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How To Deliver a Talk Without Using Notes


When I was just starting to speak publicly, I was always amazed by communicators who could speak without using notes.

I wanted to be able to do that, but I had no idea how. I realized communicators who spoke without notes were almost always more effective (here are seven reasons why it’s better for communicators to speak without notes), but I was at a loss to figure out how to become one.

While this is a longer post than normal, let me start the single best piece of advice I’ve received on how to speak without notes. If you master it, you will be speaking without notes soon (I unpack it in detail below). It absolutely worked for me. It’s not as difficult as you might think, and I believe it’s learnable.

So what’s the secret sauce? For me, it was this:

Don’t memorize your talk. Understand it.

I got that advice when I was a seminary student from Thomas G. Long, then head of homiletics at Princeton. I had the chance drive him to the airport one day when he was lecturing in Toronto. I asked him how I could free myself from notes, and that’s what he told me: Just understand what you’re going to say.

While it didn’t allow me to drop my notes right away, it transformed how I thought about communication. Within a few months, I was almost free of notes. Within a few years I stopped relying on them entirely (except when I’m reading a direct quote).

For those of you who are ready to drill down further, let me walk you through step by step how that works for best for me:

When I do these five things, I can give a 20, 40 or even full hour talk without using notes (except for direct quotes that tie into what the graphics operator is putting on screen…then I want to be exact and will quote what’s on the screen verbatim):

1. Build your talk around a single point. This is so difficult, but so important. Pick a point for your talk. Not eight. Not three. One. Write it down. You can remember one. You can’t remember eight, or three.

I turn my point into a (hopefully) memorable bottom line, such as “Our boldest moments are our best moments”,  “There are no inspiring stories of accumulation, only inspiring stories of sacrifice” or “Wisdom often requires the opposite of desire.” It doesn’t mean you won’t have points, but it does mean all those sub-points will be built around one point. (I’ll be blogging about the process I use to do this in my next post.)

The more cohesive and unified your talk is around a single point, the easier it will be to deliver.

2. Understand the talk’s structural pieces. This is crucial. Master this and you’ve mastered your talk. So let’s get granular. Here we go.

Every talk has big pieces or sections. And here’s the magic about a clear structure:

When you understand the structure of your talk, you understand your talk.

And by the way, the clearer your structure is, the easier it will be for your audience to follow.

So how do you get a clear structure? There are many ways, but it’s simple. It just needs to be clear and logical. I sometimes use Andy Stanley’s suggested structure of Me, We, God, You, We. Other times I structure the talk this way: Problem, Make the Problem Worse, Teaching, Resolution.

Regardless of your method, every talk follows this basic structure: Introduction, Teaching (Body), Application, Conclusion. So let’s use that for the purposes of this post.

I also always use four of the questions Andy Stanley outlines at the end of the book on communication he and Lane Jones wrote called Communicating for a Change. (The questions are: What do they need to know? Why do they need to know it? What do they need to do? Why do they need to do it?) These questions guide me through the key sections of my talk. Each piece of the talk’s structure answers one of those four questions:

a. Introduction: This is where you need to decide how to introduce your topic. I’ll often paint a problem, introduce a tension, tell a story or find common ground to draw everyone into the message. It lasts five – ten minutes max, and it’s easy to remember the problem, tension, story or common ground point you’re trying to establish because the introduction tries to answer this critical question:

Why do they need to know this?

That’s all I try to do in the introduction. If I can answer that, it becomes easy to do the introduction without notes, because you’re simply communicating some common ground (drawing everyone into the talk) what’s at stake, why this matters and why anyone should care.

b. Teaching: This is where I dig into the heart of the issue, the problem, the tension and its relationship to the biblical text or the main subject of the talk. I usually jump between the biblical text and people’s lives today, trying to identify key life issues that arise from the text, point out surprises, highlight tension and drill down on the main point of the talk.

The teaching section answers the question:

What do they need to know?

c. Application. Application doesn’t start here. If you’ve done the introduction well, you’ve already shown people why this matters and how it can make their life better/different. But this is where I drill down. It’s where you get specific, granular and might tell more stories. Focus on remembering the key application points and your story(ies).

The application section answers the question:

What do they need to do?

d. Conclusion. You’ve got to land this plane at some point. Too often, communicators crash land. I’ve done it before, and it’s usually because we don’t think clearly about how to finish. I try to finish by reiterating the key point and showing people what happens when they apply it in their lives. I help people imagine a different and better future when they put what they’ve heard into practice.

The conclusion answers the question:

Why do they need to do it?

Now, that sounds complicated. But it’s not. If you can remember:

How you’re introducing the subject

What you’re teaching

How you’re applying it

How you’re wrapping up

You’ve learned your talk. Bingo.

If you have a total meltdown seconds before the big moment, just answer four questions on your way up the stairs onto the platform:

What do they need to know?

Why do they need to know it?

What do they need to do?

Why do they need to do it?

And then start talking. I promise you it will be a great talk.  Those four questions are powerful.

Now, three more quick points and we’re done.

