As part of my dissertation work, I have come across an extremely interesting pamphlet called The Cognitive Style of Powerpoint by Edward Tufte. Tufte is Professor Emeritus at Yale and he is something of a guru, it seems, on statistical evidence, analytical design and interface design.
In the extremely readable pamphlet, Tufte eviscerates the use of Microsoft Powerpoint and says that in presentation situations, it weakens verbal and spational reasoning, corrupts statistical analysis, foreshortens evidence and thought, and forces all thought into hierarchical linear structures.
Amongst other things he highlights the Investigation Board into the final flight of the space shuttle Columbia and the sad disintegration of the shuttle during re-entry on 1 February 2003. The conclusions of that Board stated that they believed the endemic use of Powerpoint briefing slides instead of technical papers as a key component in the disaster and an illustration of all that was wrong in the technical communication at NASA at the time. He goes onto show a few of the actual slides and illustrate just what a terrible method of communication it was in that context.
He’s not alone. Greg Pece has examined the use of Powerpoint in the US Military and concluded that it has changed how missions are conceived, briefings are conducted and then the missions executed… and not for the better. Jens Kjeldsen has written and lectures on the rhetoric of Powerpoint. In agreement with Tufte, Kjeldsen says that the problem with PowerPoint is that it is exclusively speaker-oriented and neither content-oriented nor audience-oriented. The standard set-up and fixed formats that make the task of communication comfortable for the presenter are unfortunately at the expense of both content and listeners. The price paid is presentations empty of information, lacking in content and endlessly tedious.
Kjeldsen’s concern is with teaching and education, which in turn does give us an insight into church use of Powerpoint during sermons. He says that the important, and not least the interesting, aspect of teaching is not the sequential establishment of statements and facts that Powerpoint gravitates speakers towards but instead it is, or ought to be about, the act of conveying an understanding of connection, causality, chronology and relational complexity.
It makes me wonder exactly why anyone would preach a sermon using Powerpoint. I must admit that I use it on occasion, usually to provide an image or a diagram of some kind and it seems that Tufte and Kjeldsen would not be entirely averse to such usage if suitably appropriate. However, I’d never just set up a list of bullets to project on screen because what Tufte and Kjeldsen put so well has been a hunch in the back of my head that I’ve never been able to decently express. Plainly, it just doesn’t help anyone.
In the United States Lori Carrell has investigated the issue of preaching and powerpoint specifically and damningly states that her academic survey revealed ‘the most transformative sermons donâ€™t include projected visuals, and PowerPoint presentations are even viewed as a distraction by a majority of commenting listeners.’