Some reflections on preaching without notes (from me and Cicero)

The importance of carefully scripting a sermon is something that has been pretty genetically drilled into me since before I can remember. The importance of writing the way you speak – rather than reading an essay – even more so.

I’m not ready to throw that under the bus just yet. There’s something nice about the security of having a script in front of you – both in terms of the discipline it brings – where you can’t just wander about on a whim, and there’s something reassuring about knowing that even if you completely fall apart mid delivery, you’ve just got to get to the end of your stack of paper.

But I like a challenge – and I think it’s axiomatic that the most engaging preachers around can hold an audience without using a script (I’m not so sure about a causal link there – it’s possible they’re just gifted and engaging people), and it’s certainly true that writing a script that isn’t dry and boring – and is active, full of verve, and engaging, is incredibly difficult and probably a combination of gift, art, and learned skill.

So this week I preached at our 11pm Christmas Eve service, and at all three services today. And I thought I’d, for the first time ever, give a talk from something other than a full script.

It was scary…

I’m not claiming to be an expert – but I’m drawing on a couple of experts – perhaps the world’s foremost expert on oratory – Cicero, and a couple of more modern people, as I think this through, and try to decide whether the method is a keeper…

We’ve been using this book, Preaching Without Notes, by Joseph Webb, at church this year. Because though I stirred the pot a few years ago with this post – eye contact does indeed make for more engaging communication. And being engaged is the first step towards being persuaded (all caveats about persuasion being the work of a sovereign God, by the Spirit, aside).

Webb draws on the work of a guy writing in the late 19th century… A guy named Broadus, who wasn’t a big fan of the old read sermon…

“As to delivery itself, reading is of necessity less effective, and in most cases immensely less effective, for all the great purposes of oratory, than speaking. Greater coldness of manner is almost inevitable. If one attempts to be very animated or pathetic, it will look unnatural. The tones of voice are monotonous, or have a forced variety The gestures are almost always unnatural, because it is not natural to gesticulate much in reading; and they scarcely ever raise us higher than to feel that really this man [or woman] reads almost like speaking… As to the delivery itself, it is only in extemporaneous speaking, of one or another variety, that [the sermon] can ever be perfectly natural, and achieve the highest effect. The ideal of speaking, it has been justly said, cannot be reached in any other way. Only thus will the voice, the action, the eye, be just what nature dictates, and attain their full power. And while painstaking culture vainly strives to read or recite precisely like speaking, the extemporaneous speaker may with comparative ease rise to the best delivery of which he [or she] is capable”

Preaching from a script, so that it doesn’t come across like you’re reading, is, I think, potentially more difficult than preaching without notes and being disciplined. But when you fail on the discipline point – or you’re tired – the script is incredibly useful.

Webb makes the distinction that extemporary preaching isn’t “off the cuff” or ad libbed – but the result of a fairly meticulous planning regime.

“What we are emphasizing is that the sermon preached without script or notes is a well-developed, meticulously crafted sermon, open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, but prepared under the same constraints of procedure, time, and energy that guide every preacher week in and week out.”

Generally I find I’m much more comfortable, and more natural, and thus, arguably more engaging, when I tell a story naturally, rather than from a bit of paper – that’s partly because I’ve not yet mastered writing naturally (my writing is much more likely to sound like a news story – thanks to my journalism degree, than a conversation – the upside is that news stories don’t sound like essays…).

Cicero on preaching without notes

One of the reasons I really like the idea of preaching without notes is because I really like Cicero. You might have noticed. He said some great stuff in De Oratore which reaffirms the need for preachers to write. Constantly. In order to master language and develop their voice – and to improve their oratory. But also reaffirms the need for preachers to engage, and sound natural.

“This is why, in those exercises of your own, though there is a value in plenty of extempore speaking, it is still more serviceable to take time for consideration, and to speak better prepared and more carefully. But the chief thing is what, to tell the truth, we do least (for it needs great pains which most of us shirk), — to write as much as possible. The pen is the best and most eminent author and teacher of eloquence, and rightly so. For if an extempore and casual speech is easily beaten by one prepared and thought-out, this latter in turn will assuredly be surpassed by what has been written with care and diligence.”

