PowerPoint Sermon Advice

If we are going to use PowerPoint we have got to learn to use it with excellence.

Here are some rules, tips, and advice about preparing and presenting PowerPoint sermons.  Of course, we know rules can sometimes be broken.  But if they are broken it should be for a purpose.

RULE #1 – Use only scripture references, not scripture texts.
This is my first rule because it is important.  People need to open their Bibles, and many won’t if you put all of the verses on the screen.  If you break this rule, do so only when you are making a point and need to highlight a specific word or phrase in the text.  However, in all cases make sure you DO put up scripture references (so they know where to turn), and double check to make sure they are correct before preaching your sermon.

RULE #2 – Keep your text short.
When people are reading your slides they are not listening to you.  If the screen is full of text, and takes time to read, they will pick reading over listening.  For this reason it is also important to outline (see rule #4), and reveal no more than one point and a few sub-points at a time.

Here are some examples to illustrate this rule (click on an image to see it bigger):

Too much

Better

Even the better example is more text than I usually put on one slide. But, notice that each phrase is no longer than one line (this is a very good rule of thumb). And, I would use Custom Animation in PowerPoint to reveal only one point at a time (one heading with its two sub-points).  Typically, I put no more than two points, and no more than four sub-points per point on one slide.

RULE #3 – Use fonts and font sizes to your advantage.
Closely related to the previous rule is the important consideration of text size and style.  Bigger is better (to a certain limit…but, generally speaking, most preachers err on the side of too small).  The PowerPoint defaults are Arial size 44 for headings or titles, and size 32 for main points.  This is pretty good.

Of course, different fonts are different sizes, so a change in font means you will have to adjust the size accordingly (and you should change your font…keep reading).  Times New Roman is slightly smaller than Arial, and Perpetua (one of my favorites) is slightly smaller than TNR.

Font size is also important because it is a good tool for getting your message across.  Make bigger points with bigger text (your major outline headings).  Make smaller sub-points with smaller text.  Of course, PowerPoint will do this for you if you learn to use the outline/bullet feature.

And, one more thing: choose your font style carefully.  Ornate fonts look pretty but are difficult to read.  Never use them in your main text box, and use them only sparingly in headings and titles.

Also, some fonts are greatly over-used, and come across as cheesy or unprofessional.  Here is a list of fonts to avoid (unless you are trying to be cheesy or unprofessional…or satirical):

Papyrus (I would underline it twice if I knew how), Comic Sans, Times New Roman, and Arial.

The first two have been way over-used (especially Papyrus in the preaching world…and the Avatar movie), and the second two are Microsoft default fonts, so they give the impression that you have not put much work into your presentation…you didn’t even bother to change the font.

RULE #4 – Outline, outline, outline.
Outlining is important in good preaching, but it is essential in PowerPoint preaching.  Outlining will keep you from putting too much text on a slide.  It will also help the listeners understand your flow of thought.  If they can see the outline they will understand better how it all fits.  And, if they can see two or three well-phrased points, they will remember better.

This rule should also be broken now and then.  Don’t do the same thing all the time.  Come up with creative ways to present your material.  A narrative sermon may not necessarily be a rigid outline on the screen.  But, even then, all phrases should be short and to the point.

RULE #5 – Do not read from your slide.
Now, this rule is a little more flexible.  First, you will want to say what the slide says for your three (or how ever many you have) major points in your sermon.  You may even want to read certain phrases for emphasis.  But, for the most part, nobody wants to listen to some guy saying the same thing that is on a screen behind him.  The phrases on the screen should summarize your points and sub-points, and your sermon should explain them.  They need to see something short and memorable, and they need to hear greater depth in explanation.  Say it differently in your PowerPoint than you do in your sermon.  Otherwise, PowerPoint becomes nothing more than a glorified teleprompter that everyone can see.

RULE #6 – Learn about contrast.
Contrast is important in vision.  It is the reason a book has white pages and black words.  Contrast makes the book easier to read.  The same is true in PowerPoint.

But, we don’t want to be boring and always have white backgrounds with black text (or black backgrounds with white text).  We want to use color and pictures.  So, contrast gets a little trickier.

Let me show you:

So, text in red stands out best on white, and it is pretty good on black. That’s because black and white are at the ends of the contrast range, and red is in the middle. But, when we put red text on a blue background, both colors are near the middle of the contrast spectrum, so the text gets hard to read. In many cases this problem can be solved by putting a dark or light border around the text, or with a rectangle of light or dark behind the text (browse my background galleries to see more examples of these).

