[This post is part of our series on Public Speaking in the Church]
When I started writing this post, I had to think of the epic U2 song ‘With or Without You’. It’s so fitting for the whole debate on whether or not to use notes when you speak.
You see, there are as many arguments for using notes, as there are against. So with or without notes, you
can’t can live speak. Let’s look at both sides and I’ll also explain why I always use a full transcript when I speak.
Two Arguments Against Notes
The main argument against using notes is that it makes you speak more freely, more natural. The argument is that people who use notes will get stuck to them, thus losing mobility and will tend to speak more formal. We’ve all experienced this at some point when we were listening to someone who seemed to merely read notes out loud instead of ‘talking’. It’s a big fat check in the ‘no notes’ column.
There’s one more big argument against using notes and it’s one I want to dig into a little deeper: the prompting of the Holy Spirit. The reasoning here (and of course this is especially true for sermons and Biblical messages) is that God cannot lead us and prompt us throughout our talk if we’re stuck to our prepared notes. It eliminates following the leading of the Holy Spirit during the talk, or so the argument goes.
I know that some churches and denominations have a long and rich tradition of more spontaneous messages and sermons, where the speaker is completely open to where the Spirit leads at that point. I don not mean to devalue this approach, but it’s not my preferred way of speaking. If it works for you, awesome, but I’ve seen too many cases where it resulted in a chaotic, free-for-all, cliché-filled meandering talk to believe this is the best method. At least for me.
I believe in the leading of the Holy Spirit, don’t get me wrong. I just happen to believe—and I experience this all the time—that God guides us just as much in sermon prep as He can do in the execution phase. Every time I prepare a talk or sermon, I do it in full obedience and submission to God. Prayer and wrestling with whatever I’m talking about are crucial elements of my prep process.
That’s also why I rarely do last minute sermon prep and usually start three to four weeks in advance on that particular talk. It needs to ‘marinate’ so to speak—but we’ll talk more about sermon prep in a different post.
Using notes doesn’t prevent God from leading me while I do the talk either. I mean, no disrespect, but He’s God. If He wants me to change my talk, my notes aren’t gonna stop Him. I can hear Him just fine, even when I have my words in front of me. Obedience is key here, not whether or not I have prepared notes. And yes, I have changed my talks on the spot a few times since I felt God leading me in a different direction.
Why I Use Notes
Let’s clear one thing up, before we go further: there are various forms of ‘notes’. You can bring a bullet point list, a mind map, or a complete transcript. All are ‘notes’ and none of these methods is wrong or right. It all depends on what works for you.
I always have a complete transcript. To me, writing a talk is as much about the writing process as it is about the content. I’m a speaker, but I’m a writer at the very core. To me, writing the talk is crucial for my process, as the act of writing helps me to collect my thoughts, order them, check my line of reasoning and logic, etc. Plus, I’m able to polish my talk and make it as ‘beautiful’ as I can in terms of the right words, strong verbs, some literary devices maybe.
But there’s also a reason why I like having the notes with me when I deliver the talk. You could reason that writing it out is good for the prep phase, but that I could just learn it by heart when I deliver and skip the notes entirely. The funny thing is that by the time I execute the message, I do actually know most of it by heart since I’ve re-read and re-written it so often. But to me, having my notes with me calms me. I can’t get nervous over forgetting paragraphs for instance—or the entire talk.
Having the notes with me also helps me in my delivery. I usually writes some cues on my notes for instances—elements of the message where I want to slow down, speed up, or make a certain gesture. I make crucial phrases bold and red, making sure I don’t accidentally forget these.
With or Without Notes
Here’s what it comes down to: you can choose to use notes (any version of them) or not. It’s up to you. One thing isn’t necessarily better or worse than the other. It all depends on you.
If you’re new to speaking, I really recommend using notes. It will help you calm your nerves and not worry about forgetting anything. But after that, you’ll have to experiment and see what works for you. I’ve tried speaking without notes. Didn’t like it. I tried using bullet points only. It was meh. I experimented using mind maps. Hated it. I’m full on committed to using a full transcript now and it works for me. But that doesn’t mean you have to embrace it as well.
Delivering a Talk Without Notes
If you decide to skip the notes, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- If you’ve never spoken without notes before, consider doing it gradually, for instance going from a complete transcript to bullet points and then nothing.
- Make sure you know your entire talk by heart.
- Practice sharing your message without sounding studied—this is the biggest pitfall of learning your talk by heart. Even when you know every line, you still want to make it sound conversational. It’s way more interesting to listen to and it makes it more real and less formal and stiff.
- One big risk of speaking without notes is improvising and adding stuff on the spot. This is not necessarily bad, but it will be if you add ten minutes to a 20-minute talk. Stick to the script for the most part and don’t bog your talk down (thus diminishing the impact) with add-ons and ad-libs.
- No notes doesn’t mean no prep. Just saying.
Delivering a Talk With Notes
If you decide to use notes, in whatever form, here’s what to pay attention to:
- Always, always, always number your pages. You won’t think it’s necessary until you drop a 45-minute talk on unnumbered pages on the floor. True story.
- Print your notes in a slightly bigger font. If the lighting is bad, or if you’re nervous (or don’t want to wear your reading glasses) 10-size fonts are mighty heard to read. I usually use at least 14.
- Use delivery cues on your notes, like ‘speed up’, ‘breathe’ (my cue to stop talking too fast), or ‘louder’. Especially if you’re starting out, this can help improve your delivery.
- Practice delivering the talk without reading every sentence from the paper. This is really a skill that requires practice! The same is true for flipping to the next paper in a way few people will notice.
- Another skill to practice is to maintain mobility while being able to glance at your notes. Usually you’ll have a lecture of some kind, so play around with this a bit. Make sure it’s at the right height so you can read easily and unobtrusively.
In short: with or without notes, practicing your talk to make it sound conversational and authentic is key.
Where do you stand on the notes versus no notes debate? What is your experience with either approach?
[Photo via Lightstock, copyrighted image]