In these two talks I started with a full script, and cut it back to what I thought was the minimum I needed to deliver a careful, and diligent, and prepared, piece of persuasive speech.

I reckon Cicero nails the sermon writing process in this quote. Even if some of the language is a little archaic. But give the guy a break – this was written in Latin, about 2070 years ago.

“The truth is that all the commonplaces, whether furnished by art or by individual talent and wisdom, at any rate such as appertain to the subject of our writing, appear and rush forward as we are searching out and surveying the matter with all our natural acuteness; and all the thoughts and expressions, which are the most brilliant in their several kinds, must needs flow up in succession to the point of our pen ; then too the actual marshalling and arrangement of words is made perfect in the course of writing, in a rhythm and measure proper to oratory as distinct from poetry.”

It’s part art, part skill, part gift – and mostly hard work. Thinking. Expressing. Scripting.

The written word was, unless you lived in Corinth and wanted Paul to be a flashier preacher, a longer lasting contribution to debate, and the shifting of ideas, in Rome – so sounding like you were delivering a tight piece of written persuasion was pretty important in Cicero’s day – but he suggests the goal of the relationship between spoken and written conversation is that people not notice the difference when you’re speaking…

“… he too who approaches oratory by way of long practice in writing, brings this advantage to his task, that even if he is extemporizing, whatever he may say bears a likeness to the written word; and moreover if ever, during a speech, he has introduced a written note, the rest of his discourse, when he turns away from the writing, will proceed in unchanging style.”

I love this little picture Cicero uses – I’d love for my sermons to feel like this. Rather than like an inverted proverbial duck’s feet churning around above the water, while I drown.

“Just as when a boat is moving at high speed, if the crew rest upon their oars, the craft herself still keeps her way and her run, though the driving force of the oars has ceased, so in an unbroken discourse, when written notes are exhausted, the rest of the speech still maintains a like progress, under the impulse given by the similarity and energy of the written word.”

Some actual reflections on preaching without notes

Anyway. Here are some of my actual reflections on the four sermons I preached, without a script, this week.

All preaching is hard – this is harder.
I’m not scared about standing in front of people and talking. But preaching – especially trying to say something that doesn’t just feel obvious, or vacuous – is hard work. I used to be able to knock out a script for a sermon in about 2 hours. But every time I go back to re-preach one of the 20 sermons in my archives, I’m bemused at its lack of quality – so sorry to the people who had to sit through those the first time around… The process of refining a sermon down to memorable chunks, and figuring out how you’re going to remember to logically link the chunks, is really hard work.

Familiarity with your material breeds contempt…
This isn’t just a reflection on preaching without notes – but I think the process I went through in the last two weeks, with two old sermons, gutted, and renovated, left me pretty bored with my content – I spent hours writing, rewriting, editing stuff down to dot point size, making powerpoint slides, and thinking about how this was all going to work. And because I’d gone over it so many times by the time I got up to share it, it just felt bleeding obvious. And boring. Even though I was talking about a dragon at Christmas, and the great news that we are called to be part of the work of the gospel. I certainly felt this more than I ever have when the last few days before a talk have just involved tweaking a written script.

If you bomb it – you really bomb it
I haven’t had a lot of sleep in the last two days – because of our adventurous turtle – so I was ridiculously without energy at our first morning service this morning. And I sucked. I fell apart. I lost the plot. I plodded. I made stupid mistakes. I said some things too early for them to contribute to the logic of my talk, and some things too late. I got the order of a couple of points in a list wrong – and then repeated myself the second time. It stank. Between services I was wondering if I could miraculously restore my full script, and preach from it the second time around. Part of the problem was that I was really tired, but I’m not sure what else contributed. It was the worst I’ve ever preached. Horrible. I felt so deflated.

