Chapter 163

No Notes, Lots of Notes, Brief Notes

The pros and cons of extemporaneous and manuscript delivery

The Montagues vs. the Capulets; the Hatfields vs. the McCoys; the House of Lancaster vs. the House of York. Clan spats are not limited to literature, folk lore, or history. Homiletics has its own spat: preaching with a manuscript vs. preaching extempore. Each side has its champions, and each holds its turf with fervor.

This article tries to bring some balance to the spat by adopting Fred Craddock's stance:

Every method pays a price for its advantages. Those who prefer the freedom and relationships available to the preacher without notes will not usually rate as high on careful phrasing and wealth of content. Those who prefer the tightly woven fabric of a manuscript must … accept the fact that a manuscript is less personal and its use is less evocative of intense listener engagement. (Preaching, p. 216)

This article describes the pros and cons of each method, as well as some pointers for each. Before looking at the three methods—no notes, lots of notes, and brief notes—three clarifications are needed.

Clarification #1: No one recommends that we preach entirely without notes. Even the no-notes clan allows us to bring statistics and quotations into the pulpit. If nothing else, we will have our Bibles with us which we may have marked for preaching.

Clarification #2: This article does not deal with two methods of delivery often discussed in public speaking texts: memorized and impromptu since neither should be the pastor's staple method. Memorizing take too much work for too little return. As John Stott says, "The labour of [memorizing] is enormous, the risk of forgetting our lines considerable, and the necessary mental energy so great that they preacher has to concentrate on the memorized script instead of on his message and the congregation" (Between Two Worlds, p. 256). Stewardship tells us to use our time elsewhere.

Impromptu messages are occasionally necessary in the ministry of the Word to answer questions and speak during crises, but this method is not well suited to a regular teaching ministry. An IV is necessary during triage, but it shouldn't replace a balanced diet.

Clarification #3: The term extemporaneous is sometimes used interchangeably with impromptu, but in this article I am following the majority of homileticians who define it as a method of speaking that uses careful preparation but which chooses much of the language at the moment of delivery (for example, Jay Adams, Pulpit Speech, p. 113).

No Notes

Why Use This Method?

(1) Jesus and all biblical preachers seem to have used it. While this fact may be more descriptive than prescriptive, it is still a fact worth considering. We should develop our theology of preaching from the affirmations and examples in the Bible.

Not until the Reformation did a considerable number of preachers bring a manuscript to the pulpit. This occurred in part because the values of typography influenced oral communication in the post-Gutenberg world. Sermons became closely reasoned, complex, and permanent works of art, but today we are post-post-Gutenberg. Some scholars call our day secondary orality. We no longer communicate with the bookish style of the 16th and 17th centuries. In secondary orality, public speakers don't sound like essays. They sound like conversation.

(2) It appeals to the audience. With few exceptions, listeners prefer sermons that are direct, conversational, and possess an air of spontaneity. They don't like to be read to. Watch the popular lecturers on public TV on subjects like success and spirituality, and you will never see one read to the audience. To be sure, the talks are well planned and rehearsed, but the speakers use no visible notes. In the post-post-Gutenberg world, audiences have been socialized to expect extemporaneous speaking so that even when speeches are delivered from manuscript, such as the evening news or the State of the Union Address, communicators use teleprompters to appear extemporaneous.

(3) It enhances communication and persuasion. Part of the power of no-notes stems from eye contact. Humans send and decode scores of messages with the eyes. Babies instinctively look in the eyes to discern relationship and intentions. Animals do too. Poets consistently describe the power of the eyes with statements like "Drink to me only with thine eyes, and I will pledge with mine" (Ben Jonson), and he "holds him with his glittering eye" (Samuel Coleridge). Consider the sobering statement in Luke 22:61 when Peter betrayed Jesus: "The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered … went outside and wept bitterly."

Preaching demands eye contact, and the method that best lends itself to eye contact is no-notes.

Preaching, after all, is conversational in character… . Those listeners, if you truly look at them, will affect you. Their attention will quicken your concentration. Their apparent agreement will kindle your conviction. Their seeming bafflement will slow you down and may cause you to speak in a more reflective and less assertive tone… . You cannot look at your listeners and 'read' their responses to you, to what you are saying, and how you are saying it, without in some way being moved. (Charles Bartow, The Preaching Moment, 99–100)

While it is possible to use effective eye contact when using lots-of-notes, it is difficult. Few preachers read well, a point I will emphasize below.

