their website, and the sample of lawyers and nonlawyers studied was drawn from visitors to the website. Still, it's interesting to think about the general theme. And this suggests more research to undertake.

It makes perfect sense that attorneys would have different communication styles and preferences from others. A professional ice skater should be very good at kinesthetic learning and probably doesn't need to be able to absorb, say, an appellate brief. Someone who is very good at spatial reasoning might choose to become an architect or a dentist and not a lawyer. And so on.

I suspect that the fuller report will give more information about overlapping preferences. Any one person can use any or all communication styles. For instance, if I want to learn a new dance step, I'll prefer kinesthetic learning, supported by the visual learning of watching the instructor (but don't bother showing me dance step diagrams!) If I want to learn the locations of a few landmarks in Manhattan, I'd like a map (supported by the kinesthetic learning of walking from, say, Penn Station to the New York Public Library, so I have a "foot" sense of how far it is). If I want to learn about today's news, I like to listen to NPR or skim headlines in a newspaper. So my preferences vary depending on task and context.

(I'm never sure where reading falls. Does it count as visual, because I'm using my eyes? Or is it auditory, because I sometimes have a voice in my head? It certainly doesn't have a lot of pictures and graphics -- at least, not most of my reading.)(Another question: if so many people are visual communicators, why won't anyone play Pictionary with me?)

I suspect a lot of jurors have a range of preferences as well. When they want to find out the latest about the bum that cousin Eileen is dating, maybe they'd prefer a nice hour of gossip (auditory learning). If they want to put together a bookcase from Ikea, good diagrams are great (visual learning). And if they want to learn how to knit, they'll do best if they try it themselves and feel the yarn and the needles in their hands (kinesthetic learning).

A lot of ordinary people spend a lot of time engaged in auditory communication. Just look at them! They're talking on the bus, they're talking on cell phones when they're walking their dogs (even when they're driving), they're talking at bars, they're talking during movies, they're talking, talking, talking. Of course, a lot of this talking is not about learning. Instead it's about establishing and renegotiating relationships, connecting emotionally, transacting business, flirting, making jokes, and more.

So when we think about communicating in trials, it probably pays to think about what we're doing. If you want the jurors to learn something (e.g., to learn that it's very, very likely that this DNA from the crime scene was the defendant's), then you might use one approach (animation, perhaps). But if you want the jurors to feel something (e.g., to feel that you are a trustworthy advocate, that your client is a likable, honest guy, that your client's doctor is an arrogant jerk), then you might use another approach (auditory, perhaps, because people connect emotionally via language).

Within any one style, there are undoubtedly substyles. One visual learner might do well with graphs and charts, while another, non-quantitative, visual learner prefers something else. Within auditory communication, there are important differences between lawyers and many other people. Lawyers cut their teeth on 1600-page casebooks. They are much more comfortable with polysyllabic latinate words and complex sentence and paragraph structures. But all that is often not easy to understand (even for those of us who can handle it if we concentrate). So not only do lawyers need to learn not to communicate only by speaking, but some of them also may need to learn to speak more directly and clearly.

Animators at Law is an interesting company. Ken Lopez founded it in 1995 when he was fresh out of law school. Now its customer list includes many of the largest, most successful law firms in America. A selling point is that the owners and many of the employees are lawyers, so they understand evidence, trial strategy, and so on, as well as making the pictures look good. There are interesting profiles of Lopez and the company linked from the Press page.


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed your post. While I am not a big believer in any self-report (subjective) test, I have additional concerns about the VAK (Visual-Auditory-kinesthetic) learning styles. From a Forbes article:

Why corporate America keeps falling for the latest workplace fad.

America is a nation of believers, ready to place their faith in God or baseball or the Psychic Friends Network. Corporate America, too, periodically gets religion--in the form of workplace fads that inspire revivalist fervor, then fade away.

What these notions usually have in common, besides a snappy concept and a persuasive spokesperson, is a weak scientific foundation. That's true of the latest fad to catch fire: learning style.

Learning-style theory proposes that each of us absorbs and processes information in one of several distinct ways: visual, auditory, tactile or kinesthetic, for example.

An individual's learning style is usually determined by a pencil-and-paper test--of which there are now more than 50 available, with titles like the Cognitive Style Index and the Learning Style Questionnaire. Costing $3 to $9 a pop, the questionnaires feature as few as 12 items and take as little as three minutes to complete. Test-takers may be asked to arrange lists of descriptive words, to respond to statements like "I usually finish what I start" and "I really enjoy television," or to answer multiple-choice riddles like, "When I start to do something new, I: a) rely on . . .

Rest here:

Mary Whisner said...

Thanks for your comment.

I looked up the Forbes piece and found it interesting.

UW readers: note that you can get Forbes content through the University Libraries. The list of journals starting with "F" is here. If you're not on campus, be sure to click on the "off-campus access" link in the upper right corner before going to the journal. -- Mary