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A 5 Step Method For Delivering 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. Until I figured out how to do it, that is.

In this post, I’ll show you the exact method I’ve learned used to go notes free.

This post, by the way, is part of a bigger series on speaking:

Part 1: How to Design a Message Series That Engages Unchurched People

Part 2: How to Craft a Killer Bottom Line for Your Next Talk

Part 3: 7 Reasons You Should Speak Without Using Notes

Part 4: A 5 Step Method For Delivering a Talk Without Using Notes (this post)

Part 5: 6 Sermon Myths We Need to Bust

In addition to these posts, few things have helped me as much in the last few years as Preaching Rocket (affiliate link).

I’ve been through their entire coaching programming and it’s been fantastic for me both as a preacher and a conference speaker.

If you want to explore it for yourself, you can try Preaching Rocket for free for 7 days.

Now…onto how to speak without using notes.

Let’s start with the single best piece of advice I know.

talk without using notes

My Single Best Piece of Advice

If you master this single concept, 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 to 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 or referencing an outline to keep my talk in sync with a handout or with computer operators running graphics).

Below are the 5 steps I use to internalize a talk deeply enough to abandon my notes.

talk without using notes

My 5 Step Method

When I do these five things, I can give a 20, 40 or even full hour talk without using notes.

Your method may vary, but here’s my best advice:

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 (I outline how to craft a killer bottom line here). Here are a few examples from recent sermons or talks I’ve given:

Your boldest moments are your best moments

There are no inspiring stories of accumulation, only inspiring stories of sacrifice

Moral compromise compromises you.

If you don’t take the Sabbath, the Sabbath will take you

You can make excuses or you can make progress, but you can’t make both

Healthy leaders produce healthy churches

It doesn’t mean you won’t have other points, but it does mean all those sub-points will be built around one point—leading into it and then later leading out of it.

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

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 the five 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?

How do I make it memorable

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

There. 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 several weeks in advance.

This gives it time to digest.

Preparing a talk 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.

If you want to get better at communicating and haven’t tried the 7 day free trial from Preaching Rocket yet,  the offer is still open. 

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

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

Did you find this post helpful?

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  • Chad Billington

    I’ve used the questions from ‘Communicating for a Change’ for the past several years. I still use notes, but it really frees me from being bound to them.

    I was about to speak at a church at a local university, and focusing on the big questions just before my talk helped me feel grounded in what I was doing again.

    You’re so true, understanding what you want to say, rather than memorizing the content is key to a good delivery.

  • Scotty Crawford

    Thanks for this Carey. I’ve been preaching without notes for about a year, but have been working on how to be more relaxed and confident about my material. I’ve found myself trying to remember too much. This blog, and comments definitely help with that.
    For those who’ve not gone without notes yet, you’re missing out! It’s so liberating, and if you’re trying to reach the unchurched and younger generation this really speaks to the authenticity factor that those groups are looking for. If you’ve internalized your message enough to deliver it without notes, it’s more authentic (or at least will appear so). You can do it!

  • Anne

    Totally agree with this, brilliant! I tried everything with notes, but last year decided to leave them behind, and it was the best decision I ever made. It’s scary the first time (I don’t take notes with me, so I can’t be tempted to take a look if I get nervous), but well worth the effort.
    Just to add a thought into the mix, the last few times I have preached, I have also prepared the notes in my head, not on paper. This isn’t to be lazy – I actually put a lot of time into the preparation, structure and mulling over the ‘one main point’ – but I find that when I write my notes, I keep trying to remember what I’ve written on paper. When I prepare notes in my head, it flows much better, and I have a much better internal understanding of the content. Like you mentioned in an earlier post, the written word and spoken word are very different.

    It’s very liberating to preach without notes, and exciting. The content comes alive, and the connection with the congregation is so much better.

    I too use Andy Stanley’s great structure and questions. These have really helped me communicate better. I’d love to hear whether you’ve ever prepared your preach this way, without the benefit of written notes.

  • Chris VanBuskirk

    This post was timely for me Carey! One of my goals for 2016 was to stop using notes when I preach/teach. In just over six years I’ve gone from using 9-12 pages of notes for a 35-40min talk, to 6-9 pages, to now just 3-4 pages.

    I’ve literally been doing all 5 steps on this list for several months now. Reading this post made me realize that taking my notes on stage has become more of security blanket than a necessity for me.

    Along that note (pun intended), I wonder if you experienced the same thing and how you weaned yourself away from notes? Also, do you take anything on the stage with you at all or do you just get up and go? Thanks for your time!

    • Chris this is aweomse. I cut the cord by dumping my notes one day 15 years ago and just preaching. It was scary, but it worked. I’ve never looked back.

      • Chris VanBuskirk

        I DID IT! I walked up on the stage Sunday without notes and preached my heart out for every service! I hit my takeaway, supporting points and scripture references without skipping a beat. Thanks so much for sharing some sound wisdom that helped me go cold turkey and take this next step!

  • Andrew Hopkins

    Quick question – it looked like there were 5 questions from Andy Stanley and Lane Jones…the last one, how do I make it memorable…could you speak into that as well? Is that more along the lines of a creative illustration, a memorable story, etc?

    • Sure. Andy explains it more in his book, but for me it’s a key metaphor, prop or just tremendous clarity that will echo into the week ahead. Sometimes it’s just killer application.

  • Oliver Edwards

    I wish preaching rocket were cheaper. That’s a lot of money.

    • I hear you Oliver. Two ways to approach it. One is to glean all the free you can. This blog series is 100% free and I hope it’s been helpful. Second, I paid for Preaching Rocket because I saw it as an investment in myself and our church. There are truly things that are expenses (as in costs you never recover), but I look at great training as an investment that eventually brings a benefit if I’m committed to applying it. Just my perspective.

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  • Greg Hill

    I have been “note less” for a long time mostly because I can’t read out loud very well. One thing I have found is identifying with my message personally helps me own it. I ask why do I need this message? and it usually provides a great intro. Also I have to pray over it when I don’t my message is all I can do. When I do pray my message becomes God’s and he always adds something I would never have landed on by myself.

  • Carey, thanks so much for writing these posts! When you read your message are you reading through your outline or do you also manuscript? Do you ever go through the message verbally or simply read through it?

    Thanks!

    • adamweber

      No question this is the best blog I’ve ever read on going note less! “Don’t memorize, understand it!” So good. I had a similar question. Do you still do a manuscript? If so, how detailed is it? Any other additional baby steps you would suggest for someone who’s more terrified than afraid? 🙂

      • Thanks for the encouragement Brandon and Adam. I don’t write a full manuscript. Just key thoughts.

        Here’s the detailed version. Several weeks ahead of preaching, I write all the copy that will go on the TV and I get it to our programming team. They create the ‘teaching screens’ as we call them.

        They send my screen shots of the teaching screens which I paste into a Word Doc, and I then add a few key points between the screens. Sometimes I write out a story or key phrase verbatim, but that’s it.

        My review is 99% silent. Occasionally on the drive into church, I’ll recite a story out loud in the car to get the intonation right. That’s about it.

        We’re all different but that works for me. Hope this helps.

  • James Martin

    Great post. This post gives me great confidence to put speaking without notes to the test. I’m nervous but excited!