This problem gets harder to resolve when your background is a picture, since pictures are a mosaic of differing contrasts.  But, the best thing to do is to find the portion of the picture that is very dark or very light where you can fit text, or place a shape of dark or light color over an area to create an appropriate area for text (you can even make that shape slightly transparent to keep the contrast but also see the picture behind it…again, see the galleries for examples).

RULE #7 – Know the limits of projectors.
Your PowerPoint presentation will never look the same on your office computer screen as it does projected onto a screen Sunday morning.  There are some exceptional (very expensive) projectors that can display nearly as well as your monitor.  But, most preachers don’t use those projectors.

The problem is that because a projector has to throw the light that makes the image across the room and then reflect it on a screen, the image dulls considerably.  So, colors wash out, and text does not contrast with the background nearly as well as it did on your monitor.  I have noticed that reds and oranges are especially difficult to project.  They turn out more like shades of brown.  Highlighting a portion of text by making it red doesn’t work as well on the screen as it does in your Bible.

Generally speaking, the image on the projector screen will be darker than on your monitor.  A dark gray will just look black, as will a dark red or dark blue, etc.  And lighter colors may also fade too much to distinguish from white or cream or tan.  So, here’s a trick in trying to make and choose backgrounds, text, and colors that will still look decent when projected:

Design your slide the way you like it, with colors, text and everything.  Then, view your monitor from a sharper angle.  On my laptop I just tilt the screen toward me or away from me.  On my monitor I stand up and look down at the screen from a steeper angle.  Most computer screens have the best picture when viewed from directly in front, but lose a lot of contrast when viewed from an angle.  That loss of contrast will help you see how your slide might look when projected on a screen. Then adjust accordingly.

RULE #8 – Do not make a slide”show.”
This may be the hardest temptation to resist when it comes to PowerPoint errors.  If your presentation is too flashy, showy, or animated it will be distracting.  A good presentation aids the sermon.  It doesn’t become a show in itself.

Now, Microsoft wants to sell a product, so they throw in lots of cool features like snazzy animations and slide transitions.  Your words and slides can spin, slide, fly, dissolve, flash, and so on.  But, listen carefully: DO NOT USE ANY OF THOSE FEATURES.  When you do, the listeners are thinking, “That was cool/cheesy/nifty/distracting,” instead of getting the message.  If you are making an emotional appeal to living a more godly life, but your slide is spinning and flashing behind you, they will pay attention to the slide.  It’s not their fault.  It’s human nature.

So, here is a list of slide transitions and animations that I use because I find they communicate a transition without being too flashy and distracting:

Slide Transitions: Fade, Fade through Black
Custom Animations: Fade, and the occasional Color Typewriter

Everything else, in my opinion, is too much (or too cheesy).

There is one exception: if you are creating a slideshow during which you will not be doing much talking (such as a photo slideshow from a mission trip, or even a series of slides with text set to music, or just shown in silence to make a strong point).

RULE #9 – Choose an appropriate background.
Slide backgrounds offer an excellent opportunity that preachers often pass up (I am guilty of this from time to time, too).  A well-chosen background can be an incredible help in getting your message across.  It can also be an incredible help in preparing your sermon.

People learn and remember better when they have an anchor or trigger.  This is why Jesus’ taught with parables.  The people could relate.  Then, when they saw a mustard seed or a lost sheep they could remember the message Jesus connected those objects with.  PowerPoint backgrounds can help us accomplish this.

So, generally speaking, pick a background that communicates your sermon theme or topic.  Don’t just use nondescript colors or shapes.  Don’t just use a background with a cross in the bottom corner, or a Bible on the side.  Use an image that conveys your message.

For example, in Gallery 1 I have a background with a serene forest picture.  The title of the lesson was Solitude, and it was about how Jesus spent time alone with God, and so should we.  I chose the picture because I felt that it communicated as sense of peace and security, as well as withdrawal.

Other, more obvious examples are the backgrounds in the galleries with clocks or crows or calendars or other images that served as object lessons or illustrations in the sermon.

This can also help you in sermon preparation.  Having that image and its associated lessons in mind can help keep your points focused and centered on the topic or theme.  It reminds you of the “big idea” that you want to communicate, which, as you know, can easily get lost in details and exegesis.

RULE #10 – The final, most important rule.
If PowerPoint becomes a hindrance, do not use it.

Here are some examples of when it is good and right to pass up on using PowerPoint:

–When there are church members so forcefully opposed to it that using it could cause anger and division.  “So, do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.” (Romans 14:16)

–When you have not had time to prepare a proper PowerPoint, so you are tempted to throw one together with a blah background and blah design.

