"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

PowerPoint Or A Silver Tongue–Look ‘Em In The Eye, Brother

Betsy Barnard was a whiz at Power Point. Even at small gatherings in her office, she used it . We all had to admit that she was very good at displaying charts, graphs, and visual images.  She had mastered the ‘active’ function on the software, and her presentations were alive with moving arrows showing disease spread, falling profits, or community outreach. Her colors were vivid and bright.  Her photographs were emotive, theme-specific, and compelling.

The problem was that her audience, whether a small group of minions gathered in her corner office, staff meetings, or conferences, never remembered a thing she said.  They were too busy looking at the pictures, following the moving pieces, or smiling at her ironic musical background.  Despite hours of effort, remarkable intelligence and discipline, Betsy Barnard was still considered a remote, overbearing boss.

Not surprisingly she was clueless about why her star had failed to rise.  She was smart, articulate, on top of every issue of relevance to the corporation, and as comprehensive and professionally thorough as any manager. “What’s wrong with me?”, she wondered as one well-argued and –presented initiative after another fell by the wayside, left there by an indifferent staff and unimpressed senior management.

“It’s the PowerPoint, dear”, said her husband. “Lose the PowerPoint.”

Lambert Jenkins was the son of an evangelist preacher in the Mississippi Delta. Pastor Jenkins filled the pews of his rural Church of the Risen Christ every Sunday. He was a gifted orator, and while his commitment to Jesus Christ might have been shaky at best, his powerful sermons made up for any private diffidence. “Look ‘em in the eye”, he told his son, named after the Lamb of God to give the boy an extra boost in a trying and often desperate world. “Pick one out – doesn’t matter who – and bore into their soul”. He explained the phenomenon of ‘credible assumption’.  No one in the small congregation could be absolutely sure that the pastoral glare was not aimed at them.

Pastor Jenkins did in fact choose his targets carefully.  There was Herbert Flinders, the owner of the farm supply store who, everyone but his wife knew, spent Wednesday afternoons in the hay with Mavis Treacher.  Or the high school biology teacher who was comme ça as the French say, but still an outcast in the eyes of the Lord.  Or Bert The Tippler, Marge the Tart, and Benny the Lender.

Pastor Jenkins was not only a master of oratory but of human nature.  Just by listening and observing he picked up enough casual information to create a very accurate composite portrait of each and every one of his flock.  As Jesus himself said, everyone is a sinner in need of redemption, and Jenkins was a lieutenant in His service.  The more he knew about the sinners in his community, the better he could address their needs and prepare them for the Lord.

“Hone in on them, boy”, he said to his young son. “Fix ‘em with your eyes and don’t let ‘em go.”

Lamby Jenkins went to hear his father every Sunday and always sat in the first row. “I want you to watch me, boy, and learn something”, his father said; and after logging hundreds of Sundays, he understood what a genius his father was.

“Sinners”, Pastor Jenkins said quietly, almost inaudibly, as he began is sermon. “Sinners”, he repeated, this time more loudly. “Sinners”, he shouted. “Generation of vipers.  Pharisees. Scribes. Unholy deniers of Christ.”  Here he paused as he always did when he knew that he had gotten the congregation’s attention, when he heard no rustling, coughing, or impatient scraping of shoes.

Now was the time to hone in, to single out this week’s fallen soul.  He knew well in advance who would be his victim, and he prepared his Biblical references appropriately. Greed, venality, arrogance, disrespect, sodomy, adultery – all were in ample supply in both the Old and New Testaments, and Pastor Jenkins had no trouble crafting his sermon.  After citing chapter and verse, bowing his head to the wisdom, severity, and insistent purity of The Savior, and after embellishing the text with his own reflections on honesty, charity, and right behavior, he paused, looked around the church to find his chosen example.  “Some in this church are worse sinners than others”, he intoned. “Sinners of the worst kind, spiritual derelicts who turn their backs on Christ, who deny the Holy Ghost, who reject all the love and redemptive kindness of the Lord.  You know who I am talking about.”

