Does Powerpoint Increase Retention?

You have all heard the statistics – that listeners retain only 10% of what they hear, 20% of what they see, but more than 30% of what they see and hear, or something along those lines. People use this as their reason why they have to use powerpoint in preaching. It is hoped that retention rates will increase if we add this element of communication to our preaching. powerpointprojector

I will admit it makes a certain common sense – if only it were true.

The first problem with this thinking is that the numbers are cooked. The source of the theory is Edgar Dale and while his “cone of learning” hierarchy is real, he did not attach percentages to it. He also cautioned against over-generalizing it’s use. Whether or not the model is legitimate, the degree to which it is true has never been proven.

The second problem with this approach is that it seems to fly in the face of experience – for many of us, at least. Laura Vanderkam, writing in Fast Company magazine says, “The more times I give my standard speech on time management, the more aware I am of something curious. When I speak without Powerpoint – just me upon the stage, trying to entertain and instruct people – I enjoy the experience far more than when I use slides.”

This has been my experience as well. Working with slides while preaching has become more of a bother than a boon for me. I always feel like it goes better without the slides than with them. Of course, I have often felt a little guilty about that, given the supposed statistics about retention. I might prefer to work without slides, but what about my listeners? Am I robbing them of a greater chance of retaining the material?

Perhaps not. Vanderkam quotes Nick Morgan, a speech communication expert and president of Power Cues, who says that if retention of complex information is the goal, then a speech is not a very efficient means of delivery anyway. Studies show that we retain 10-30% of what we hear in a speech, and that this number does not increase with the use of slides. When it comes to watching and listening to a speaker, he says, “We form unconscious impressions about what matters to (the speaker) – what her intent is, what she’s passionate about – and that is what we remember.” The problem, he continues, is that humans are not very good multi-taskers, and when we focus on slides, it takes away from our ability to listen to the speaker. If we must use slides, then we need to limit the content, using few words and more images, seeking to support instead of compete with what we are saying orally.

As Vanderkam reminds us, name one significant speech in human history that ever relied on props.

Perhaps the biggest problem is our intention for our preaching. If we see preaching primarily as a way of delivering complicated instruction, we are probably barking up the wrong tree. As Morgan says, an oral speech is not efficient when it comes to complex instruction. If, on the other hand, we understood our task as helping people connect with the God who is present to them and speaking to them by his Spirit and through his Word, then the sermon might be the perfect medium – it just might not need the help of Powerpoint.


UPDATE: So if you are going to use PowerPoint, here are some thoughts about how to do it well.

18 thoughts on “Does Powerpoint Increase Retention?

  1. It is refreshing to read this post. For years it has seemed as though preaching must be filtered through the lens of contemporary learning theories. While they have some value (preachers must always be learning and growing in their task), I think there’s enough evidence to suggest that the pulpit in many a church has suffered from a capitulation to these trends and theories, rather than relying on the sheer force and beauty of a biblical view of preaching, and what God does through that in the congregation.

    I very rarely use Powerpoint in preaching, but often do in teaching. When I have sat through a sermon that is loaded with slides, I feel like I’ve been mugged!
    Thank you very much for posting.

  2. Using projection enables the listener to constantly have your main point(s) in front of them. Because preaching is NOT the same as other types of instruction, I think it is MORE suited to “slides” not less, but I agree that the “less is more” approach is generally better. While there is no speech in history that used props, people don’t flock by the hundreds/thousands to hear a political speech anymore either—so by that measure there likely never will be another “historic speech.” We live in a media-rich generation—personally a church that ignored media so much as to not even include a few slides in a sermon to help drive home a point would be a church that I would avoid as completely out of touch with the culture.

  3. Thanks for your perspective, JR. Your comment raises an interesting point about the nature of our preaching. As I said in the post, if we are trying to communicate complex intellectual content, then slides can be very useful in terms of helping people keep your thoughts in order. But then, there are other ways to conceive of preaching.

    As to the comment that PowerPoint is a test of relevance to the culture for a church, I would suggest that younger people might give a different response. This might be true if we are achieving a level of excellence that matches people’s expectations from the broader culture, but that is a standard that most churches find harder to achieve.

  4. so do you have any conclusions to draw about overhead projection of transparencies or even for older styles of presentations like flip charts?

