Preaching Without Notes (Part 2)
As an aspiring communicator, one of the things that impressed me the most were those who were able to present an extensive amount of content with few or no notes at all. There was an air of confidence that was carried as they presented, as if the content flowed from them rather than being rehearsed concepts hurriedly penned on a slither of former tree.
Looking back, I recognize that this judgement was a little harsh, given that to write out a sermon fully may actually require more detailed work than the former! Nevertheless, my perception informed my interest and therefore the effectiveness of their message, and the same is true of the audiences that we share with today.
The assumption is often made when we witness preachers without notes is that the communicator has fully memorized their content – a highly impressive feat, which is often perceived as a skill reserved for those blessed with an eidetic memory. However, memorization of content is far more nuanced than regurgitating a formerly crafted and consumed meal, and is actually a skill highly attainable for those who choose to embrace it.
For this reason I want to tackle what I call “the myth of memorization” because preaching without notes is not classic rote memorization at all, but rather an understanding of your content and direction wrapped in a narrative.
So here are THREE KEYS to MEMORIZING your content:
1. Know what you ACTUALLY want to say. This sounds so obvious, but it is the one thing that many communicators forget to revisit. Often in preparation you begin with this question, but over the course of development it fades into the background until you have crafted a lot of great content, but have lost the core idea behind it all. Your goal should be to answer the question: “What do you actually want to say?” in one core statement, after all, when your listeners are asked by a friend what you spoke about, very few will honour you with (or remember) more than that. For example, in a recent message on the Parable of the Good Samaritan my core statement was: Love is a mission of dangerous proximity. That’s it, everything tied to this idea.
Knowing what you actually want to say allows your content whether it be illustrations, quotes, passages, jokes, props, questions, to all flow back to a common source. This also means that your content will always be only a few steps removed from your core idea making it highly unlikely that you will get lost as you communicate.
2. MAP Your Flow. I highly recommend this technique (especially if you are a visual learner) which I believe was borrowed from a combination of Rob Bell and Andy Stanley. I have a stack of old business cards that are blank on the back. When I’m crafting my talk, I write every content element on the back of a separate card – illustrations, passages, key points/questions etc. and then lay them out on a table or whiteboard.
I generally then map the ideas out in columns, with each column having a key idea which is connected to the core statement. Cards can then be easily rearranged, added, removed, cut in half! – and the final product gives you a great picture of how balanced each of your columns (key ideas) are, as well as how much scripture is being used, and even where laughter may occur. Here’s an example of how it might look:
Suddenly when mapped out this way, the idea of memorizing the content seems a lot more accessible than a 2000 word monologue! If you would feel comfortable with more detail, add more cards. Now comes the memory task: when you are happy with your flow, commit the map to memory. This is the ultimate goal. As I continue to practice preaching without notes, I will often take a photo of my map (such as the one above) and use it as my only notes – I would encourage you to do the same.
3. Prepare EARLY. The earlier you start the better. If you know that you have a message coming up, start brainstorming for content elements early. Perhaps you have a life-story that you think might work – write it on a card; a passage – write it on a card. Collect a set of cards around an idea over time and you will inevitably find yourself internalizing (and becoming enthusiastic about) the content. I have sermon ideas that have been marinating for months, just waiting for the right opportunity and message.
So start with these three keys – there are many other creative ways to help memorize your content or map your flow that I will save for later – props on the platform, media elements, even strategically repositioning yourself on a stage. You could even combine a few of these for a dynamic and memorable message! Working your way off notes will take time, but it is totally worth the effort.
What techniques do you use?