How to Preach Without Notes – Part 1 of 2

sermon prep Mar 19, 2018

We’ve all seen this happen. The preacher walks up to the stage with a Bible, some pieces of paper, and a binder. He spends the first few seconds placing everything on the podium. While he’s doing this the audience is mostly looking at the top of his head as he looks down. As he begins speaking he reads from one piece of paper, looks up, finds another one in his binder, reads it, looks up again, and then looks down for his next idea. Aside from the sloppiness and the seemingly un-prepared vibe this gives off – it also risks not engaging the audience.

Let’s contrast that scenario with the preacher who gets up on stage and speaks with clarity and command of the room, engages everyone with eye contact and energy, and you never see him look down, fumble through pages, or read from anything but the Bible.

From a communications perspective, the preacher in our first scenario is far less likely to connect with his listeners. He is missing a vital aspect of capturing people’s attention immediately. In fact, the first 90 seconds of any message are the most important for gaining and keeping the attention of the audience. You can see how to make better use of those crucial moments in this post.

Considering the fact that I’d like to avoid making the fatal mistakes the preacher in the first scenario made, I began to be intrigued with this idea: What if I could train myself to not need notes at all? What if I could prepare in such a way that I could deliver a message and never look down, but maintain eye contact and physical engagement with my listeners from start to finish? What if you could, too?

So I began training myself not to use notes, and I want to share with you how to preach without notes. But first, I need to address one objection you may have right now.

Some can handle notes well.

Wait! You might be thinking. The preacher in the first scenario is bad with notes. I’m good with notes! What I can say is, so am I. I’m really good with notes. They’re on one page, in my Bible, and I rarely look at them. I wrote about my use of notes in this post.

I want to make it clear that I don’t think notes are bad. In fact, a lot of preachers use notes extensively, and they do it well. Sam Storms at Bridgeway Church in Oklahoma City is a great example of someone who uses an entire manuscript when he preaches and does it excellently and engagingly.

My notes were already much more minimal than a full manuscript. And as I stated above, I was good at navigating them smoothly. But I began to experiment with ways to not use my notes at all. Because, regardless of how well I handled my notes, I still found myself depending on them which meant diverting attention away from my audience and onto something that only I could see. This will be important later, because I am not suggesting not reading anything at all, but I am suggesting not reading anything your audience can’t also see.

So even if you would consider yourself effective at using notes, what if you could train yourself to go one step further and not use them at all? What if you could have just as much of a content rich experience without ever diverting attention away from your listeners?

I want to share a simple four-step process that will enable you to ditch your notes entirely. This may take longer for some than others, but if you work this process you will be free of your dependency on notes altogether. We’ll check out the first two steps in this post and steps 3 and 4 in part two of this series:

1. Reduce the amount of notes you allow yourself

I would not suggest getting up this Sunday without notes if you are currently accustomed to using them. This may lead to forgetting your message entirely cause panic to ensue inside your brain. Instead, begin reducing the amount of notes you use. If you currently use 3 pages see if you can get everything onto 2 pages. Maybe after getting used to 2 pages, you can reduce your notes down to 1 page. Eventually, you get used to what you have so reduce it a little at a time and keep moving down until you get to 1 page.

This exercise is important because it teaches you to drill down on what the most important ideas are. As you eliminate pages of notes you end up distilling the most important things to communicate which end up being the bones of your message. I have found the easiest way for me to do this is to build my message notes around triggers and key ideas.

2. Build a flow of touch points and triggers

Think through your message in terms of a flow. In the simplest terms, your message will begin with some sort of introduction which will flow to the body of your content which will flow to a conclusion. All along the way you can set up triggers which will help you think through what is next in your sermon. On my one page of notes that I still write for every sermon I have a system of touch points and triggers. Even though I rarely read from them on stage, it is still helpful to make the notes as it aids me internalizing my message and being able to deliver it without using my notes.

To build this out in your notes ask two questions: What are my touch points?  By this I’m not just talking about main points but also every illustration, example, story or thought you want to communicate along the way. The second question is: How can I use triggers to tie them together in my brain? This second question is essential because if you’re going to ditch the notes, you have to drill down a logical flow that makes sense to you.

If you’re looking at your one page of notes, you should see a flow of touch points (ideas you want to communicate) and triggers (things that tie them together). This will enable you to see, at a glance, how the entire message flows. This is the same method some actors use to memorize lines. They break every scene down and know that first this happens, then I say this line, then she walks across the room, then the door opens and I say that line, etc. I’m not suggesting you approach a sermon like an actor saying lines. But, in much the same way, the method of building logical flow in your message will help you move away from dependency on your notes.

Be sure to check out part 2 of this series when it is released. For now, work on these first two steps and see how it helps you reduce your dependency on notes.

Just curious, what is your current note set-up for a typical sermon?


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