One of the most common questions I receive while leading preaching workshops and seminars is “How can I learn to preach without being tied to my notes?” It is an important question because it is virtually impossible to engage and inspire listeners if our noses are buried in our notes. Preparing notes or a manuscript can be an effective practice for preachers, but being stuck to them while you preach is fatal.
So, what’s the secret to preaching without notes? Preachers use different techniques and approaches. Here are four approaches to move away from referencing notes that I have found helpful:
1. Start preparing early in the week.
Sometimes the demands of ministry will require starting sermon preparation later in the week but making a habit of it will diminish your effectiveness and ability to remember sermons. Preparing early gives your mind the time to marinate on your message and make key changes, additions or adjustments. It will also give time for your brain to memorize and internalize the message. When you get up to preach you will feel confident and sharp without a need to constantly look down at your notes. A restaurant that serves my favorite steak marinates it in juices for a week. That is why it tastes so good. Good sermons are the same way. They take time to develop and it takes your brain time to absorb them so you can preach with freedom and confidence.
2. Construct a “Memory Palace”
One effective technique many preachers and other communicators use to present without being tied to notes is called a “Memory Palace.”[i] It is quite simple. You break down your sermon into small parts and then associate each part with a room or object in your house. As you preach your sermon you visualize walking through your house touching the objects or entering the rooms you associate with each part of your sermon. The best way to utilize this approach is to visualize a routine you have in your home. Perhaps it is how you normally come into the house when returning home from work or how you move about your house when getting up in the morning. Prepare the sequence of your sermon to follow the sequence of that routine. For example: bathroom/shower is a story about a powerful baptism; a coffee maker and cup is your scripture text about being renewed (“Look! I’m doing a new thing” [Isaiah 43:19 NRSV]); your closet is how God’s work of renewal affects your outward appearance and behavior, and so on.
3. Recognizing and using triggering words.
Many preachers find it difficult to remember the sequence of their sermon and how one movement of thought is tied to the next. A technique that can be useful in aiding memory is placing a word or transition phrase at the end of each section that will trigger your memory of the next section. For example, the last sentence of your introduction may be “I have often wondered why bad things happen to good people . . .” The words good people will trigger your next movement of thought, which begins with this story or illustration: “I remember a good person in my life who was tragically killed. . . .”
4. Understand your sermon’s movement.
This may seem painfully obvious, but perhaps the best advice to preaching without being tied to notes is to understand your sermon. Preaching guru Tom Long emphasizes the need to “understand what you are going to say.”[ii] To understand your sermon means to know in your heart what you are trying to express. Understand the ultimate message behind all of the words. Know the essence of each section of your sermon. This way, if you forget something, it won’t matter. You will know the heart of your sermon and the right words will come to you.
Give one or more of these a try and chances are you’ll find the joy and freedom of preaching without being tied to your notes. For more helpful tips to improve your preaching grab a copy of my new book Say Something! Simple Ways to Make Your Sermons Matter from Abingdon Press.
This article was adapted from my book hSay Something! Simple Ways to Make Your Sermons Matter from Abingdon Press. Used by permission.
[i] See Luciano Passuello, “Develop Perfect Memory with the Memory Palace Technique” on his Litemind blog, https://litemind.com/memory-palace/.
[ii] Carey Nieuwhof, “A 5 Step Method for Delivering a Talk without Using Notes,” https://careynieuwhof.com/how-to-deliver-a-talk-without-using-notes-2/.