Skip to content

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

 

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.

Get Detailed, Expert Training

Want more? If you want to become a pro at delivery a talk without using notes, there’s good news.

Mark Clark and I show you how to do just that (and far more) in our new course, The Art of Better Preaching, which has helped hundreds of church leaders improve everything from their preparation, to their delivery, to their ability to connect with the people they’re trying to reach. We’ll even drill down deeper on how to preach without using notes.

You can enroll now for instant access!

Thoughts?

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

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

36 Comments

  1. Suzie Natividad on February 16, 2019 at 3:22 pm

    This is awesome!
    So excited to be able to put this into practice. I have always loved how you teach. Mainly because you don’t preaching from notes. You engage with your audience, not a piece of paper in front of you. Even when you refer to slides, you know them. You’re not just reading them, you already understand them!

    I have a question about using this method for testimony purposes. How can you shift what you’ve talked about in this blog; from hermeneutics or exegetical work to sharing your story but adding a purpose to it? And making a straight line towards God with it?

  2. Ivy Baker on April 13, 2018 at 6:23 pm

    This is some really good information about church talks. I liked what you said about how you should talk about how to apply the principles in your talk. That does seem like a good thing to be aware when you need to make the talk about religious things.

  3. JOSEPH KENNEDY on March 19, 2018 at 10:41 pm

    Thanks for the help it was very helpful

  4. […] A 5 Step Method For Delivering A Talk Without Using Notes […]

  5. […] A 5 Step Method For Delivering A Talk Without Using Notes by Carey Nieuwhof […]

  6. CNLP Bonus 014: #AskCarey Part 13 on October 9, 2017 at 8:38 am

    […] A 5 Step Method For Delivering A Talk Without Using Notes […]

  7. Donald McCorkindale on September 9, 2017 at 4:45 pm

    MindMapping helps with this whole process…

  8. Stephen Bedard on September 4, 2017 at 11:49 am

    Great advice. Thanks Carey. I will make sure to share this.

  9. […] you want more on communciation, I did a five part series on preaching that you can access for free here. It begins with the method I’ve use to teach myself how to deliver a 40 minute talk without […]

  10. Chuck on February 12, 2017 at 5:37 pm

    I never use notes anymore. I might use slides if I’m teaching a class (Note: I’m a college prof so slides are expected. Not using them = unprepared in students’ eyes). But no notes. I did want to call out your first point, in support of it. Even to the people receiving the message (not just delivering it), there is a gargantuan chasm (cue dramatic sting) between “Memorizing” and “Understanding”. Ask any student or teacher of organic chemistry. You can memorize reactions (and blow it on the exam when the prof who’s wise to your tactics – btw that’s most of us – throws the one at you that you didn’t get around to memorizing…) or you can UNDERSTAND the mechanism and correctly predict the results most of the time. Understanding that reaction also means knowing which ones are the exception, when you’re asked to. Very salient point, and it goes BOTH WAYS, to those giving talks, as well as those attending / listening to / learning from them.

  11. Joseph Marron on December 2, 2016 at 6:46 pm

    I still use the outline I learned in Campus Crusade for Christ training 40 years ago (yikes, I’m old!): Hook, Book, Look, Took.

  12. Rob Knight on November 24, 2016 at 11:07 pm

    Hi Carey, thanks for the blog. I also use Stanley’s questions (and me-we-God-etc.) and have found them incredibly helpful.
    I’m pretty sure I could ditch my notes for for the ‘me’s and the we’s’, but I tend to preach from a whole chapter or most of one, what do you do for scripture?

  13. Chad Billington on May 1, 2016 at 8:47 pm

    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.

  14. Scotty Crawford on February 29, 2016 at 7:27 am

    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!

  15. Anne on February 26, 2016 at 2:34 pm

    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.

  16. Chris VanBuskirk on February 26, 2016 at 10:52 am

    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!

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 26, 2016 at 3:20 pm

      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 on February 29, 2016 at 1:13 pm

        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!

        • Carey Nieuwhof on March 1, 2016 at 11:29 am

          That is amazing Chris. Way to go! Thrilled for you!

  17. Andrew Hopkins on February 25, 2016 at 8:22 pm

    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?

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 26, 2016 at 8:57 am

      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.

  18. Oliver Edwards on February 23, 2016 at 10:29 am

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

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 23, 2016 at 3:23 pm

      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.

  19. […] Part 4: A 5 Step Method For Delivering a Talk Without Using Notes […]

  20. […] Part 4: A 5 Step Method For Delivering a Talk Without Using Notes […]

  21. […] Part 4: A 5 Step Method For Delivering a Talk Without Using Notes  […]

  22. 6 Sermon Myths We Need to Bust - Carey Nieuwhof on February 22, 2016 at 11:06 am

    […] Part 4: A 5 Step Method For Delivering a Talk Without Using Notes […]

  23. Greg Hill on February 21, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    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.

  24. Brandon Kelley on February 20, 2016 at 12:11 pm

    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 on February 20, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      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? 🙂

      • Carey Nieuwhof on February 20, 2016 at 6:45 pm

        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.

  25. James Martin on February 20, 2016 at 11:00 am

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

    • Carey Nieuwhof on February 20, 2016 at 6:45 pm

      Way to go James!

      • lyall phillips, Port Vincent, South Australia 5581 on April 30, 2018 at 3:17 am

        Dear Carey, Thanks for great advice. I always write out a full manuscript but only preach from the highlights except for detailed illustrations sometimes. Writing a full manuscript helps me to formulate my thoughts and logic.
        More and more I am using the scripture text as my outline. That works for me and is expository and removes the need for notes..

        Question: I ask this as an Australian- What do you mean by “way to go”. It must have an American meaning. Can you explain it to an Aussie please?
        Lyall Phillips, =South Australia

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.