I have witnessed many people use slides poorly in preaching. I’m going to describe a few common pitfalls, followed by some suggestions for how to remedy them.
Common Pitfalls for Slide Usage
Pitfall #1: The whole sermon is on the slides
I have often seen ministers preach with the entire long-form content of their sermon on their slides. It’s bad visually because it’s jumbled. But even worse, this means that the speaker has made his/her role unnecessary. If everything you’re going to say is already on the slides, then why do they still need you?
I can’t speak for everyone, but if I’m listening to a traditional “three points & a poem/prayer” sermon where the contents are all on the slide. If I already know what the speaker is likely to say about a point–I can read it faster than he can speak it–I generally just tune out in between points and feel bored.
Pitfall #2: The slides are the speaker’s only notes
I use notes when I preach. I think most preachers do. But related to #1, I believe it is a mistake to bring no notes in hand, and to use your slides as your outline. The biggest risk here is that if one day your slides don’t work, you may have no backup. The other thing I don’t like is that the preachers I’ve seen do this are obviously waiting on their next slide to remind them of what they’re supposed to say next. I’ve never seen this done in a way that didn’t feel disjointed to me as a listener.
If this is an informational presentation about a new strategic plan or something, that’s different. But a sermon is not merely a transfer of information. It’s supposed to be more like a message from God delivered through you. It feels less authentic if you have to let your slides tell you what to do. You can glance ahead on printed notes. You can’t look ahead at future slides.
Pitfall #3: The slides aren’t designed for the location in which the message will be delivered
Is the screen your slides will be projected on a modern 16:9 ratio or an older 4:3 ratio? If you designed for one or the other, it won’t look good if the setting doesn’t match the one you picked. All slide programs let you select your format. It’s important to get this right.
Pitfall #4: There are formatting issues with fonts and/or layouts
This happens all. the. time. Whenever we have guest speakers, I beg them to send me slides early. I look at each one to be sure the slide texts load well in relation to the images, and that it fits the overall slide well.
Principles for Using Slides Well
I will say more in other posts about excellence in slide design. Here I want to describe how to remedy the pitfalls I mentioned above.
#1. Make slide creation the last step in how you prepare your message.
Pray and think through your lesson exhaustively. Arrange it for the best possible flow. Trim out unneeded points. Get it into a format of notes where you could easily preach it without slides. There are rare occasions where a chart or image might be key to a presentation, and this is fine. But generally, your message should stand on its own, even if the power went out Sunday morning.
After your lesson is full-formed, then glance through it and think, “What could I put on the screen that would provide context or focus for what I’m talking about in this section?” In general, use the fewest words you possibly can. Exceptions would be if you are using an abundance of words to create an artistic effect, or something like that. When I’m telling a story about family tension within Abraham’s household, if I can, I’ll find an artistic rendering of the argument I’m actually describing, and I’ll use it without any words on the slide. At most, I might put something like “Household Tensions.”
The point is: Slides will aid or enhance what I’m doing, but there’s no way to get my sermon without listening to me present it. Slides are secondary. Preaching must remain primary.
#2. Share your outline with the person running your slides
I know many preachers who prefer to advance their own slide presentations. Occasionally for the sake of timing, I might prefer this. But in pursuit of what I describe in #1 above, I have concluded that the best way to keep myself focused on what I’m preaching is to have a volunteer be in charge of progressing my slides.
I give them a copy of my outline where I have clearly indicated where slide transitions are supposed to happen. In my notes, I designate this very clearly as you can see to the right.
A good outline is easy to navigate visually. You should be able to step away from it, expound on what you’re talking about, and upon returning, easily find the place where you left off. Use lots of bold and italicized words, and give yourself generous room for lists or quotes.
By doing all of this, I can trust someone else to help the slides line up with my comments and I can put myself more fully into what I’m saying. Most Sundays I don’t look at a single slide while I’m presenting. Detaching yourself from slide mechanics lets you focus on what you’re trying to say and the people to whom you’re trying to say it. There are some Sundays where the person advancing might get a tad ahead or behind, but because my slides are an aid and not a replacement for me, this is seldom something the audience would even notice or that I would worry about.
In fact, if I ever have key transitions that need to happen at key points, it’s very easy to talk to the volunteer before the presentation and let them know what their cue will be. Every time I’ve taken the extra step to coach what I wanted to happen, they’ve done a great job.
#3. Ask in advance about the format needed for the location where you’ll present
If you can’t ask anything else, ask if it is 4:3 ratio or 16:9. In other words, “Is it more like an old computer monitor or a newer flat-screen tv? More like a square or a rectangle?”
Some people know this information readily. I’ve had several folks who really didn’t know. When this is the case, I will always prepare my slides in both formats, clearly label the files, and make sure I am ready for either.
It is also worth asking about the lighting in the room. Are the projectors laser-based bright and clear ones, or do the lights in the room wash out the content? If your slides will be faint, you will want to use strongly contrasting colors; mostly black on white.
#4. Export your slide presentation as image files to be loaded
As a guest speaker, I don’t give Powerpoint or Keynote files. (I do all my design in Keynote.) From your slide program, you should be able to export your slides as individual .jpg files. I know at least in keynote, if you have a list that builds on screen, you can even export individual image for each stage of builds.
It will produce a folder of images that correspond to your slides. The main reason you do this is that you are functionally taking pictures of each slide, exactly as you created it. It doesn’t matter what program they run or what fonts they have. Any slide program can accept image files into it as slides.
My text is the font and size I want it. The images are where I placed them. There are no compatibility issues between versions of slide programs where one can’t do what the other can. Frankly, many churches aren’t running their worship slides from Powerpoint or Keynote anyway. Most of us use programs designed for running multiple presentations as part of a program playlist, like ProPresenter. I’ve never worked with an A/V team at another church who didn’t love me for giving them images in this format, because even if I gave them a Keynote file, they would have to turn around and make it into images anyway. You’re saving them a couple of steps.