How to Preach without Notes (And Why You Should Try)

April 14, 2014

I entered pastoral ministry in 1986, and I’ve experimented relentlessly with preaching forms and techniques for nearly three decades. Preaching today is both more interesting and more challenging than ever before.

Though much of my speaking has been in the pulpit, I’ve also done a good bit of presenting in classrooms, at conferences and retreats, and in business settings. For the first 13 years of my ministry, I delivered three different messages a week. I still preach before a live audience almost every single week.

Preacher and Congregation

Over the years I learned many lessons on how to improve preaching, and the most important one is this: If you want to boost your impact on an audience, preach without notes.

That sounds daunting, I know, and perhaps you think it unnecessary. But I believe you should give it a try. Here’s why.

Say goodbye to the ball and chain.

As a beginning preacher, I relied heavily on a full manuscript, which I nearly always read. I graduated to speaking from notes, which allowed a bit more freedom to engage the audience.

Both methods are fine, but when I started preaching without notes everything changed.

My breakthrough came after I’d been a preacher for about 10 years. I noticed that I was getting less and less dependent on my notes, and one day I simply forgot them. During the offering, I realized that I could either walk out of the room and retrieve my notes or go without. I chose the latter, and I’ve never looked back.

Here’s what happens when you walk on the platform with nothing in your hands.

Distance to the audience narrows. Without your notes, you never look down so eye contact is nearly constant. You read the listeners more closely, and they follow you more intently.

You stay in the moment. Preaching without notes doesn’t mean you don’t have a text. It just means that you are more free to make adjustments as you react to the audience. It’s easier to cut material or make slight additions when you’re not trying to “cover the material.”

Your concentration and energy levels increase. Without the safety net of printed notes, your mental acuity goes up. It has to.

People engage more closely and take more away. Your increased command of the material combined with higher listener engagement produces a greater impact every single time.

It’s really not that hard.

Newcomers to my congregation are frequently amazed by my speaking without notes, though it’s not that unusual. I recall hearing famed preacher Dr. Harold John Ockenga say that he had preached without notes since the beginning of his ministry in the 1930s. Many speakers do this, and there are many approaches.

Here’s what I do.

1. Write a complete manuscript.

Counterintuitive, isn’t it? Create your sermon as a full manuscript that includes every word you would say to a live audience. This achieves two important things. First, it makes you test your thoughts for logic and continuity. Bullet points or sentence outlines may not produce fully formed thoughts that flow logically to one another. Writing a manuscript forces you to create a cohesive message.

Second, it gets the sound and shape of the material into your head.

Begin by writing the entire manuscript, and remember to write for the ear, not the eye.

2. Make a cheat sheet.

Speaking without notes doesn’t mean that you memorize every word of the presentation. Some items, such as biblical passages, statistics, or quotations from other writers must be delivered with absolute accuracy. If you can’t memorize them, it’s okay to read them. I typically place them in Goodreader and access them from my iPad mini.

3. Practice aloud several times.

First, this helps you create speaking dynamics such as alterations to the pitch, rate, and volume of your voice. You need that even when using notes.

Second, it cements the thought pattern of the sermon into your head. The goal is not to memorize the exact words but to remember the flow of the ideas in proper order. What you are actually memorizing is the substance and order of the paragraphs in your manuscript (though you’ll recall much of the wording also).

Third, it tests the logic, flow, and wording of your message. Don’t consider your manuscript finished until you have practiced it aloud at least once.

4. Plan your gestures and movements.

If you’re used to speaking behind a pulpit or while holding notes in one hand, you’ll have to adjust your delivery. In time, your use of gestures and movements will become natural, but at the beginning you’ll need a plan for this.

5. Relax. 

Nervous tension constricts everything in your body, including your mind. Relax and get ready for a good experience. You can do this!

If it helps, lay your manuscript on the pulpit or keep it nearby. Having that safety net will put you at ease. As a result, you probably won’t need your notes.

6. Think of your first line as you’re being introduced. 

You don’t need to recall your whole message at once. Just think of the first words you need to say and call them to mind as you walk before the audience. The next thought will follow, I promise.

7. Get in the zone.

In time you’ll begin to experience the phenomenon called flow. This is a serene moment when you are relaxed, in control, and almost watching yourself perform what you are doing. You’ll notice that part of your brain is processing the words you speak while another part is able to think about other things; namely, what to say next. It sounds odd, but trust me, it’s real, and it will happen to you.

In this zone you will experience great freedom in your preaching.

8. Resist the urge to extemporize. 

As you gain skill, your greatest temptation will be to add material you hadn’t previously thought of. Your mind will be free enough to suggest new illustrations, quips, even whole points that could be added “in the moment.” Resist this.

Such thoughts nearly always take you off track, and impromptu attempts at humor often fail.

In time you’ll have enough experience to know when a new thought will add punch. In the beginning, stick to what you’ve already created.

9. Pray.

This is placed last for emphasis, but it is actually the first thing to do. No preaching, regardless of technique, can succeed without the unction of the Holy Spirit. Offer yourself and your work to the Lord.

There are a number of preaching styles, and neither is essentially superior to the others. Though nearly all preachers could heighten their impact by learning to preach without notes. Give it a try?

Lawrence W. Wilson

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I blog about Christian faith and ministry. I've also written a few books including The Long Road Home and Why Me? Straight Talk about Suffering.