  5. Thanks for this interesting take.

    Regarding no great speech in history using props, I have heard folks talk about Jesus referring to the flowers of the field while on the mountainside and likely pointing to the flowers that were around Him. Not to mention, the time he brought a child to his side and then used that child as a prop.

    I wonder if the best way to help people remember more of what we say is to give them smaller chunks to try to remember each time. I find it hard to do in my preaching, but I know when I can drill down to one actual point and then make it in multiple ways again and again, folks usually remember it better. For instance, regarding my sermon this past Sunday on God’s holiness, I don’t expect the audience to remember all my points and subheadings and logical arguments, but I do think that by the time we were done, they took with them that our God is a holy, holy, holy God and because of that we need a Savior.

  6. Bill, I think flip charts can be really helpful because the preacher is directly engaged in a physical way, which keeps people closely connected with the preacher. As to overhead transparencies, it has been so many years since I’ve seen that kind of thing in action… I’m not sure I knew they even exited anymore!

  7. Edwin, despite the comment in the post about props, I am actually much more positive about things like props and object lessons than I am about powerpoint slides. Props are tangible things that are connected physically with the preacher. When used well, I think that they can add something useful.

    I am also working on my next post which will offer some thoughts about using slides to good affect. I don’t think it’s all bad.

  8. Power Point is a tool, not the goal. Overloaded slides probably distract. Simplicity is the method for use with visuals.

  9. This reminded me of the icons used by the orthodox churches. They can become a distraction, or a “gateway to mystery” depends on how to use it…

  10. PowerPoint is powerful when you are speaking in a language that has to be translated. I don’t hear well so it is good for me to see the projection on the screen in case I don’t catch the word that is said. If you don’t like PPt, don’t use it, but I am convinced it is profitable for even folks that pay attention to what is being said, I agree, keep it simple.

  11. As one who teaches and gives presentations every week both in the context of the church and the business world I have moved away from the use of PP. More than a media rich culture we are a narrative culture. So if your media is not telling a story then it’s a distraction – a hindrance more than a help. Take a look at this book for for an expanded discussion on this thought. It’s obviously targeted for the business world but it has great insight into making presentations more memorable. Conversations That Win the Complex Sale: Using Power Messaging to Create More Opportunities, Differentiate your Solutions, and Close More Deals by Erik Peterson.

  12. “personally a church that ignored media so much as to not even include a few slides in a sermon to help drive home a point would be a church that I would avoid as completely out of touch with the culture”

    So you just eliminated most house churches and simple churches out there.

    I couldn’t disagree with you more! As a presenter I use power points and video all of the time. I’m not convinced they are the most effective communication tools because they are so often used.

    When I preached (for 12 years) and before served as a youth minister (18 years) I had very mixed feelings about over use of media. Why? Because everyone expects the use of power point or video–so much to the point that they turn it off because we are so saturated (“ho-hum, another power-point”). When the power point is not used or when a guy just sits down on a stool and says, “Let’s have a conversation, you and me” that signals something different…and I lean forward (what was that old saw about the medium and the message?).

    No one has ever told me, “Wow what a great presentation/sermon! But you know, I think it could have used one more slide!” and I’ve never had anyone suggest adding power point when I opted notto use power point. Even TED Talks without slides or the ones that use them very sparingly tend to be more memorable and effective.

    I have also been performing as a storyteller for years to groups from children to teenagers to middle aged and seniors. The problem is not in the props (as a storyteller I rarely ever use props). The trick to holding an audience is in your own motivation, energy, and familiarity. Believe me, when you have all of those elements–people remember what you said without power point or video.

    Why avoid a church on the basis of not using even a slide? Perhaps they are very aware of our high tech/low touch culture that they are specifically being subversive. I would think a high tech church that simply did not connect no matter what bells and whistles they had would be one I would avoid.

  13. Exactly. There has been some recent debate that narrative is on the out in theological circles. However, I have to disagree. Perhaps ways we do narrative need some revamping–but the fact is the biblical text is primarily narrative. Jesus may have used props (not always bad as has already been pointed out) but he primary spoke in narrative form which connected with folks because we tend to think in narrative form.

  14. We’ve been looking at “Faulty Families of Faith” in the Old Testament and simply going through the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, then making personal applications. For the first time in my experience, power point has won the day for the lessons. I simply use freeware pictures and maps as I read the stories of Genesis and then end with questions to ponder and take home points. The kids and adults are much more engaged. When I do letters of Paul, I prefer to preach without power point, unless there is a picture that captures the essence of the message. I use very few words on the screen, and try to let the scriptures remain center stage at all times.

