Sermon Notes That Serve

"Readability is supremely important and notes should be geared to the quick glance."

Benjamin F. Reaves, D.Min., is assistant professor of preaching at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.


THE CONGREGATION was strangely hushed. It was the silence of breath-held hopefulness as the pastor, fumbling through several small slips of paper, bent low over the pulpit, trying desperately to find his place and to re gain the vanishing attention of his dis concerted congregation.

Another sermon, the fruit of careful study, ended up a disaster—the result of careless note preparation and use. It is unfortunate that variations on the above trauma take place weekly in far too many pulpits where preachers have neglected giving careful attention to the development of sermon notes that serve.

The construction and proper use of speaking notes is "a step or phase of preparation which speakers frequently neglect. This neglect often seriously impairs speaker effectiveness and is responsible for a great deal of audience boredom." 1

Part of the reason for this neglect is the fact that most pastors are intimidated, if not haunted, by the ghost of note-free preaching. Recognizing this as the ideal in oral communication, they mistakenly view any notes they use as being a minor or peripheral matter. Thus, the wrong attitude toward sermon notes serves as a foundation for poor preparation of notes and, as a consequence, the inept use of notes.

While books on oral communication, pulpit and otherwise, commend the development of note-free speaking, it is my observation that the majority of ministers do preach from notes and far too many fail to use them well. Roller places his finger on the point: "For the great majority of preachers, it seems fairly well established that a carefully prepared outline, the product of hours of labor, is the best preparation for the pulpit." He goes on to say, "While the acknowledged ideal is to preach without notes, a carefully prepared outline is essential in preparation and might be needed in delivery." 2

For the purpose of clarification, let us develop some working terms for this discussion. An outline is a specific and detailed blueprint of the speech. The notes might be an abbreviation of the outline but more than likely will be an adaptation or abbreviation of the manuscript written on the basis of the blueprint. Those notes taken into the pulpit may be as brief as the memory of the speaker will allow.

In the opinion of many, however, no notes should be utilized in the live speaking or preaching situation. Representative of this attitude is John A. Redhead, Jr., who states, "No note of any kind is taken into the pulpit, for the reason that paper is said to be a poor conductor of heat." 3

John A. Ott, while less humorous in his comment, is more accurate. "When a person speaks without notes it can appear more spontaneous and dynamic. However, to jeopardize an entire sermon for the sake of a rigidly held opinion is not fair to speaker or audience." 4

NOT a Sign of Weakness

One of the first steps in building sermon notes that serve is to develop a correct attitude toward the use of notes. That means understanding that the use of notes per se is not a sign of weakness. Audiences and congregations do not and have not objected to the use of notes. Rather, the mounting objection is to the poor use of notes. Perhaps use is the wrong word; abuse would be more accurate. We find speakers who are so sensitive about hiding the notes from view that they become highly successful in hiding the notes, especially from their own view. As a result the squinting and the searching for miniscule scraps of paper or the shuffling and rattling of reams of paper result in the notes be coming a barrier between the preacher and people—detracting immeasurably from the delivery of the message.

Apparently, the problem staggers be tween two poles. One is the misapprehension that it is a disgrace to be caught using notes. The other pole is the equally erroneous idea that since notes relieve the speaker of the responsibility of thinking, it would be well to have them as copious and complete as possible. The truth of the matter should be obvious—it is no disgrace to use notes, and the role of notes in speaking is not a substitute for thinking, rather they are to stimulate the thinking process.

A correct attitude toward sermon notes leads to a correct preparation of notes. First of all, that means a specific time allotment for their preparation. In many instances the time devoted to this is on a "catch-as-catch-can" basis crammed into whatever time is avail able just prior to the sermon's delivery.

"The preparation of notes for speaking is not a task to be performed hastily and carelessly or as an afterthought. Notes that are well prepared and well used will add much to the effectiveness of a speaker's delivery." 5

Perhaps it would be helpful if the pastor were to cultivate the idea that the sermon preparation is not complete until sufficient time has been given to careful preparation of sermon notes. In fact the notes should be prepared in time so that the sermon can be practiced from the notes. Again, for clarity, let us keep in mind that the sermon outline is a blueprint for the construction of the sermon; the manuscript is a sermon constructed according to that blueprint; sermon notes are a summary of that manuscript and are designed to stimulate, to prick. "Generally notes should act more as reminders than a full text—'key phrases acting as triggers for his oratory.'" 6

Another concern in good note preparation is readability. Properly prepared notes are designed for a quick glance. That suggests legible writing instead of the hurried running script that turns either into Ugaritic or some hitherto unknown and untranslatable language almost immediately. The preacher who wants to be an effective communicator would do well to heed the counsel of Donald E. Demaray: "Readability is supremely important and notes should be geared to the quick glance. Many words on a line tend to prohibit fast reading, crowding does the same. Space is the key to quick-as-a-flash readability." 7

One way of spacing for readability is to skip lines to indicate thought groupings. Listening to tapes of oneself and oral rehearsals can help in determining the thought and speech pattern, and in selecting the notes or catch phrases that will guide in the sermon itself. The well-spaced sequential arrangement of these cues will do much in stimulating action, thought, and memory.

