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

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.

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

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 takes 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 conversations.

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, no-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 taboo 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 manuscript done solely in the study is unable to bring" (Pulpit Speech, p. 114).

Why Avoid This Method?

1. Because you might forget!

And 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. Because 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:

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!

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 was 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.

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.

This is part one of a two-part series. In part two, Arthurs discusses the pros and cons of the "lots-of-notes" and "brief notes" methods.

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

Related articles

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

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?