At this point the rustling and uneasy shuffling began.  Eyes peered left and right to see who Pastor Jenkins was going to pillory.  When he had found his prey and locked eyes with him, he resumed his sermon in earnest.  According to the simplest laws of geometry, a man standing on a one-foot raised platform looking at one spot in the middle of an audience of 100 and fixing his gaze on it, could be seen to looking at ninety percent of it.  Although Pastor Jenkins had singled out an adulterer, drunk, or miser, he could have been speaking to anyone.

When the rustling stopped and all eyes returned to him, Pastor Jenkins continued.  His delivery was worthy of the greatest and most well-known orators.  His delivery was modulated and punctuated.  He paused for effect, sped up to emphasize urgency and peril.  He spoke harshly when it was time for accusation and condemnation and softly when speaking of forgiveness and redemption.  By the time he was finished, everyone felt moved.  Pastor Jenkins had invoked the spirit of Christ himself.

Lamby Jenkins learned well from his father, and although he did not follow in his religious footsteps, he became a secular preacher.  In the corporate world where he grew and then thrived, Lambert Jenkins ruled.  He could get anyone to do anything without them even knowing.  He was so adept, so practiced, and so magnificently gifted in the art of persuasion that equals, superiors, and minions alike all thought that they were the ones who thought of the recast report, the reorganization, or steps to improve sales or efficiency. 

Everyone loved him and respected him, and before long he was a senior manager in a large company.  All along he did exactly as his father had taught him. He kept his eyes and ears open, built uncannily accurate composite profiles of all his colleagues, and persuaded them with his silver tongue.

“Nothing could be easier”, he thought to himself. “Father was right. You can get people to do anything.”

Meanwhile Betsy Barnard took her husband’s advice to heart and no longer relied on PowerPoint.  However, she was no Pastor or Lambert Jenkins, and felt uncomfortable standing up in front of an audience without the PowerPoint clicker in her hand.  She either stumbled and hesitated or rushed on reading a prepared text. She got nowhere.

“She looks twitchy up there”, said one young junior manager. And twitchy she was indeed. Unlike the Jenkins, Betsy was unable to look anyone in the eye, let alone fix her gaze and talk to them personally.  Because she knew she was supposed to do these things, she tried her best, but there was no consonance between her body language and her text, and ended up bobbing her head and shoulders like a blind person.

She kept turning towards the back of the room where the PowerPoint screen used to be and not finding it, groped at her notes, looked quickly at the increasingly restive audience, and rushed to a conclusion.

Betsy Barnard was a talented woman – intelligent and a creative thinker.  It was a shame that her downfall could have been only a painful addiction to PowerPoint.

What about honesty? Betsy Barnard may have illustrated the truth, but she never shellacked it.  Not so with the Lamberts.  Honesty was never an issue with either of them.  The good Pastor knew that he could have been a success in business like his son.  He would have made a crackerjack salesman, a long-term politician, or the head of any marketing department in the country. “Selling Jesus is better than selling tires”, he often said to himself, and never regretted his calling.  He knew that fundamentalist preachers had as bad a reputation as used car salesmen – Elmer Gantry, Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Sunday, Jimmy Swaggart and all the rest – but because of a scintilla of faith he could sleep nights.

Lamby Jenkins went from one top corporate job to the next, mastering the nuts and bolts of management to go along with his persuasive skills.  He had to learn one thing his father never could teach him – hardball.  The intimidating power of God and Jesus Christ was such that no strong-arm tactics were ever required to assure compliance to the Word.  Not so in the corporate world; but Lambert turned out to be as good an intimidator as a salesman.

The moral of the story is that a silver tongue always trumps PowerPoint.  Emotion trumps logic; and empathy always trumps instruction.  Add a few doses of charm and menace, and you have the complete, consummate shepherd.

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