  15. Obviously the house church is a special scenario that affects a very small amount of people. If someone was looking for a church that was “subversive,” concerning media, then it would obviously also change their opinion about slides.

    I’m not saying I think technology is wonderful, even. I’m just saying that I see far too many pastors who don’t know how to use a computer and use the excuse of sticking to the essentials. I know of a church right now that is wishing they had never hired such a pastor, who have had good administrative help resign because of his ineptitude, etc.

    I think it is hard for parishoners to respect pastors who aren’t lifelong learners, and one aspect of lifelong learning is having a general idea of what is happening in media and technology. When we talk about “blueberries” or “twitting,” we display that we are totally out of touch with their daily realities. In the same way, when we don’t use any visuals in a culture where nobody reads and few people tune in to listen to speeches of any kind, I think we display the same sort of ignorance of how our culture communicates.

    I’m not saying preaching is a waste of time. Preaching is already a “subversive” way of communicating in our culture – can we not make it a _little_ easier for people?

  16. Thank you for clarifying. Your original statement was rather broad.

    Agreed if a preacher is too lazy to be aware of the culture that is one thing. I would think though the only way you would know that would be to spend time with the person (at least for more than one or two visits). And, if the said preacher was spending more time communicating face to face throughout the week, it is conceivable he would not be involved with learning a lot about social media because he might be too busy doing things like serving the poor, visiting the sick, or something else that does not require the use of social media.

    Frankly, I know a lot of people who do not like Twitter and some of the other social media tools because they can be a time hog. I don’t use Tumblr, even though I have an account because frankly, I don’t have time.

    And now, add to that tumblr, reddit, pintererist, LinkedIn, Instagram, google hangouts, ad infinitum and do we expect every preacher to be knowledgeable about all of these? Or just our favorites (understanding that everyone has their own particular favorite)? Staying up with the social media offerings could be a full time occupation!

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a luddite. And I do utilize power point (and Prezi) all of the time as a presenter (and Facebook, Twitter, GroupMe, to name a few other items). But I also find them distracting in the very area where they are supposed to be helpful–communicating and connecting.

    To turn these tools into criteria for what makes a relevant church is putting too much credibility in a tool. Just my opinion.

  17. I understand some of what you are saying, though. Although I am 56 years old but I don’t know of any preachers who don’t know how to navigate through the internet or use a computer. Not saying they don’t exist, just…wow. I can’t imagine. The scenario you describe must be rather painful for the congregation. But perhaps his problem runs far deeper than speaking of “blueberries” (watch it, you’re dating yourself there!). 8^)

    I am not looking for a group that is subversive to technology per se. Technology isn’t an enemy–I just think we ought to avoid over hyping something that may not always be that useful. It’s like we discover a new toy and we wear it out playing with it (or that great story we just have to use in our next sermon, even though it doesn’t work at all!).

    Again I point as a model of effective communication to TED talk speakers who normally utilize few if any slides and limit their talks to 18 minutes. Those are the folks who communicate well and perhaps the ones we ought to be learning from. Be energized, stick with one point that you can communicate clearly, discipline yourself to limit your time, and know your material. In such a scenario, it doesn’t matter if you use a slide or not. People won’t notice it because the media is not front and center–you as a person and your message are in the forefront. Because ultimately communication is a human activity.

    You say, “In the same way, when we don’t use any visuals in a culture where nobody reads and few people tune in to listen to speeches of any kind, I think we display the same sort of ignorance of how our culture communicates.”

    (Actually, people pay money to listen to speeches all of the time–we call them comedy routines and comedians rarely use slides!).

    It is my experience that people do listen to storytellers–especially those who manage their time well in presentation. I would argue that use of technology itself can be a form of laziness. I allow the technology do the work for me (which it doesn’t do in reality).

    I use technology and watch technology all of the time, and honestly, I am more engaged with a good conversationalist or storyteller than I am with a knock-your-socks-off Prezi presentation.

    To recap, I really don’t oppose the use of power point, prezi or technology–but I do think they are over used and often keep us from doing the really hard work of learning how to connect with our audience on a personal level.

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