Besides unleashing the communicate power of eye contact, non-notes also lends itself to oral style in language and syntax, and people in secondary orality have higher comprehension when hearing messages in oral style than written style (Adams, Pulpit Speech, p. 113). While it is possible for lots-of-notes preachers to write in an oral style, very few do so. I will take up this point below as well.

(4) It inspires careful preparation. Preaching without notes demands ruthless simplicity of organization. Idea must flow into idea, or else you won't be able to remember what comes next. As seasoned preachers know, developing simple (not simplistic) messages is more demanding than developing rambling collections-of-thoughts-that-include-the-kitchen-sink. Illustrations that marginally illustrate, analogies that don't quite fit, and micro rabbit trails that are interesting but ancillary are tabu when preaching without notes.

The result of this ruthless simplicity is more powerful preaching. In fact, I believe this is the primary benefit of no-notes. When the preacher thinks himself or herself clear, the hearers get the benefit.

(5) It enhances freedom. No-notes gives freedom to add or subtract ideas at the moment of utterance. Which of us has not been promised 30 minutes to speak but then ended up with 22 after the other portions of the service went long? Furthermore, no-notes gives freedom to move away from the pulpit giving physical as well as psychological freedom.

This issue of freedom is crucial to lively, impassioned preaching. Jay Adams uses the term jelling to describe it:

The jelling factor is the culmination of careful preparation and long thought prior to the delivery of the sermon. During the full concentration due to the tension of the preaching experience, at the moment of delivery certain ideas jell. Jelling gives a spontaneity and sparkle to speaking that the calm composition of a full manuscripts done solely in the study is unable to bring. (Pulpit Speech, p. 114)
Why Avoid This Method?

(1) You might forget! As we all know, that's a bad feeling! Worse yet, your deletions may hinder the clarity and impact of the message. Advocates of no-notes tend to minimize this fact, but facts are stubborn things. Those who preach without notes, even when long experienced, will forget some things. Of course, the no-notes clan is quick to tell us that it rarely matters, and they are right. Usually you are the only one who knows when you leave out a point, but sometimes you may leave out a crucial point, or your forgetfulness may lead to fumbling and mumbling.

(2) It leads to glib or imprecise speech. Once again, this pitfall is not certain, but it is more likely than when we preach with notes. We revert to clichés when scrambling for phrases, and clichés rarely find their mark in the human heart.

The suggestions below help minimize the weaknesses of this method.

How to Use This Method

Koller (Expository Preaching Without Notes, pp. 85-97) suggests a three-stage process for preparing to preach without notes:

(1) Saturation. This takes about 50 percent of your total prep time. The key is to study well, and think and pray yourself deep into the text. As Haddon Robinson says, we must "think ourselves clear." Similarly, Cicero stated, "No man can be eloquent on a subject he does not understand" (in Koller, p. 85). When you do good exegesis and have prayed over your sermon, you will be surprised at how deeply you have internalized the message. You're half way to the goal of preaching with no notes!

(2) Organization. This takes about 40 percent of your prep time. The key is to organize your sermon so simply and naturally that the flow is easy to remember. The better the outline, the less likelihood of its being needed in the pulpit. This stage takes 40 percent of your time because it is hard to be simple! Commenting on this issue of organization, Lloyd-Jones said:

The preparation of sermons involves sweat and labour. It can be extremely difficult at times to get all this matter that you have found in the Scriptures into this particular form. It is like a … blacksmith making shoes for a horse; you have to keep on putting the material into the fire and on to the anvil and hit it again and again with the hammer. Each time it is a bit better, but not quite right; so you put it back again and again until you are satisfied with it, or can do no better (Preachers and Preaching, p. 80).

A friend recently told me he is getting ready to preach from Revelation with this flow of thought: (1) God wins. (2) Satan loses. (3) It isn't even close. (4) It is permanent. I was able to remember that flow of thought from a single e-mail, and I'm not even the one preaching the sermon!

Here are some natural patterns of thinking that make simple patterns of sermon forms:

  • Chronology (such as past—present—future).
  • Space (such as inner—outer).
  • Cause-effect (such as symptoms—disease).
  • Problem-solution (such as disease—cure).
  • Antithesis (such as not this—but this).

To help you remember your main points, use an illustration with each one. Also consider using literal images such as objects and slides. These will remain in listeners' minds after the sermon, and they will remain in your mind before it.

One of the easiest ways to preach without notes is by doing narrative sermons. With their causal flow of events, as well as their psychological flow of mounting tension, stories are easy to remember. Alan H. Monroe's "Motivated Sequence" and Eugene L. Lowry's "Homiletical Plot" provide narrative shape even to didactic sermons.

