To Powerpoint or Not to Powerpoint

Lately a fellow minister and friend of mine here in Penticton, and I,  have been debating the merits of using visuals during the sermon time.  It is becoming more and more common in this day of multimedia to have video clips and PowerPoints as a regular part of the sermon time.

My friend was pretty sure that it is better if there is very little visuals, maybe even better if there is none rather than too much.    While I can heartily agree that too much of anything is likely not good I think that having none at all is detrimental to getting the message across to the most people.  So I wrote him the following in response to a conversation that we had this morning.  I present it here as a starter for conversation among churches who struggle with this issue.  I also present my conclusions which admittedly are bias in favor of visuals.

I was just thinking about our ongoing conversation regarding the use of PowerPoints or visuals in sermons. And while I would agree that too much information on the screen at one time can create overload on the short term memory I think the overwhelming evidence supports that audio only is the least effective method of communication for long term retention.

There are numerous scientific studies and articles on the web that show:
“We retain approximately 10 percent of what we see; 30 to 40 percent of what we see and hear; and 90 percent of what we see, hear, and do. We all have the capability to learn via all three styles, but are usually dominate in one.”

However most of the percentages seem debatable and that 90% figure above seems unlikely.

“The psychologist Jerome Bruner of New York University has described studies that show that people only remember 10% of what they hear and 20% of what they read, but about 80 percent of what they see and do. Training materials used by the federal government cite studies indicating that the retention of information three days after a meeting or other event is six times greater when information is presented by visual and oral means than when the information is presented by the spoken word alone. The same materials also cite studies by educational researchers suggesting that 83% of human learning occurs visually.”

No matter what numbers you want to put in there, people learn significantly better when both visual and auditory methods are combined.
Especially cross culturally. Anecdotally, I found this to be true in Africa on my last two trips. I used a banner for all meetings that visually represented the main point I was trying to get across. They remembered and still comment on that banner and the acrostic I used.



But when I was teaching at a rural Bible College the students who don’t have regular access to PowerPoint especially made comment on the things I had illustrated for them using that media.

(This is anecdotal evidence of course, and I admit it. But I realized once again that people, even those who are keenly interested in what you have to say, miss parts of the message by other distractions which can even include how you moved your hands. Which oddly enough I had to explain at one point had nothing to do with the sermon. Apparently I made a gesture that meant something completely different in their culture. I didn’t even think I had moved my hand to my face. But I may have been swatting a fly. 🙂

Anyway some of the “scientific” stats quoted seem to be less than scientifically traceable as this article shows:

But regardless even this study still showed that using more than one form of getting the point across is always best.

You mentioned that one of your teachers taught that limited use of visuals (powerpoints etc) is best.  But this doesn’t seem to be backed by scientific studies, even those that I’ve already mentioned.  And those articles had plenty of sources to back them up.   This teaching seems to be a new bias that is also anecdotal in nature and growing over the internet. As the following article shows from Columbia indicates:

Don’t turn your lectures into PowerPoint shows. Visuals can reinforce essential points. But visuals can also be deadly. This is especially true of PowerPoint. So beware PowerPoint’s perils: 1. PowerPoint is inflexible. 2. PowerPoint is a crutch. 3. PowerPoint is boring. 4. PowerPoint distracts listeners. Why should they listen to you when they can read your slides? Follow the Zen of PowerPoint: 1. Less is more. Use PowerPoint slides only when necessary: • Turn off the projector at appropriate times. • Don’t use too many slides. • Avoid complete sentences”

I would agree somewhat with what that author was trying to get across however their personal bias came through loud and much stronger than the scientific data seems to support.

My personal thoughts on the matter:
Like a good audio illustration a good graphic can grab attention and help focus it on the main point. For those who are primarily visual learners (83% the one study showed) the visuals you use may be the main message they receive on a Sunday. If you leave it out what ought they do? I know they should be listening to you 🙂 But they are watching your lips move, if they are close enough, your visual expressions, that scratch of the head, and wiggle of your feet.

The fly that buzzed you mid-sentence took out that sentence. The person who just got up to go to the bathroom removed a paragraph for them and when they returned it gobbled up another. Acute visual learners are always looking for stimuli and if you don’t provide it they will likely find it somewhere in the building. The point is that some content of sermon related stimuli is better than none for most people.
I have found as well that having the Scriptures I’m going through as a significant portion of the visual actually keeps even audio learners from drifting too far. Though when they do drift they usually come back and see that you are still on topic even if they are not.

Some Pastors think that they should have the people open their Bibles to the passages, as they are going along, to reinforce the message. I think that can be both good and potentially a huge distraction like having too much information on a powerpoint. People drift on the passage, maybe see a cross reference and turn there and by the time they realize they are no longer listening they’ve missed most of what you said after turn to such and such a passage.

Sword drill is important but maybe it should be practiced at the mid-week study rather than Sunday morning unless you purposely announce the verse reference 3 times and wait long enough for most people to turn there. Why 3 times, you may be wondering? Well I’ve noticed that many people by the time they reach for their Bibles have forgotten part of the reference before they can open it. The second time you have mentioned it by the time they have found the book they have forgotten some of the verse address. So by the third time most are likely with you. The keeners may keep up, the rest will need to catch up.
Anyway I’m sure you know all this and have experienced it. I just want to encourage you to keep those fine PowerPoints going and hone that skill or have someone who is a visual artist come along side of you to illustrate your points. In the long run it can be beneficial for the majority of the people in your congregation. And when you begin to broadcast live and have videos on demand it will make it worthwhile to have more than just an audio podcast. Realize that the people who are choosing to watch your sermons are typically visual learners. Otherwise they can just download your audio podcast and listen to them.

Not sure if that clarifies what we were talking about and looking forward to the next discussion on this.


PS.   Here’s an example of a Powerpoint from last week’s sermon so you can see how much I think the average person in my congregation can absorb before getting lost.

Here’s one where I purposely used too much information to overwhelm the visual learner thinking it might help them listen to what I was saying.  It apparently worked somewhat from the comments I received.  So sometimes even too much can work.  But I wouldn’t recommend it all the same.  In this course I was teaching on the vast possibilities of using the internet for evangelism and outreach to form Biblical Community.   I was told that some of the audio learners would get lost but I did it anyway and likely lost some of their attention.  Live and learn…

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