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September 2007
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Media and technology issues for learning and persuasion

The Tech Effect | LeadershipJournal.net

The issues of how – and whether – to integrate technology into training go beyond the borders of corporate training or academia. The same issues confront other professions as well, such as pastoring a church, as covered in the article linked above. I was struck, as I read through the article, at how similar the issues are, in fact. How do you reach the balance of visual vs. auditory vs. written messages for maximum effect? When is one mode more effective than another? When does one interfere with another? Read some of the excerpts below and see if the issues sound familiar.

Has using visual technology ever backfired on you?

Stevens: I was speaking about worry and Jesus’ words about the flowers of the field and how God cares for even the birds. During my message video clips of flowers and fields were appearing on the giant screen behind me, and there was a clip of a bird that we’d taken from stock video. It was a blackbird that looked like it was peering into your soul. It was really creeping people out. So every five minutes when the bird clip appeared, in the middle of teaching, I’d hear this reaction of fear and laughter. It was an Edgar Allan Poe moment. That creepy bird totally distracted people from the message.

The effect your visuals have on different people can be difficult to predict. I heard of a situation in our company where there was a picture of a person in handcuffs to underscore the potential legal troubles that could arise from ignoring the guidelines in a harassment awareness course. One woman called in genuinely distraught because the image triggered memories of the rather unsettling treatment her son had recently received from police. She asked us to consider the effect the images we chose could have on students. There is no way we could have predicted that that image, which was appropriate for 99% of our population, would be perceived in this case, but the point is valid. That woman was so distraught that she had difficulty completing the course, and it certainly was not an effective communication for her. Likewise, in the example above, the bird’s image made it more difficult for the congregation to pay attention to the message being presented.

I occasionally use visual media and technology as a crutch to help keep what I’m saying interesting. But when an 80-year-old woman who lived through the Great Depression stood up in my congregation and told a story, she didn’t use any technology, and everyone was on the edge of their seats listening to her suffering and what she lived through.

As the medium, she was infinitely more powerful than any technology I could bring.

But it is our responsibility to be resourceful and creative. If some technology is effective for communication, like a movie clip, great—use it. But if there’s a story from a person within the community, a testimony, use that instead.

We use imagery. We use technology, but only to the extent that it enhances the message. If used too often, it can become more of a distraction.

Don’t use technology just because you can. Look for the most effective method for your subject. A lot of people (particularly trainers) used to be afraid of e-learning because they thought it would replace classroom training and lower effectiveness. For the most part, we’ve now come to the understanding that both delivery methods have their pros and cons, and the proper application is both methods is frequently the most effective path.

Another thought to take from this quote is the idea of using a story for engaging the audience. A personal story is frequently most engaging, but anything with a narrative thread is typically better than the standard fact/concept, quiz, fact/concept, quiz presentation that permeates much of the learning/training field.

Is that why visuals are so popular—people now expect multiple forms of communication to happen at once?

Hipps: Whether attentions spans are wider or shorter, one thing is clear: the way we think has changed. In the 1980s the average cut in a TV program was about seven seconds. There was seven seconds of uninterrupted footage followed by a camera cut. By the mid-1990s it had dropped to two seconds. Images now change rapidly. Whether you know it or not, that actually re-forms neural pathways in your brain. For my generation in particular, the way we engage things has been fundamentally altered.

That’s just scary information. Are we really so short on attention span that we can’t concentrate on something for more than two seconds? While I have no doubt that the facts presented here are true, I don’t think it means we need to follow suit. Some messages require more concentration from our audiences and I think we have the right to expect that they provide that attention without having something eye-catching thrown at them every few seconds. Yes, avoid being boring, but don’t get caught in the trap of throwing in some ‘bling’ or drastically shortening your presentation (and compromising completion/effectiveness) just because statistics tell us we all have attention-deficit disorder.

A story or image is powerful, and it’s going to do its own thing. It might take on a life of its own. So it must clearly fit the point I’m trying to communicate. If I use multiple images to illustrate multiple points, it’s going to overwhelm people. So I try to have one idea and one image to illustrate it. Anything more is just going to get lost.

This point speaks for itself. Be efficient. Don’t overstimulate.

Studies show that people learn best when they are actively engaged. With worship in many churches now focused on a screen, how do you avoid creating passive observers?

Stevens: Something we do that’s insanely easy is just having people talk to each other. Typically the first five or ten minutes of a sermon I’ll introduce an idea and then tell everyone, “Hey, turn to the person next to you and talk about the best Christmas gift you ever got.” How simple is that? To actually turn 90 degrees and look at someone next to you in church is shocking to some people, and all the introverts freak out. But to engage and acknowledge that you are not anonymous is important.

This is such an important point. Again, it’s engagement. At a conference I attended earlier this year, Elliott Masie had his audience turn and talk to each other about the topic he was going to discuss for 2 minutes out of his keynote speech. It totally changed the dynamics of the presentation from passive to active. We were engaged in the conversation, not just listening to him impart his wisdom from on high. It also made the room of a few hundred people seem a little more personable. We need to find ways to engage participants, regardless of whether we’re all in the same room, or in a virtual classroom, or a discussion list, or even a self-study course. There has to be some way for the student to feel like a participant, not an observer.

If I need to do analytical exegetical work, words are absolutely the most effect medium. If I need to evoke an emotional visceral response, images work better. But you have to realize that once you use an image, you risk becoming manipulative.

An image pins the logical side of your brain to the back of your skull, and it doesn’t matter how smart or analytical you are, an image will always penetrate behind your logic.

For example, if I put text on a screen that reads “naked woman,” it will have one impact. If I showed an image of a naked woman, it would have a dramatically different impact. That’s what we need to understand. Words and pictures are not interchangeable media.

Interestingly, the church I attend uses zero visual technology in its services: not a single piece of technology beyond audio amplification. I usually manage to get a lot out of the sermons (unless I stayed up too late the night before). It’s also one of the larger and faster growing churches in my area, so it must not just be me. When I visit another church that does use multimedia presentations, I’m frequently turned off. I often feel manipulated, as if they don’t want to allow me to rationally consider the message, but instead want to evoke a purely emotional reaction. In those cases it seems to me that the message is getting lost in the medium. Too much is concentrated on how to “get through to the new generation” and not enough on the message. (Yes, I recognize that this same phenomenon can occur in purely spoken delivery as well, but this article is about the use of technology so that’s where I’m focusing.)

It’s important to understand the usefulness of different media and engagement techniques, but don’t forget: sometimes simpler is better.

In the end, balance the needs of your audience with the needs of your message – and in my opinion, the needs of the message gets more weight. If it’s something that should be delivered visually, or as part of an immersive experience, by all means do it that way. If it’s not, then don’t. There’s no shame in presenting a paragraph or even a page of text if that’s the best way to impart your topic.

[tags]preaching, persuasion, learning, training, e-learning, education, technology, multimedia[/tags]

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