Has Powerpoint for Preaching Outlived Its Usefulness?

PowerpointLogoThere have been a few articles out over the last week that bashed the effectiveness of powerpoint. Here are a few of those articles with a brief synopsis:

Physicists, Generals And CEOs Agree: Ditch The PowerPoint
This article basically says that in a variety of fields the experience has been the same, reliance on powerpoint has made presentations less creative, less interactive, less attended and less effective. In short, many organizations both private and public are dropping powerpoint because they believe it is doing more harm than good.

Does Powerpoint Increase Retention?
This article attempts to debunk the idea that we retain more information we receive that we see than that we hear. Along with that is the experience of feeling more connected with the message and the audience when not using slides.

The problem I have with these two articles in particular is that they lump all powerpoint use into a singular category. It is like saying driving is bad because of drunk drivers or that all cologne is bad because of Axe. There is good use of powerpoint and bad. My experience has been there are ways to use powerpoint to connect with an audience and ways to use it that disconnect you. There are images I have used that let my words sink in and created real “aha” experiences for people that I couldn’t have done with words alone. It is all in how you use it. It is all in how you use it to make it a win.

A few suggestions to maximize the effectiveness of powerpoint:

  1. Pay attention to aesthetics and detail – We preach in a world where everything else that is important in the surrounding culture obssessive over details. We tend to have preachers who aren’t very in tune with aesthetics. That may go back to our process…in order to preach you usually need a degree (or at least be inclined toward study and alone time…and probably also like outlines, bullet lists, footnotes, endnotes, and all sorts of other things that world has learned to ignore). In order to get a degree you often have to study for hours on end in library dungeons. People who are interested in that are not always in tune with aesthetics. People who enjoy that like bullet point lists. What is more, there are no classes in how to do ministry in ways that effectively engages more senses than the sense of hearing. Our terminology reflects this. We worship in “auditoriums”…well who is supposed to be the ones listening? Us or God? All that to say, if you throw sloppy slides with horribly edited and stretched images on slides and expect people to remember it better it won’t work.
  2. Use less slides – As quality increases quantity typically decreases. If you are going to spend more time on slides that work you just can’t make as many of them.
  3. Content is more than words – slides have an ethos. Make sure the ethos you are literally “projecting” is what you intend for it to be. Light and dark, focus, and contrast all come together to give each slide its own feeling. You can create space that feels sterile or you can create slides that feel full of life and light. Both may be necessary. Neither is good or bad. What is good or bad is whether or not the ethos you create effectively represents that message you are trying to communicate. Even the powerpoint icon has changed over time and now the older icons seem dated.
  4. Spend money on quality images and fonts – you will probably have to spend a little bit of money to get the right images. Don’t stretch things that are too small to fill the screen. Don’t use an image that is almost the right one. It is better to not have an image than to use the wrong one. Buy some credit with an online photo site to get images that look good.
  5. Use images and video sparingly. Video can be a crutch to communicate things you have difficulty communicating otherwise. If you use video or even just images too much the effect lessens over time.

It is important that we are picky about what and how we communicate. We only get 52 shots at this a year and it is vitally important that we don’t throw up unnecessary roadblocks to people hearing. That also means that we put in our time to be creative, to tell good stories and to communicate so well that powerpoint assists what is already a good presentation. Anything you use as a crutch, whether it is powerpoint or jokes or fill in the blank eventually loses its effect.

HT: Sean Palmer for mentioning these articles

10 Responses to Has Powerpoint for Preaching Outlived Its Usefulness?

  1. David Himes says:

    Nearly every preacher who uses slide presentations needs help to make the better. Take some classes or do something to learn how to do it better!

  2. Paul Smith says:

    I’ve run the whole gamut of emotions about PowerPoint (I actually prefer Keynote, but that’s another story). I initially felt, and still feel, that visual slides were gimmicky, the “new and latest thing” and that public speakers used them far too much as a crutch. Although I do use the slides I have never lost that initial reaction. I think when we tell people that they cannot follow an argument or a story without a visual presentation they will believe it, and so they forget how to listen attentively.

    I will say that, when used sparingly and appropriately, visuals can be effective in communicating a particular point. Used too much they simply become “white noise.”