(3) Memorization. This takes about 10 percent of your prep time. The key is to practice out loud without notes and see where you draw a blank, then go back and fix those places in your mind.

If you've never tried no-notes, why not give it a whirl? Put an outline in the back of your Bible as a security net, but I suspect you won't need it. You may be surprised at how easy this method can be, and you may be surprised at how it improves your impact.

Lots of Notes

By "lots of notes" I mean preaching from a manuscript or a very detailed outline. Preachers such as Jonathan Edwards, John Henry Jowett, and Richard Baxter used this method with great effect.

Why Use This Method?

(1) Because it creates security. What a wonderful feeling to walk into the pulpit knowing exactly what you will say! What a wonderful feeling to know within a minute or two how long your sermon will run!

(2) Because it yields precise wording. This is the reason cited most often by the lots-of-notes clan, and it is a powerful argument. Some preaching occasions, such as enforcing an instance of church discipline, demand such careful language that the use of a manuscript is not only permissible but advisable. Just as the President of the United States would not dare to make a policy statement without a manuscript lest his spontaneous comments later bite him, just so should preachers sometimes prepare precise statements for the church. Even the no-notes clan affirms the importance of exact wording in portions of the sermon such as the introduction. Presumably, this clan recommends memorizing (or nearly memorizing) the introduction.

The desire for exact wording takes various forms: The person with a gift of language takes joy in the right word in the right place; the meticulous person is compelled to include everything from the sermon plan in the sermon utterance; and the conscientious person doesn't want to cheat the listeners. These motives are understandable and praiseworthy.

(3)Because it gives you a permanent record. The labor of preparation is captured on paper and is available for future revision and preaching. Of course, some members of the no-notes clan recommend writing a manuscript as part of your preparation, so these folks also have a permanent record, at least a permanent record of what they planned to say.

Why Avoid This Method?

(1) Most readers cannot read with skill. The fact is (and remember that facts are stubborn things) most people sound like they are reading when they read, and reading is not conversing. One of the signs of reading is a steady pace. The pace usually is not too fast or too slow, but it is too steady. Listen to people conversing and you will hear the rate of their speech in constant flux as their voices reflect heart and mind. But when we read, our rate become as steady as a metronome, communicating each word as our eyes scan lines of print. As word follows word with the regularity of a train's clickity-clack, listeners drift. They cannot pick out which ideas are central and which are subordinate, so they fade. Charles Finney said that "any monotonous sound, great or small, if continued, disposes people to sleep" (in Duduit, ed., Handbook of Contemporary Preaching, p. 413).

While mono-pace can be overcome with practice, the fact still stands that most readers do not read well. Furthermore, we are often unaware of how our voices influence reception of the message. Since the message is clear to us, we assume it is clear to others. But it isn't.

(2) Eye contact is difficult or impossible. Another instance of poor reading relates to lack of eye contact. In Switzerland in 1667, the problem of eye contact was considered so grave that church authorities instituted the "Bern Preacher Act," which stipulated that ministers must preach extemporaneously: "They must not read [sermons] in front of the congregation from notes on paper, which is a mockery to have to watch and which takes away all fruit and grace from the preacher in the eyes of the listeners" (in McDill, The Moment of Truth, p. 137).

Like the problem of mono-pace, this problem can be overcome, but most manuscript preachers do not overcome it because we do not perceive ourselves as the congregation perceives us. Wayne McDill tells of a man who asked a preaching professor to evaluate his sermon. When they later discussed the sermon, the professor asked the preacher how many times he thought he had looked at his notes during the sermon. The preacher guessed maybe 20 to 25 times. He was shocked to learn that the professor had counted 161 times (The Moment of Truth, p. 142).

(3) Because most writers write in a written style. Of course they do! How else would you write? In an oral style. We need to transcribe spoken language, but this is difficult to do. Alistair Cooke, patriarch of radio broadcasting, learned this early in his career:

During the end of the war, the BBC in New York invited various famous exiles, Frenchmen mostly, to come and talk to the underground in France; famous, famous, great literary men. And I had the privilege of sitting in the control room, and I thought that I will learn about broadcasting from listening to these men. … What I learned is that they were dreadful broadcasters. They wrote essays, or lectures, or sermons and they read them aloud. And I suddenly realized there was a new profession ahead. Which is writing for talking. Putting it on the page in the syntactical break-up and normal confusion that is normal talk. ("Letter from America," Nov. 19, 1998).