You can’t do this when you’re really, really, ridiculously tired
This point is related. There is no doubt that talk wouldn’t have been so horrible if I had it all written out. The logic would have worked. And I wouldn’t have been thinking on my feet. My Christmas Eve service, at 11pm, was similarly muted. It was late at night – I think it would’ve been significantly better a little earlier. And my second and third talks today – one after a strong coffee, and with the benefit of hindsight, and the other after a long afternoon nap – really helped. By tonight I’d really figured out what bits to keep, and what bits to ditch – and the flow between points.

Some bits are going to get forgotten – so make sure you have a powerpoint slide that covers the really important points
Each time I spoke today I missed some of the really nice phrasing I’d worked up, and some really nice connections across the passage I was looking at (Matt 9:35-10:22). Some of these bits were more important than other – none were really pivotal. We’re talking stuff that added a bit of richness to what I was saying.

The adrenalin rush is bigger
The stress is bigger. The stakes are higher. But it’s also more fun to think on your feet a little. Each of these elements (though the first two seem closely related) add a chunk of adrenalin to the process.

When it works – people seem more engaged
Tonight felt really good. Better than the two morning services – and better than times I’ve preached with full text. People afterwards seemed to have followed what I’d been trying to say, and picked up bits of application that I was most excited about.

The capacity of the memory is huge – especially with tricks, and powerpoint

By the third time around today – at our 6:30pm service – I didn’t even look down at my dot points, I did look up at my powerpoint slides – projected on the back wall – but I knew where I was going. I knew how it fit together – and I remembered the important stuff I’d forgotten and left out in the earlier services (I did leave out some of the stuff that was actually really good – that I wish I’d said.

Powerpoint slides – not filled with comprehensive karaoke styled renditions of your entire sermon – but that are actually useful and memorable – work for your audience and for you. They take a lot of the guess work out of the memorisation process.

In all, it was a pretty interesting experience – and I’m going to give it a few more goes before I decide on its value.

The memory stuff is key – that’s one of the take home ideas in Webb – and it’s also one of Cicero’s pillars of successful oratory. Here’s some Cicero, to finish…

Cicero on remembering stuff (and on powerpoint)

Cicero had some cool tricks for memorising stuff that he goes through in De Oratore – using a mnemonic technique where you take visual cues from your surroundings – assigning certain points in the space you’re in to certain points in your argument, and glancing at them as you go… slides make that a lot easier.

He says the guy who invented mnemonics did so after his memory of where people at a dinner party were sitting helped identify their bodies after a roof collapsed.

“…this circumstance suggested to him the discovery of the truth that the best aid to clearness of memory consists in orderly arrangement. He inferred that persons desiring to train this faculty must select localities and form mental images of the facts they wish to remember and store those images in the localities, with the result that the arrangement of the localities will preserve the order of the facts, and the images of the facts will designate the facts themselves, and we shall employ the localities and images respectively as a wax writing tablet and the letters written on it…”

Memory, when you’re preaching without notes, is important because you need to remember where you’re going – and how a point relates to what comes before, and what follows.

“Consequently only people with a powerful memory know what they are going to say and for how long they are going to speak and in what style, what points they have already answered and what still remains…”

He thinks memory is a gift you’re born with – but that hard work can help the gifted, and the ungifted…

And consequently for my own part I confess that the chief source of this endowment, as of all the things I have spoken of before, is nature ; but the efficacy of the whole of this science, or perhaps I should say pseudo-science, of rhetoric, is not that it wholly originates and engenders something no part of which is already present in our minds, but that it fosters and strengthens things that have already sprung to birth within us ; though nevertheless hardly anybody exists who has so keen a memory that he can retain the order of all the words or sentences without having arranged and noted his facts, nor yet is anybody so dull-witted that habitual practice in this will not give him some assistance. “

Powerpoint – used alongside the memory, rather than instead of it, is a really useful way to put all your visual cues in one physical space – a screen. With a picture. Or a couple of words. Or a couple of verses.

