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A 5-Step Method for Delivering a Talk Without Using Notes

A 5-Step Method for Delivering a Talk Without Using Notes
  • Name
    Carey Nieuwhof
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 In addition to these posts, few things have helped me as much in the last few years as Preaching Rocket (affiliate link). I’ve been through their entire coaching programming and it’s been fantastic for me both as a preacher and a conference speaker. If you want to explore it for yourself, you can try Preaching Rocket for free for seven days. Now … onto how to speak without using notes. Let’s start with the single best piece of advice I know.

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 five steps I use to internalize a talk deeply enough to abandon my 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 to 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 percent 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. If you want to get better at communicating and haven’t tried the seven-day free trial from Preaching Rocket yet,  the offer is still open.  Which of the above points do you find helpful? What would you add? And finally … tell me, what’s your secret sauce?