Moving Toward Noteless

Dean asked in a comment about moving from manuscript to notes or even no notes.  How is it possible to make that move?  A few thoughts:

1. Manuscripting is a great approach to sermon preparation that I affirm.  The issue is not writing a manuscript, but relying on it or reading it in the pulpit.  Work put in on wording and phrasing in preparation will yield fruit in preaching, so it is worth continuing to manuscript in my opinion.

2. Moving to notes means formulating a distillation on paper.  That is, putting in something similar to headings and sub-headings in your manuscript, then removing the text to leave these “headings” and highlights of content.  I don’t like to use the term headings because actually a sermon outline is not built with headings, it is made up of ideas.  The problem with headings is that they tend to be incomplete sentences, and therefore, incomplete thoughts.  If we take the heading approach we will be tempted into clever little pithy alliterations and summary headings that actually don’t reflect the content of the message.  Much better to summarize the movement of the message and preach with those “ideas” rather than alliterated bullet points.  (That is not to say that you might not be able to use trigger terms to jog your memory of the ideas that constitute the points or movements of the message, but these are triggers for you, not your listeners.)

3. Moving to no notes means a bit more of a step.  With notes you can still have a complex message that bounces around the canon like a hard rubber ball in concrete box.  When you go no notes you need to simplify the message and tie it in more closely to the text you are preaching.  Effectively the text becomes your notes, so you look at the text and see the shape of thought that provides the skeleton for the message.  No notes preaching doesn’t require superior memory skills, it requires only greater familiarization with the text and a more accessible / clear / logical / simple message.  If a message is so complex that you need notes to help you navigate it, then what hope do your listeners have?  You’ve spent hours in it, they only get one shot!

4. Moving to notes or no notes requires practice.  I don’t mean just trying and failing in the pulpit (in reality you won’t “fail” as easily as you expect).  What I mean is running through the message without the manuscript.  Prayerfully practicing before you preach is not at all unspiritual.  I would encourage preachers to preach . . . often a message makes sense on paper, but simply won’t flow from your mouth.  Better to find that out before you preach it on Sunday!  Remember, the goal of sermon preparation is an oral communication event, not a polished manuscript for publication.

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14 thoughts on “Moving Toward Noteless

  1. Thank Peter. As always I agree with all of the points and would like to build on point 4. Practicing a sermon out loud reveals issues that might not necessarily be obvious when writing or reading them silently. Listening to that practice reveals even more areas for improvement. I have recently purchased a small digital voice recorder, and painful as it is to hearing my own voice, listening to this practice sermon reveals issuesI had’t realised; such as emphasis in the wrong place or points which I thought were adequately covered, but which required some more detailed work.

  2. Tried going without notes for the first time last Sunday. Was good – I lost some thoughts, gained some bits, but overall it meant I had a simple message and more engagement with people.

  3. Great questions and comments. I think what has enabled me to move away from extensive notes to fewer to no notes is what Peter mentions in the third section. By my becoming so familiar and saturated by the text in preparation allows me the freedom to let the text, shape and drive the message. Along with Peter’s post from yesterday regarding “complexity and simplicity” is also an extremely important step towards preaching without or very few notes. Thanks again, Peter for your insightful and helpful comments.

  4. Preaching without notes provides, in my opinion, a much better connection with the church. I’m looking at them and staying connected with them as I deliver the message. I especially appreciate the point that the text becomes your notes. This is true for me, and I believe it’s very helpful for the congregation to be able to follow along in their own bibles. This is one of the reasons I don’t like projecting the text on the screen, I want people to be in the bible and working through things.

    I’ve been preaching without notes for several years now, and I wouldn’t want to go back. It does take practice (I preach the sermon to an empty room at least twice), but it also yields a much better sermon.

    One thing that I do is to use a few key pictures in a PowerPoint presentation to coincide with the big ideas of my sermon, so I guess this does serve as a second level of notes. Usually I have about five slides per sermon: a title slide that I repeat at the end and then three points or moves. The slides are a picture that fills the screen with a few words.

  5. I prepare the sermon as a narrative / story. We all can remember and tell stories of what happened to us, or what happened to others.

    I find by immersing myself into the story of the scripture…and even within a teaching or strictly doctrinal sermon there is still a story / narrative to tell and unfold – I can remember it without notes.

    I will initially write down some brief notes about it…do my research and I will practice preaching that note / point as I prepare it…and so my goldfish, dog and pot plant becomes my willing or not so willing audience. By the time I get into the pulpit, the message has become alive to me, because I have become totally immersed in it.

    This then frees me to look the congregation in the eye as I talk and to engage them with the story I am about to unfold. For scripture references I will use sticky notes in my bible to ear mark them and to easily find them to read.. sometimes I will write a little note on it to jog my memory what was the main point from that scripture or the reason for using it…

    I’m glad to have stumbled upon your blog…..its a worthwhile one to read and engage with…

  6. Really grateful to have found this blog. I yearn to preach without notes one day, and this post gives me motivation and inspiration, along with the comments made by other people. Thanks!

  7. This might seem like an odd question, but could anyone give any input into going in the other direction?

    I find it relatively easy to work on a sermon as a series of connected thoughts, and so my process has always involved creating a set of notes as you describe, a series of ideas, as I go along. So the end result of my preparation is always a set of notes to preach from, and occasionally they are so closely connected to the text itself that I find I don’t really need them.

    I find it much, much harder to create a manuscript.

    It’s not that I don’t think through the complete sermon word by word. I do this, and I practice preaching it out loud at least twice in full, and lots more for some sections. But I can’t seem to move from this spoken word to a written manuscript.

      • I’ve tried using Dragon Naturally Speaking.
        It can be a great tool, but I see 2 problems:
        1) if you really want to have a “readable” manuscript, you need to add punctuation to your speech
        2) if you don’t want to spend too much time re-editing the text, you need to speak a bit more slowly.
        Maybe the 2) is just because I am new to use it and some more training (both for me and the SW) is needed.
        At the moment, I am not sure if it is better for me to write or to dictate…

  8. So I will be honest that I’m just straight nervous to go noteless. I would love to try. I feel like my memory isn’t that good but maybe I’m selling myself short. Any other process thoughts for going noteless out there? Other links, books, articles, etc.
    I currently practice my sermon out-loud at least twice so I’m very familiar with my notes and I don’t use them too much, but my brain will just shut down every once in a while so I refer to them at those points. I highly affirm out-loud practice because I always make good refinements to the structure, to where I need to add in a story, or to where the pace feels like it’s dragging, etc.

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