"Notes are good friends when they serve your purpose. . . . Many outstanding speakers take a hint from broad casters who underline important ideas with colored pencils. They make their notes easy to read. They type them in capitals and use triple spacing. They reduce their notes to the bare essentials so that their thoughts are easy to find. Good notes go a long way to build confidence." 8

The Best Notes Are Personalized Ones

It should be understood that the best notes are personalized notes, which means there is no single "best way" for preparing notes for the actual pulpit situation. There are principles that can guide, but whether the notes are on index cards or a folded 8-1/2 by 11 sheet or whether they are a key-word outline or a full-content outline, highlighted or indented, must be determined by the individual in the crucible of pulpit practice. Each person must develop the method most congenial to one's temperament, gifts, and style. All, however, can benefit from the insightful suggestions of Brack and Hance on preparation of notes:

1. Take time—no hurried scribbling.

2. Use materials that aid clarity—paper color and weight—bold pens or markers.

3. Have a plan for recording information—key sentences or transitional sentences underlined.

4. Be selective about information re corded.

5. Avoid vague, general statements—be specific.

6. Don't divide sentences or ideas at the end of pages.

7. Number and arrange pages in order.

8. Adapt note size to the occasion.9 Correct note preparation is of little avail without correct note use. It is essential that the speaker practice with the sermon notes, developing the art of the quick glance and the practice of looking up on the last part of a sentence. Keep in mind that the communication process is aided by skill in turning or sliding pages so as not to distract.

Just as there are varied methods of preparation, so there are varied methods of delivery. Some memorize the manuscript. These people are rare in deed, and they must cope with the danger that concentration on remembering every word can cause a lack of identification with the overall mood and meaning of the message. Perhaps the better part is that if there is to be memorization it should be with discrimination—memorizing specific parts, such as introduction, transitions, and conclusion-appeal. There are others who choose to master the substance, the ideas, the pictures, and leave specific words to the inspiration of the moment. The obvious danger here is the problem of laziness, where sermon preparation degenerates into thinking of a few ideas or pictures and winging it from there, with the result being shallow and superficial. It may be that the median position between the poles of preaching without notes and using a full manuscript is carefully prepared sermon notes with key reminder words, important points, and illustrations. 10

Whatever the personalized method of use (this does not mean what I do—it means what I have found after trial, error, and experimentation works best for me) the speaker should use the sermon notes without apology, not trying to hide or sneak glances, rather using them deliberately and with assurance, conveying the realization that the notes are a help and not a hindrance in communication.

When Reading a Manuscript

There are, however, occasions when reading a manuscript is appropriate. Warning: effective reading is the most difficult technique of public communication. In fact, public reading skills are harder to develop than natural speech expertise. However, in those situations where it is necessary, keep in mind these suggestions:

1. Type the manuscript with orator's type. If this is impossible, triple space and use caps as fully as necessary.

2. Use only the upper two thirds of an 8 1/2 by 11 sheet, so that there is less loss of eye contact.

3. Work on the feel of reading publicly.

4. In the lower right hand area of the page place the first two words that appear at the top left of the next page to help continue a natural delivery rate while turning the page.

One of the less immediately apparent benefits of prayerful, careful, thoughtful note preparation and use will be the serendipity of giant steps toward note-free preaching. The concentration on the development of thoughts and idea sequence gives a clear pattern of thought, which is the best way toward note-free preaching. Add to this a gradual experimentation in less threatening situations with no note usage. (There will be note preparation, there will not be note usage.) Experimentation gradually in this regard can lead to an even greater freedom from sermon note usage, but until then the key concern is sermon notes that serve.


1 Harold Brack and Kenneth G. Hance, Public Speaking and Discussion for Religious Leaders (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1961), p. 54.

2 Charles W. Koller, Expository Preaching Without Notes (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1962), pp. 88, 89.

3 Quoted in Donald Macleod, Here Is My Method (New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co.), p. 155.

4 John Ott, How to Write and Deliver a Speech (New York: Trident Press, 1970), p. 121.

5 Brack and Hance, op. cit., p. 55.

6 Ott, op. cit., p. 122.

7 Donald Demaray, An Introduction to Homiletics (Grand
Rapids: Baker Book House, 1974), pp. 139, 140.

8 James Bender, How to Talk Well (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Co., Inc., 1949), p. 206.

9 Brack and Hance, op. cit., p. 64.

10 Demaray, op. cit., pp. 138, 139.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

comments powered by Disqus
Benjamin F. Reaves, D.Min., is assistant professor of preaching at Andrews University Theological Seminary, Berrien Springs, Michigan.

May 1977

Download PDF
Ministry Cover

More Articles In This Issue

Biblical Archeology

The 1976 Excavations at Biblical Heshbon

Christ's Great Success Formula: Giving=Getting

Sometimes ministers who are very liberal with the means God has entrusted to them are selfish with and jealous about sharing their insights and good ideas. O. A. Battista's article challenges us all to rethink and reform such practices.

Evangelism In the Australasian Division

"Public evangelism must ever be the vanguard of the church's operation."

Last-Day Leaders

God is depending upon us to give the quality of leadership that will match the awesome hour in which we live and serve.

Medical Terminology in Luke

On the medical jargon of Luke

Mutations and the Origin of Species

"To be harmless, mutations must also be trivial; but to be trivial they must renounce evolutionary importance."

Shepherdess: Mother, an Executive

"Next to God, the mother's power for good is the strongest known on earth"

View All Issue Contents

Digital delivery

If you're a print subscriber, we'll complement your print copy of Ministry with an electronic version.

Sign up

Recent issues

See All
Advertisement - IIW-VBS 2024 (160x600)