As we wrap up our three part series on speaking without notes (Part 1 was on why you should give your talk without using notes and Part 2 was on how to give a talk without using notes), let’s bat clean up by sharing and comparing best practices on how to prepare a talk you want to deliver without using notes.
While there are as many ways to write talks as there are writers, the method I outline below is the method I almost always use. It works for preaching and conference talks.
Because the talk takes a while to develop, and has a simple structure, it becomes easier to deliver without using notes.
So how do you do it? Here are five keys that have helped me:
1. Start early. It is almost impossible to write something today for delivery tomorrow without using notes. For those of us who preach, the Saturday night special must die. Pull out the gun now.
I personally write my sermons in series. Usually I will start outlining a series two to three months before I deliver it. When you start early, you buy yourself (and your team) the gift of time.
Messages always get better with time. You own them more deeply. The material will feel so much more natural, and your comfort level will go up. So start early.
2. Find your bottom line first. The bottom line (sometimes called the “big idea”) is the message reduced to a single, memorable sentence (click here for a free Preaching Rocket webinar on how to do that). It’s essentially a single idea – a single sentence – that memorably and accurately sums up the content of the entire talk.
Examples of bottom lines I’ve used recently include:
Even a little faith qualifies you for big things
Become the person you want your child to become
God doesn’t love you because you change; you change because God loves you.
This process is not easy. If you’re like me, you start with a hundred ideas about what the message could be. But what the message could be is almost always the enemy of what it should be.
So, our job as communicators is to find the best bottom line for the subject and audience. For me personally, this process of finding the bottom line takes far longer than writing the actual message. Sometimes I can spend hours a week for several weeks searching for the bottom line.
Preachers, having a scripture text selected is just the beginning. You need to be able to figure out what the text is saying clearly and succinctly in a way that’s memorable, helpful and engaging (at least if you want people to listen or be helped when they listen). Hence the bottom line.
When you find the bottom line, it’s so liberating. I think of the process of finding a bottom line as pouring ideas through a giant funnel. You pour all your ideas into the funnel until the single best idea comes out, clearly and memorably stated. Then you’re ready to build everything else around that.
3. Build the entire talk around the bottom line. From this point on, things usually get easier (at least they do for me).
At this point I’ll often write a short paragraph describing the issues we’ll deal with in the talk (we use this in our program and online to describe the message).Then sometimes I’ll even write the small group questions before I outline the message itself. The reason is it helps me think through how this subject is going to play out in the lives of our congregation (or audience) and it makes me focus on application. Then I’ll start structuring the talk.
I’ll develop bullet points around:
The introduction (how am I going to introduce the subject?).
The teaching (what do they need to know about the subject?).
The application (what does the audience need to do with what they’ve heard?)
The conclusion (why do they need to do what they need to do?)
4. Ditch a full manuscript for bullet points. As scary as this might be for full manuscript people, I’d encourage you to try this. Personally, I can’t learn dozens of fully scripted paragraphs. It’s too confusing. But I can own a few key ideas for each section. That’s why I use bullet points, not a full manuscript.
Usually, my bullet pointed notes are under 2000 words. And that includes any bible passage I’m using and will be reading directly. Eliminate that and my ‘bullet points’ will be somewhere between 1000-1500 words for a 45 minute message.
Consider this: in an average 45 minute talk, the speaker will deliver over 8000 words.
If you used a full manuscript, you would have to work your way through 8000 words every time to learn your talk. With bullet points, you’re working through a fraction of that. It also means you’re only trying to remember a few key points for each section of your talk (introduction, teaching, application and closing).
Which is more doable?
Further more, if you’re working off bullet points, you won’t be trying to remember word for word what you wrote, which will make you more natural. And you’ll own your material more, which will make you more compelling, as we’ve seen here.
5. Finish up early in the week, or even earlier. This one’s simple: finish writing your talk early in the week. Maybe even the week before. When you get done early, the talk germinates longer and you will own it far more deeply.
This also give you the flexibility to tweak it and substitute great ideas and phrases for good ones. The difference between a good talk and a great talk is often the last 10%, and that usually only happens when you have time on your hands.
Those are some strategies to help you write a talk designed to deliver without using notes.
What are some tips you’ve picked up? I’d love to hear what works for you.