Here are some anachronistic principles from Cicero, bolded in this quote, for putting together a powerpoint…

“It has been sagaciously discerned by Simonides or else discovered by some other person, that the most complete pictures are formed in our minds of the things that have been conveyed to them and imprinted on them by the senses, but that the keenest of all our senses is the sense of sight, and that consequently perceptions received by the ears or by reflexion can be most easily retained in the mind if they are also conveyed to our minds by the mediation of the eyes, with the result that things not seen and not lying in the field of visual discernment are earmarked by a sort of out-line and image and shape so that we keep hold of as it were by an act of sight things that we can scarcely embrace by an act of thought.

But these forms and bodies, like all the things that come under our view require an abode, inasmuch as a material object without a locality is inconceivable.

Consequently (in order that I may not be prolix and tedious on a subject that is well known and familiar) one must employ a large number of localities which must be clear and defined and at moderate intervals apart, and image that are effective and sharply outlined and distinctive, with the capacity of encountering and speedily penetrating the mind ; the ability to use these will be supplied by practice, which engenders habit, and by marking off similar words with an inversion and alteration of their cases or a transference from species to genus, and by representing a whole concept by the image of a single word, on the system and method of a consummate painter distinguishing the positions of objects by modifying their shapes.

But a memory for words, which for us is less essential, is given distinctness by a greater variety of images ; for there are many words which serve as joints connecting the limbs of the sentence, and these cannot be formed by any use of simile — of these we have to model images for constant employment ; but a memory for things is the special property of the orator — this we can imprint on our minds by a skilful arrangement of the several masks that represent them, so that we may grasp ideas by means of images and their order by means of localities.

1. Use images that play off your senses – visuals are powerful.
2. Use images to represent the key words or ideas.
3. Good planning prevents you from boring your audience.
4. Space them well – so that you can move smoothly between ideas.
5. Picking good visual clues develops with practice.
6. If you’re going to use a word, or words, on your slides, less is more.
7. Connect those images and words in a sequence that makes your talk make sense, and keeps you disciplined and structured.

What are your thoughts – as a listener or preacher? Are notes the bees knees? Are power points useful or distracting? Where’s the trade-off between accuracy and being engaging?

2 thoughts on “Some reflections on preaching without notes (from me and Cicero)”

  1. I love how you reflect like this… I see resonance with my own reflection often.
    I too am a “script” preacher – but over the last 12 months, as I have shouldered more and more of a preaching load, I have found that while I still write a full script, and if as you say a terrible night is had, or the world comes to an end, or perhaps even turtle escapes – I can rely on a good ‘performed’ reading of that said script, more often than not I will preach with my script as the structured guide to what is said. I am sometimes surprised on reflection where I had thought the emphasis was as I prepared, is not necessarily where the emphasis is in the delivery – most often I feel like this is the Holy Spirit continuing to guide the process of proclamation from study to delivery.
    I have friends and even lay leaders in the church who are note preachers, but I am not yet comfortable enough to preach completely without notes, and have known times when I have started to wander off on a tangent, glanced at my script and brought myself back to the task without it becoming an overly drawn out sermon (we preach 30-40mins as it is).
    Funnily enough, the tighter my script and more preparation I have had, the better the end result and tighter the sermon. The looser the script, the less time I have put in, the longer I tend to preach with many more meanderings.

  2. Good powerpoint slides are really helpful to listeners IMO, particularly if the listener is not a native speaker (and if your church doesn’t have any ESL-ers, why not??). If the listener spends th entire sermon looking up the points on your slide in their dictionary, then they’ll get something out of it. As their language skills improve, it creates anchor points for those inevitable times when you zone out (listening in a foreign language is hard work and tiring). Even for native speakers, they can help re-enter if they’ve wandered off.

    Also,I agree that mnemetics can be really helpful (especially for visual or kinesthetic learners) – I use it all the time in my work (when I stand here, I say / sing this). I recently had a week to learn a role with an infamous amount of dialogue (in an old-fashioned dialect to boot) and certain phrases I found difficult to remember, I worked in certain movements while learning it at home. One longer dialogue was a retelling of story, so I visualised the scene in front of me and literally pointed to the things I was retelling. It’s amazing how quickly you can memorise something if that’s what you sit down to do (or pace around as I do).

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