As with the other problem listed above, the problem of written style is not endemic to manuscript preaching. It is just pandemic. I give suggestions below on how to write in an oral style.

(4) Because reading a sermon is a barrier to rapport. I can hear the lots-of-notes clan objecting, "Not in my church; my people know me, love me, and know that I love them." You may be right. Your church may have unusual taste, but most people in most churches desire the preacher to converse, not read. We live in secondary orality. The norms of typography are fading.

(5) Because it limits comprehension and retention in the audience. Koller cites a study where psychologists measured retention when material was read and when it was expressed by direct address: 49 percent versus 67 percent (Expository Preaching Without Notes, p. 39). I suspect that the readers read normally (that is, poorly), but the lots-of-notes clan still must wrestle with this fact.

(6) Because it hinders adaptation, spontaneity, and interaction. "Paper is a very poor conductor of electricity" (McDill, The Moment of Truth, p. 145).

In summary, I'm afraid that the cons outweigh the pros. The skills below can help mitigate the weaknesses, but I cannot recommend that you use lots-of-notes as your normal mode of delivery.

How to Use This Method

(1) Write in an oral style. Your writing will seem redundant and choppy, but that is how we talk. On the page your sermon will seem wordy. Furthermore, remember that your voice—how you say something—carries much of the meaning. When C. S. Lewis first published his "Broadcast Talks," he simply transcribed the talks, using italics for words he stressed with his voice. Afterwards, he felt this was a mistake, "an undesirable hybrid between the art of speaking and the art of writing," so he revised the broadcasts into written style for the book Mere Christianity. He felt that "a 'talk' on the radio should … be as like real talk as possible, and should not sound like an essay being read aloud" (preface to Mere Christianity).

To write in an oral style, listen to yourself as you write your manuscript. For advanced preachers this listening can take place in the mind, but most preachers should speak aloud as they write. Here are some marks of orality:

  • Less formal than written. Uses: colloquialisms, contractions, fragments, and greater percentage of short sentences
  • Assumes face-to-face encounter. Uses: first and second person, and dialogue/response
  • Designed for listening, not reading. Uses: much repetition and restatement (See Sunukjian's article "Skills of Oral Clarity" in chapter 5 of this volume) and paralanguage (sounds, not words, that communicate such as "hmmm" and "shhhh")

(2) Prepare the manuscript for easy reading. Use different fonts, colors, and spacing to help your eyes focus quickly and your voice emphasize meaningfully. Develop your own set of marks such as the use of brackets for illustrations and red asterisks for applications. Number your pages. Type the notes so that you don't have to turn the page in the middle of a sentence.

(3) Practice! Work on rate and eye contact. "You must look at people! The eyes can spit fire, pour out compassion, and preach Christ in you. When you deny people your eyes, you really deny them yourself. No one ever talks to them without looking at them—unless to insult them." (Chapell, Christ-Centered Preaching, p. 319).

Brief Notes

By "brief notes" I mean very limited, skeletal notes.

Why Use This Method?

The majority of preachers use this method, and for good reason. It is the best of both worlds, combining the strengths of no-notes and lots-of-notes and minimizing their weaknesses. This method enables you to remember your points; lends itself to oral style, yet can employ occasional lines of exact wording; prompts spontaneity and "jelling"; and so forth. To be sure, any method can be used poorly (you could be glued to your half-page outline!), but in this article I have tried not to caricature the methods.

Why Avoid This Method?

I can't think of any reasons, especially if you write out a manuscript as part of your preparation, or save your extensive exegetical notes.

How to Use This Method

Put the notes on a single page that fits in your Bible. You won't even need a pulpit, if one is unavailable or you choose not to stand behind one. Use a Post-It note, a 4 x 6 card, a half sheet of paper, or one 8½ x 11, but no more than this. That is all you will need. Some preachers simply mark their Bibles. Also consider using Power Point slides or placing notes in the bulletin. These will keep you on track.

Develop your own system of marks. Make the notes easy to read with the same tools as I suggested above under Lots-of-Notes. I have heard that Billy Sunday used to write his notes in bold letters almost an inch high. Thinking that Billy might have had poor eye sight, someone asked his wife, "Ma" Sunday, why the letters were so big. She replied, "Well, Billy didn't pass by the pulpit very often, and he had to catch his next point when he had the chance."

No notes, lots of notes, or brief notes—the choice is yours. The Bible does not stipulate one method. Make the choice wisely according to your own gifts and the needs of the occasion.