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No Notes, Lots of Notes, Brief Notes (pt. 2)

The pros and cons of extemporaneous and manuscript delivery

This is part two of a two-part series. In part one, Arthurs defined the three methods of preparation and discussed the pros and cons of the "no-notes" technique.

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 Bible does not stipulate one method. Make the choice wisely according to your own gifts and the needs of the occasion.

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.

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).

2. 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.

3. 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.

4. 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.

5. 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:
     Greater percentage of short sentences.

• Assumes face-to-face encounter. Uses:
     First and second person.

• Designed for listening, not reading. Uses:
     Much repetition and restatement.
     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:

1. 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.

2. 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.

Jeffrey Arthur is professor of preaching and communication at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Related articles

No Notes, Lots of Notes, Brief Notes (pt. 1)

The pros and cons of extemporaneous and manuscript delivery

Delivery: Introduction

How do I speak in a way that arrests hearers?

Delivery: Part 1: Workshops

How do I speak in a way that arrests hearers?