The talk was going well. People were engaged. Many were jotting notes. I was looking around trying to make eye contact with the different people in the room. And then something strange happened. The audience stopped looking at me. They began to look at something behind me. The human connection between speaker and listener was broken. I looked back and to see what the audience was looking at. It was a PowerPoint presentation of my main points. I thanked the church for taking the trouble to put my points on PowerPoint. And then I asked them to turn it off.
All the groups who work with me know that I do not use PowerPoint when I give my talks. Instead I ask that they put my notes on handouts. In this way people will have something to take away. And when I speak they can interact by taking notes and jotting down questions and observations. But no PowerPoint. The folks who invite me are usually surprised that I do not use PowerPoint and often ask me a few times if they heard me right. I can only assume that I am one of a few speakers who do not use PowerPoint. Am I some lazy Luddite who refuses to make use of new communication technology? Possibly. It took me along time to start using computers. But I have my reasons for not using PowerPoint.
In his book, Real Leaders Don’t Do PowerPoint, Christopher Witt gives some reasons why “real leaders” shouldn’t use PowerPoint when they speak.
First, he points out that PowerPoint is good for presenting information but not good for persuading people. He notes that when people debate about he effectiveness of PowerPoint, they don’t dispute that the main purpose of PowerPoint is to present information.
Whether you agree with the critics or with the advocates, notice what both sides are arguing about: the effectiveness of PowerPoint in communicating information. Neither side believes PowerPoint will help you shape how an audience thinks and feels or stir them to action. (London, UK: Piatkus Books, 2009,184).
Next, Witt points out that PowerPoint hogs attention.
When you project something on the screen, people look at it . . . Even if they can read it in 20 seconds flat . . . They’ll keep looking at it And all the time they’re looking at it, they’re not looking at you. (Witt, 184)
Third, Witt reminds us that preparing PowerPoint is time-consuming. He notes that folks like Al Gore use PowerPoint well and have great slides, but they have professional, highly trained folks working on their slides. On our own, Witt says, we will probably end up “spending more time formatting slides than thinking through (our) strategy or crafting (our) message.” (Witt, 185)
Long before I picked up Witt’s book I had come to the same conclusions. When I have the privilege to stand up before a group of people I am hoping that through my talk, hearts will be moved and lives will be changed. This does not mean I do not do serious proper research when I prepare my talks. But I don’t confuse what I need to do in my study and what I need to do when I am actually speaking. Researchers have found that when people have to work though a lot of information their thinking shifts into a more analytical frame of mind and when that happens it is less likely that their hearts will be engaged. (Chip and Dan Heath, Made to Stick, London, UK: Random House, 2007,166-167). [I like the title of a book that talks about the power of story telling in communication — Wake Me Up When the Data is Over (Lori Silverman, San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2006.)]
Christian preaching and teaching can be divided into two broad types — evangelism, when we are speaking to those who are not followers of Jesus Christ, and edification, when we are trying to build up the saints in some way. When I do either I am trying to persuade people, not just give them information. I am trying, by God’s grace, to move their hearts and not just to fill their minds. Which is why I choose not to use PowerPoint. Here is another comment about the limits of PowerPoint by John P. Kotter:
We need to trade in PowerPoint bullets for real action. People change because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings, not because they were given endless amounts of logical data. Leaders who transform organizations do so by tapping into people’s minds and hearts. They powerfully communicate their vision but know that what they do has a more lasting impact than what they say. (John P. Kotter, “PowerPoint Is Evil, Redux, Blog Post by David Silverman,”Harvard Business Review, July – August 2010, 18-19).
Kotter makes a number of points. He affirms what we have seen so far — that people are not changed through exposure to a lot of logical data, hence the limits of using PowerPoint to change hearts and minds. But Kotter also alludes to another truth — that a key element in persuading people is the testimony of the life of the speaker.
Witt concurs. He writes:
Who you are is inseparable from what you communicate. I don’t just mean that your actions speak louder than your words. of course they do. I mean that your character — who you are, what you’ve done, what you value — shapes the message your listeners hear. (Witt, 11)
I used to be perplexed when I hear Paul asking people to imitate him as he in turn imitates Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1). I thought he was arrogant to put himself up as a model for people to follow. I now understand that Paul understood that you can never separate the message from the messenger. Hence Paul commends Timothy for following both his teaching and his way of life (2 Timothy 3: 10).
If speaking is about persuasion and not just information transfer, and if the speaker is a key part of the communication, we can understand why some speakers choose not to use PowerPoint. PowerPoint is better for transferring information than for persuasion, and they take the eyes of the audience off the speaker.
Let me end by saying that I am not totally against the use of PowerPoint. It can be used to convey images (not lots of data) that may help to increase the emotional impact of a talk. Steve Jobs is a master at this (https://blogs.bnet.com/harvard/?p=6711). I may yet use PowerPoint in my talks. Right now I want to work at living out what I teach, and to grow in my ability to speak from my heart to the hearts of my listeners.