3. Start early. The longer you live with a talk, the easier it will be to remember.

I write the basic series outline two months in advance, finish it a month in advance (including small group questions) and write the message early in the week. This gives it time to digest. Preaching is like a good stew – the longer it simmers, the better it tastes.

4. Review it. I usually read my message through a few times on Saturday night right before going to bed. I’ll get up early on a Sunday and read over it again several times.

Before I finish, I try to be 100% familiar with the key points in each of the big pieces of the talk (see above).

5. Deliver it. Just get up there and speak from your heart. If, while delivering your talk, you forget a point, move on. No one knew you were going to make it anyway, so just move on. They’ll thank you for being two minutes shorter.

That’s how I deliver a talk without using notes.

By the way, there is a ton of great information on writing and delivering talks at Preaching Rocket. Seriously great coaching! And you might also follow Nancy Duarte and Michael Hyatt on communication. I love what each of them are doing to help communicators get better.

Which of the above points do you find helpful? What would you add?

And finally…tell me, what’s your secret sauce?

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  • Brian Cunnington

    Excellent post Carey. A preaching prof once said to me: “Can you clearly express your sermon in one non-run-on sentence…. If you can’t it’s too complicated. Your congregation will only remember one sentence after your sermon — make sure you know what you want that one sentence to be.”

  • greg walker

    Great stuff here! I despise having to use a script, and have a hard time engaging with speakers who use one.

    One of my time-tested techniques is to focus on my transitions. Most of us can deliver our main points well without notes (assuming we are truly teaching something we understand). But what I have found makes the difference between a merely factual presentation and a truly engaging one is the flow. Building a good intro that hooks the listener (“why should I care?”), and then flowing well between my points keeps me comfortable enough to trust my understanding.

    My other key is to constantly be reminding myself, and focusing on answering the question “So what?”. If I can deliver and imbed the “so what?”, then I have successfully engaged my listeners.

    • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Great points. Transitions are key, and learning them is so helpful. Same with the so what. Thanks Greg!

  • Guest

    preparing a message for next week on how to implement digital giving in the church. Grateful for your post here! It has been very helpful to me!

    • http://www.careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      So glad!

  • http://about.me/revchadbrooks chadbrooks

    I am a big fan of Andy Stanley’s method of communication and preaching rocket really drilled it into my own speaking in a practical way. I am usually preparing multiple messages and intentionality makes it much easier.

    What really helps me is about halfway through my prep I write out a road map. I get my main talking bodies on post it notes and I give my talk to myself as I see how it should fit. I put the post it notes in order as I am giving it. I run through it quickly and make sure I have everything organized how I like it. I usually write up this outline and even a full manuscript to make sure I get all the information in, then I begin my formal practicing.

    I struggle the most with creating a really good bottom line. It is hard for me, but gets easier each time I do it.

    • http://careynieuwhof.com/ Carey Nieuwhof

      Chad…that’s a great point. Post it Notes are a great tip. Thanks!

  • http://www.quipmissionaries.com/ Michael Pratt

    This really works! For years I taught from an outline. I was a slave to my outline. Then I started writing my message out word for word. Primarily so my translator could get a better feel for where I was going. Then I read Stanley’s book. It is so true, “Don’t memorize it, understand it.” I still write it out, (for my translator), but I don’t teach from it. Thanks Carey.

  • Brian

    Great post…this one will be one I come back to regularly.

    I use the same notes that everyone else gets in the audience – basically a glorified bulletin with a few blanks – I restructure mine so that full scriptures or quotes are also on it.

  • Terry Scalzitti

    Love this….I’m reminded by a quote (I think by Andy) “if it’s not worth memorizing, it’s not worth sharing” Can’t agree more with your post. I’m glad you shared the point about “what if I forget something?” I struggle with that (because of my weird personality) I want to be sure I hit everything, but get so mad at myself if I forget a point…it’s only then that friends like you or others remind me that I’m the only one who knew about it, so the audience isn’t affected. Thanks again for your heart Carey!

  • http://www.williswired.com/ Randy Willis

    Great post. My journey in this area, and my methodology, is pretty similar. I’m also highly impacted by Andy Stanley, Nancy Duarte, and Preaching Rocket, all of which I’ve blogged about myself, as well!

    Thanks for the post!

  • Bugsypugsly

    This post was helpful. I’ve had to speak twice this year to the entire congregation and had to use notes. I also teach a big group of kids on Wed. nights. I can’t wait to employ your methods. I think it will also help my writing. Thank you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/tom.kay.5682 Tom Kay

    Hey Carey – After reading this post and then a week later being forced to watch myself teach on video, I decided I needed to pull the trigger and go without notes.
    Using the advice from this blog series, I tried it last weekend. I think it was the most prepared I have ever been. I received from pretty good feedback on the message. These posts have been very helpful. Thanks so much

    • cnieuwhof

      Tom…that’s so amazing. Your comment makes a blogger realize that this is worthwhile in the end. Cheering for you!