–When there is a technical malfunction.  Do not persist in making the technology work.  If it is not working and cannot be resolved quickly or without distraction, then drop it.  You can preach without it.  You used to do it all the time.

–When you feel like you can’t preach without it.

–When you are not relatively confident in using it.  There is a learning curve to preaching with PowerPoint, but travel most of the curve in practice, not in presentation.

–When something new and more effective comes out.  We get stuck “doing what we’ve always done because we’ve always done it” in plenty of other areas.  Don’t be afraid to move on from PowerPoint when the time comes (like when you had to move on to PowerPoint several years ago…remember?).

So that’s it.  Those are the rules (some of them).  If you have any other questions about PowerPoint or about preaching with PowerPoint, well, I don’t have all the answers, but I can do my best to help if you want to contact me: choward (at) coffeyvillecofc (dot) com.  If you have any other pointers or rules, feel free to share them in the comments section.

11 thoughts on “PowerPoint Sermon Advice

  1. Hi,
    thanks for all this great advise on how to use power point. I was actually convinced that power point in teachings makes people stupid in general, but when I read your advice, it gives me hope there could actually be a way to use it properly :-)

    And thanks also for the great PP backgrounds. I will certainly come back for one of my next sermons and try one. It’s also great that you have different versions, including one without the background text, as I am not from an englishspeaking country and such have to redo that anyway. Could you perhaps in the future note down the name of the fonts used?

    But in general: thank you so much for your great ideas and creative designs.
    Thanks!
    jan

    • Jan,
      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read more about PPT sermon preparation. It can be done poorly…and often is. But, it can be a wonderful tool, as well.

      I will see what I can do about listing the fonts I used. In the mean-time, is there a particular slide you would like to know the font for?

      Clint

  2. I really, really appreciate these tips. I agree with you 100% on every single point. I had started to form a couple bad habits already, since I’ve just started using Power Point and was taking my cues from what I saw others do, such as putting the entire text of a scripture on the slide and using “cheesy” animations. You have helped me and the congregation I serve.

    • I understand exactly where you are coming from. Most preachers who begin using PowerPoint only know to do what they have seen other preachers do. It’s tough learning to use a new tool.

    • Thanks for checking out the advice and backgrounds!

      As for making your own, first it takes some decent to good software. I use Photoshop, but I have heard good things about Gimp, which is free. Then you have to learn how to use the software. There are many good, free tutorials out there on the web for that. And, finally, you need to find some good sources for free (or cheap, if you’re willing to pay) stock photography. Be careful here, because you have to make sure it’s free, and you have to make sure you understand the license the creator of the media attaches to it. Do they require attribution? Do they want to be notified or grant permission when the media is used for public work?

      Of course, using your own photos whenever possible solves the problem.

      Also, for Photoshop, and I am sure for Gimp, as well, there are many other resources out there. Photoshop brushes are incredibly useful to stamp in shapes, or add texture. If you can find some free sources for brushes (remember the licenses, just like with photos) they will be very helpful.

      And, just play around with photo manipulation and graphic design. Have fun with it, and don’t be afraid to delete something that doesn’t turn out. It’s just digital, so there’s no waste and no reason to not start over.

  3. Thx a lot for you advices about using PowerPoint. Personally, I do not
    use it, because I prefer using GNU/Linux because I think its
    Philosophy is more church-like, God’s Kingdom-like.
    Anyway, I am still trying to learn visual-preaching and I use a program
    called Vue. I do not know if you have come across this application.
    This is an University application for professional presentation and they have a website about the program and some project examples of various sources that use that program.
    I wonder if you could download that application and learn about that
    and post your comments about it. Could you? In the last rule about
    using PowerPoint, you say that we have to be opened up to new
    technologies, so, perhaps you should have a go with VUE.
    You can install it on any platform: Window$, Gnu/Linux or Mac.
    Let me know about your thoughts on this program. It is very ease to
    learn and use. I still do not know how to apply all its features. But, I
    have used it in some of my talks. But, I know that you are an expert
    on visual-preaching.

    So, I ask your help to evaluate if that program can fit and help on the
    preaching-teaching task for the glory of our God.

    I also have translated you advices into Brazilian-Portuguese to help
    me upon preparing presentations either using Libreoffice and or VUE in my
    Debian/GNu/Linux box.

    http://vue.tufts.edu/

    Thanks a lot for sharing your expertise

    Note: your email address is not working. Could you check it out?

    • Hi Vagner Rener. I will definitely check out Vue. I’m not sure if I will post any comments about it here. I don’t use this blog much anymore, which is why the email is not working…it’s an old email. But, I will look into Vue, and if I get a chance I will let you know what I think.

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