    A word about using film clips and video – unless properly licensed using pirated film clips and video is a violation of copyright laws. We cannot use the excuse that “well, its on Netflix or YouTube so its okay.” No, its not. Just like the song licenses that a congregation needs to obtain to project song lyrics publicly, a congregation needs to obtain a video license to project film and video clips. The old rule that “if you have a question – don’t” is good advice. Video projection licenses are easy to obtain and obtaining one before a congregation distributes “pirated” material is the morally appropriate thing to do.

  3. Paul Smith says:

    Thanks, Matt – I’ve just never been very good at the search and link skills. I appreciate the helping hand!

  4. James T Wood says:

    I’ve been meaning to critique those articles for a while now. Thanks for getting to it for me :)

    PowerPoint, like any tool, can be used well or poorly.

    I was generally frustrated with the lack of presentation training in my theological schooling. That is not just talking about slide design, but everything involved in presenting well. We were giving the tools to exegete the text and more tools to interpret the text and still more tools to package that interpretation into a sermon, but almost nothing on actually connecting a message with other people.

    I’ve worked hard to fill that gap in my training and I feel like it has paid off. I would recommend Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds and Slide:ology by Nancy Duarte as excellent presentation resources.

  5. Paul Smith says:

    James, you made the additional points I wanted to make. However, let’s look at what we are talking about here – how long has PP and KN been in existence? And when I was in school most of my instructors were 30 + years older than I was. If the ratio is roughly equivalent now, the instructors in our schools are probably less well instructed in the use of visual technology than their students. Technology has not just passed us by – it blew our doors off. And it changes quite literally with the changing of the seasons. What worked yesterday is so old fashioned tomorrow.

    I discovered very early in my use of PP and KN that I fell into the trap of trying to compensate for a weak sermon with a flashy presentation. “The medium becomes the message!” Even if I felt like I nailed the intent of the text, I still felt that I had to have a 5 star presentation or the message would not be heard.

    I believe we are failing to give proper credit to the Holy Spirit. A thoroughly prayed, well studied, and well prepared audio lesson given into the hands of the Holy Spirit will be effective whether PP or KN is used or not – and in fact PP and KN can damage the effectiveness of a good message if the visuals become the point of the sermon (see Gideon and his reliance upon large numbers vs. God’s ability to deliver through unorthodox means).

    In addition to being taught how to “create” the visuals, we need to be reminded of the purpose of the sermon – to change lives, not just to be aesthetically appealing.

    Paul

    • Profile photo of Matt Dabbs Matt Dabbs says:

      I agree 100%. At the same time, everything we do communicates something. Words and content communicate. Aesthetics communicate. If you throw together a sloppy powerpoint, people will think your message, content, delivery, etc is sloppy. The Holy Spirit can certainly work with that but why start at a disadvantage/handicap? If it is to be done, do it well. That is my opinion. It may change :)

  6. I was part of a church where the preacher consistently made good Powerpoints. I thought the most effective ones were the ones where he would use a conceptual illustration—e.g., light coming in through a door, the “sin” chasm between Man and God with the Cross as the bridge, an Interstate as the “narrow road,” etc.—as the focal point of a sermon series. Sometimes he would make his own visual illustrations and sometimes he would find good pictures online and build a sermon series off of them. He used the same images every week for however long the sermon series lasted. Doing this helped these visuals stay in my mind, because they had meaning—some 5 or more sermons of meaning. I can’t say he ever used distracting visuals that didn’t have a specific meaning, and I remember the text always being carefully worded, not mere summary. That’s Powerpoint done right!

    Now at my current church, the projector is only used for song lyrics and Bible verses, and that works too.

  7. Mark says:

    i have taught off Power Point many times. It has its place. The problem with using it is that people either read the slides or listen to the speaker. They really do both at the same time. Either they don’t look at the slides or they don’t listen to the speaker. They are great when you need to pass out notes. Their best use is for images and/or movies that then are explained by the person lecturing. Power Point slides which are just read are boring.

    There is a reason that in the old liturgical churches and synagogues the Bible is read out loud to the congregation. There is no use of slides nor is the scripture projected onto a screen. One listens to spoken word. Old style but it still works.

    Projecting the song lyrics on a screen mandates that the congregation know the tune. Music and words makes more sense, but why is the hymn book so reviled?

Leave a Reply