  • http://www.facebook.com/transformation Tom Fillinger

    Mohler’s book The Conviction To Lead speaks to the issue of communication. It must be with Passion..

    I suggest that the issue when Preaching is not mastering a particular method of delivery but making certain that what we deliver is the clear unambiguous message of the text. With notes, without notes, but assuredly with a compelling earnestness that causes the listener to embrace Truth. Thank You!

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Tom, you are so right. Authority comes from the text and from God and is only present in the sermon when the preacher is faithful to both.

    • cnieuwhof

      Tom…I love the quote attributed to Wesley that if man sets himself ablaze with passion, people will come from miles to watch him burn. So true!

  • Haupi Tombing

    Thanks for the blog. Rejoicing in what God is doing through you and Connexus!

    • Carey Nieuwhof

      Thanks Haupi. God is good.

  • cnieuwhof

    Hi Brandon. I do bring notes with me to the platform, especially on Sunday. But I use them exclusively for Bible reading. I break down verses in a certain phrasing for both teaching and placement on the screen…this helps me track with the CG (computer graphics) operator. I place them in my bible so it looks more discreet. Because I use a table and stool, it makes for easy reference during the teaching portion of the message. Otherwise, I just leave the notes where they are and teach from the front of the platform for all the other sections of the message. In a conference talk, I’ll use the notes to sync up my teaching points with the CG operator and then just move off them quickly.

  • http://propreacher.com/ Brandon

    Good thoughts. I follow this structure but have a very basic outline on hand tucked in my Bible just in case. I try not to look at it though. Mainly just for quoting scripture. Do you read scripture out of the Bible directly, have it printed somewhere or read it off the screen?

  • http://twitter.com/scottesavage scottesavage

    Any suggestions for managing a talk to time limit when going outside of notes? Normally I need several out loud practice runs to get a notes-free yet time-sensitive talk. Great post, Carey!

    • cnieuwhof

      Last year I started using a timer and it’s been so helpful. I simply use my iPad and the Presentation Clock app. You can stage the clock to turn different colours at different timer marks. I program it so when the clock turns yellow, it means I should get out of the ‘teaching’ part of the message and switch to the application section. When it turns red, I should be wrapping up and switching to prayer. Very customizable. Super helpful. Here’s the link. https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/presentation-clock/id391324914?mt=8 Anyone else have a better method for timing?

  • Scott

    What kind of rehearsing do you do? I am always working within a set time and if I don’t rehearse and try to get outside of my notes, I run into time issues. Any ideas?

    • cnieuwhof

      While many communicators I respect do a full rehearsal, I don’t. I simply review the notes. At this point, I know as a rule how many pages or points I need for the minutes available.

  • Pat LaBuick

    Love the blog Carey…no mention of prayer or consultation on what God is saying to you about that particular subject…thought that a little aberrant – as we are speaking about what God is up to in your life and ministry…Would have to say that would be my secret sauce!

    • cnieuwhof

      Pat. Thanks for this. Of course that’s the foundation. Lots of faithful people struggle to speak effective in public, and lots of faithful people don’t. The post is designed to bridge a strategic gap, and of course, our key inspiration is from Christ.

  • http://www.facebook.com/rob.sellitto Rob Sellitto

    I’m enjoying these thoughts Carey, thank you for sharing. i have a question in regards to how you communicate at connexus.
    Personally I do not use notes, or very rarely have a few key words written down to give me cues. But I preach on a week to week basis, with a series planned not to far ahead. And i’m not the primary communicator. I get the impression you map things out very early on for the year. How early do you write your sermons and are you ever writing more then one at a time?

    • cnieuwhof

      Hi Rob. My writing process is a little different than most. I’ll blog about it Friday. But for the most part I try to get to a bottom line for the message weeks in advance and build everything off that. So that means often I’m working on multiple messages, even multiple series, at once. Months ahead.

  • patrick voo

    as much as i’ve paid attention to some of the biggest hitters in the speaking business (and gotten to work with some of them – you included, carey!), i have benefited most from two key principles: (1) tell a story – probably most heavily influenced by donald miller, i believe that telling a story is not only vital to the process of communicating human-to-human, but it makes it much easier and more fluid to recount; and (2) build it on images – this is a learning from rob bell, who highlighted for me that the hebrew mind worked on a paradigm of images, whereas the greek mind operated from the philosophical/logical paradigm.

    • cnieuwhof

      Great points Patrick. You’re so right, it’s a different style of communication but very effective. And narrative is always easier to remember than a philosophical/logical talk. Clearly I must be Greek.

  • http://twitter.com/75rknight Rob Knight

    You mentioned Stanley’s 4 points. Just curious why you left out “How can I help them remember?” I sometimes struggle with that one, but when I can figure it out, I find it helps.

    • cnieuwhof

      Right on Rob. I did leave the fifth question out. “How do I make it memorable” for me is a writing question more than a delivery question. It’s a prop, a story, an image, a video or an angle that makes the talk stick for months or sometimes even years. So I think about that one more in terms of crafting the talk rather than learning it.