Speaking Tips: Manuscript, But Don’t Read

black microphone

Every public speaker, including preachers, tends to develop a system for writing their talks, sermons, or messages which works best for them. Additionally, there are different approaches to what a speaker brings with them up on the stage, ranging from: no notes, an outline, or a manuscript.

Every Speaker/Preacher’s Worst Nightmare

All speakers and preachers are trying to avoid two extremes: a wooden reading of a manuscript, and a rambling failure to say anything coherent, cohesive, or substantial.

I remember watching a friend of mine preach an excellent message to a group of about 80 people, based on 3 bullet points on an index card in his Bible. Not long after that, I attempted to do the same thing: I showed up on a Wednesday night to preach to our fledgling church plant in Eger, Hungary. My text was Mark 7:1-13. I started working through the text and the bullet points I had written down… and, after about 5 minutes, I had run out of things to say. Surely there was more that could have been said;  I had even planned more things to say – but my mind went completely blank, and I couldn’t remember any of it. So what did I do? I just started repeating what I had already said, and rambling. It was a train wreck. God bless those people for being so patient with me, and giving me time and space to grow as a preacher!

In another instance, years later, I witnessed a friend of mine do just the opposite: he stood up to speak, he had great content, however he simply read his notes verbatim, never looking up from them, and never varying the tone of his voice. It was a failure on the other end of the spectrum.

Given the choice between the two: it’s always better to go with good content. But delivery absolutely matters. If you have good things to say, but you present it poorly, you will lose your listeners and fail to achieve your goal.

For more on this, and a great analogy about coffee, check out this conversation I had with Mike Neglia about homiletics (the art of preaching): Episode 45: Telling a Compelling Story

Never Waste Another Moment

As is often the case, the experience of crashing and burning at that Wednesday night Bible caused me change my approach to preaching. Frankly, I had not done justice to the text, nor had I respected the time of my listeners. I determined that I would never waste a single moment of my listeners’ time again, nor would I fail to teach a passage well due to my own lack of preparation.

From that time on, I started making more detailed notes. I began manuscripting my sermons: literally writing down every word I would say.

This process is not without its pitfalls: First of all, it is very time consuming. Secondly, you run the risk of becoming that guy who reads his notes and puts everyone to sleep, because despite the fact that what you have to say may be good, no one cares because your presentation is crushingly boring.

However, there are also many benefits to manuscripting:

The Benefits of Manuscripting Your Talk or Sermon

1. Intentionality and precision

Manuscripting takes time, but it also causes you to slow down and think about every word that you write. There is a level of intentionality and precision which means that no words are wasted. This allows you to fit in more quality content and honor the time of your listeners by never wasting a moment. The result is shorter, more concise, more focused messages.

2. The creation of an archive

By manuscripting my sermons, I have created an archive of now 14 years of sermons. Recently I received a call from a friend who had an emergency and needed someone to fill in for him at his church on a Wednesday night. I was able to pull up a sermon on my iPad and preach it without any stress or preparation, beyond the obvious spiritual preparation of prayer and seeking God about what to share.

Additionally, I can send a manuscript of one of my sermons to someone who has questions about a particular passage, if I have taught on it before. When teaching a passage I have taught before, I can pull up an old manuscript and see exactly what I said about that passage in the past. Having an archive opens up many possibilities, especially when it comes to publishing, or creating a commentary, for example.

Don’t Memorize Your Talk, Know Your Content

A friend reached out to me today asking for tips on how to prepare for a speech he will give to a group of several hundred people tonight. He asked if he should try to memorize his talk. My advice was this: Don’t memorize your talk. That takes too much time, and it can come across just as wooden as someone who reads their manuscript. Instead, write down your opening, your ending and your main points, and then, focus on knowing your content deeply, rather than memorizing it.

A Hybrid Model

Although I manuscript my sermons, I don’t read them. In fact, over time my manuscripts have morphed into a hybrid of an outline and a manuscript. If anything, you might say that they have become very detailed outlines.

I believe that every message should have a progression; your goal is to take people on a journey, moving them from where they are to where you believe they need to be. To do this, beginning with an outline before writing is absolutely essential.

My goal in writing my notes is that if I draw a complete blank while I’m standing up there, I’ll have my notes to fall back on. Another goal is to be able to open those notes up in the future, and have everything I need in that document, to be able to stand up and preach that same message again.

Two Loves and a Question

In the end, every speaker and preacher needs to find the model that works best for them. Good preaching is driven by two loves: love for God and love for people. The question is: how can we best serve God and serve people?

What model has worked best for you? Leave a comment and let me know!

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5 thoughts on “Speaking Tips: Manuscript, But Don’t Read

  1. I have developed a hybrid model as well. I develop main points and larger sub points from the text and write these ideas out in a doc file as a frame or a skeleton if you will. These main points I then copy and paste to a working file and then flesh it out with thoughts, ideas and Illustrations in abbreviated form in the working outline. After all this is done I develop a introduction and conclusion or closing for the working doc file. Lastly I edit it all so that the points are substantial enough to remember but not so much that I get lost in the writing. I then make statements or points I think especially important in bold face so I don’t overlook them. It’s easy to bypass some points while speaking.

      1. It really depends…lots of variables…I’ll write a more developed answer and send it

  2. As I said, the length it takes me to prepare depends on lots of variables. I will usually spend at least 10 hours preparing a sermon, but some are a bit shorter, some much longer. Here are several things that affect preparation time-

    The length of time I’ve been in a particular book has a dramatic effect. When teaching a book systematically the amount of time preparing other passages will usually give insight in passages further along. Because I’m reading a book a lot, I have a better sense of what the point I want to address as I continue on.

    The technicality or difficulty of the historical/grammatical conditions in the passage.- Some passages are fairly straightforward, others are very complicated. The more complicated the more time it will usually take if I’m preparing properly. This is why technical commentaries are important in my view. A good commentary can completely change my understanding of a passage.

    The amount of editing I need to do. Every sermon should be edited several times if possible. I often don’t realize how much material is there and how it will come across if I just write it out in one sitting. My thoughts when developing points don’t always work together and can confuse the listeners if they aren’t in sync with the Main points.

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