5 Keys to Writing a Talk You Can Deliver Without Notes

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.

9 Comments

  1. Writing Judge on October 28, 2020 at 6:27 pm

    Thanks for this article! Speech was always difficult for me, almost as difficult as writing. For me, it was always hard to share my thoughts, and when I get some writing assignment, sometimes I use writing help from services I find on Writing Judge.

  2. Linn on October 18, 2020 at 12:02 pm

    Thanks for sharing this interesting article!

  3. Tim Azevedo on October 18, 2018 at 11:53 pm

    Love this Carey! Thanks for sharing! I’d love to see your notes if that’s ok. I’ve tried so many different things. I’ve tried full manuscript (J. D. Grear style), sticky notes in Bible (Mark Driscoll style), bullet points, and mind map. A mind map allowed me to go up on stage with just my Bible and preach. It felt amazing to do it and I felt like I connected with the church well, but it was very time consuming to make the mind map and memorize it. Did I know the material very well? Yes… But as a bi-vocational pastor, that’s not realistic. Now I’m doing a bulleted manuscript. It’s almost word for word.

    Any thoughts?

  4. Tyler Ayers on March 22, 2013 at 12:28 pm

    I always memorize my sermons, but I’m still very VERY new, and only have a dozen or so sermons under my belt. I usually have the big idea in my head from early on, but sometimes I don’t have the ‘sermon in a sentence’ until after I’ve got my bullets down.

    Good challenge and insight into how order of the process really makes a difference. And I’ve got to keep hearing the words “get ahead” over and over before it sinks in. Giving ourselves time is crucial! Thanks Carey!

  5. Chad Hoffman on January 10, 2013 at 5:37 pm

    Carey, you are so right…the margin between a good talk and a great talk is so narrow that you need to go over it so many times in your head to make sure you stick the landing on the main point. That can only happen by slow roasting your talk…nuking it in the microwave won’t help.

    I’m going to be honest with you, going up there without the whole manuscript is going to take some experimenting to see if my mind will work like that (or even re-train my mind)! I go up with the full manuscript not because I read from it or even look at it that often, but I take a mental snapshot of each paragraph. If I need assistance I’ll quickly glance down and scan the paragraph for one second, and then move on. I do want the freedom of being able to walk around the stage more and not be so tied to my notes…I think these practices you outlined will help me start doing that.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on January 11, 2013 at 6:54 pm

      It was nerve wracking for me too the first time Chad. It was over a decade ago. I had a similar pattern of almost photo recall. But then I swapped it out for understanding the message rather than memorizing it. Freedom was on the side.

  6. cnieuwhof on November 30, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    Zak…so glad it’s been helpful. A mind map – now that’s cool! My bullet points are fully formed thoughts, but clearly not enough to fill 45 minutes. I’ll email you a copy of my notes. Warning: they don’t make sense to anyone but me. And they’re not pretty. 🙂 I tried to use the transferrable principles for this series, but I’m happy to share.

    • cadillaczak on December 2, 2012 at 6:16 pm

      thanks a TON! Just seeing the format, etc may help. I took a big step this weekend with my “notes” 🙂

  7. cadillaczak on November 30, 2012 at 4:11 pm

    Carey,

    thanks a TON for this series…huge help to me and I’m even a part of preaching rocket. One thing that is really interesting to me is that your bulleted notes are as long as they are. I’ve not used bulleted notes because its usually to little info. Maybe I need to give myself freedom to put a little more in these bulleted notes.

    I’d love to see an actual copy of one of your message notes. Is that possible? it would help a ton. I’ve been taught 4 or 5 different systems, but never actually seen any.

    Currently, I use a mind map that comes in each week at 3200 words on average and nets a 35 minute talk. Its full of highlights, pictures, etc. In short, I almost manuscript the message via mind map, but then build, almost bullets via pictures, colors, doodles, etc.

    Let me know if there is a way to see what you do. Thanks!

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