In 2014, Ed Miliband created some serious problems for himself and his credibility as Labour Party leader by failing to mention two key issues from his speech to the Labour Party conference in Manchester—one on immigration and the other on the budget deficit—and he later admitted that he had forgotten his notes on the two topics and omitted them by mistake. How could he forget such important sections, when doing do inevitably led to ruthless criticism? The answer is simple: he gave a 65-minute speech without notes, and inevitably that runs the risk of forgetting things. I say ‘without notes’ rather than ‘unscripted’, since, as a picture of his notes (unfortunately face down on the lectern) shows, the piece was in fact carefully planned, even if not fully scripted.
Speaking without notes was all the rage for Miliband and David Cameron, though it seems to have fallen out of favour with politicians since then, perhaps because of blunders like this. But it raises an interesting question that all preachers wrestle with: should I script my sermons or speak off the cuff—or do something in between? In order to answer this, we need to reflect on the problems and benefits of each approach.
Speaking without a script has become the vogue thing for politicians in the English-speaking world. The revival of rhetoric was kicked off in its most recent form by Barack Obama, and UK politicians have been quick to follow his lead, and then combined this with speaking without notes. Perhaps the most memorable example was David Cameron’s impressive script-free speech outside 10 Downing Street when he became Prime Minister in 2010. It is worth reading the full text and noting the examples of rhetorical technique—there is almost nothing here which is not said as part of a ‘three’, for example. This immediately gives us a key link between rhetoric and the question of script: if a speech is memorable , it will be easy for the speaker to memorise. After all, if you cannot remember what you want to say, will your listeners remember? Preaching is more than giving people memorable sound bites—but surely we do want our listeners going away remembering something?
This then connects with the teaching of Jesus. As I have explored elsewhere, Jesus often taught in memorable, rhetorically effective, even tightly structured ways which were easy to remember and so easy to repeat. (It is quite hard picturing Jesus speaking from notes—but people used notes in the first century more than our Hollywood-construction of them often admits, as the tablets found at Vindolanda, right, demonstrate.) The most plausible explanation of the differences between Jesus’ teaching style in John and the Synoptics is that Jesus taught in different ways to different people in different situations on different occasions. Many of the lengthy discourses recorded in John are in private, to individuals or small groups, whereas the short stories and sayings in the Synoptics are in the context of public teaching to the crowds. It is in this latter context that Jesus uses short, pithy apothegms in the ‘wisdom’ tradition, whilst he clearly taught in a different way in private with the disciples (see the hints of this in Mark 4.10 and elsewhere).
So what does speaking without a text achieve? As both Ed Miliband and David Cameron have made clear, it gives a sense of connection, of direct engagement. Cameron highlighted in his speech that a key task for his premiership was ‘to rebuild trust in our political system’, and speaking directly, without a script, seemed to be a first step. For his part, Miliband explained:
He said he preferred not to give pre-prepared speeches as he believed people wanted to hear “directly” from him and it was the “style that worked for him”.
“I write a speech and then I get up and use that as a framework for giving a sense to people where I think the country needs to go,” he told Radio 4’s Today programme.
From my own listening to the sermons of others, I can see clearly how much easier it is to engage with the congregation when the preacher is free from detailed notes. It allows better eye contact; it allows for free movement, so the preacher can move away from the lectern (if not boxed into a pulpit); and, interestingly, it is much easier to vary and modulate one’s voice. How we are physically is always reflected in our voice, and if we have more freedom to move, then (often without realising it) we feel more free to vary our pitch, tone and pace, and so hold our listeners’ attention.
So why bother with a script? Here we come to the Miliband problem: without a script, we won’t remember everything. More than that, we won’t be able to communicate key ideas in memorable ways. I was recently preaching on Romans 6, and near the end wanted to sum up what I had found—what we had discovered together as we explored the passage—in the following sentence:
Law is no longer a deadly measuring rod, which shows up our inadequacies and condemns us for our failures. Instead it becomes a life-giving pattern of behaviours into which we are growing by the gift and power of God’s Spirit.
I felt it was a good, memorable, rhetorically effective summary. So at that point in the sermon I made sure that I came back to my script in order to get this right.
What should preachers do in practice, then? I would suggest the following, which I have built into my own practice of preaching:
1. Speak at occasions where you need a full script. One example would be a two-minute ‘Pause for Thought’ type piece, perhaps on your local radio. Since you have a strictly limited time, you must script your words very carefully, and it gives the opportunity to craft your words. I learnt an enormous amount by doing ‘Pause for Thought’ on Radio 2 some years ago, so when teaching preaching I made all students preach a two-minute sermon—and afterwards, many wondered why they needed to preach for longer! When you craft carefully, you can say a lot in just two minutes.
Other opportunities will be more formal occasions, perhaps in contexts where you are speaking to a larger group or where people do not know you well.
2. Find opportunities to speak with no notes at all. This might not be the right thing to do in your main Sunday morning service with a baptism and lots of visitors—but you might be able to at a midweek communion, or an early morning service with a smaller congregation. Where speaking with a script forces you to craft your words, speaking without a script makes you have a clear structure, so you (and your listeners) know where you are going.
3. As you push the boundaries of your experience at both ends, incorporate this into your regular preaching. Where you have key turning points or summaries, script your words and stick to them. But in between, where you are offering explanation or telling a story, write a summary note and ad lib. (This is exactly what Ed Milband’s notes tell him to do—see the heading ‘4. Stories: Xiomara, two women, Gareth’.)
My last suggestion: always, always, always type your notes, however sparse, rather than handwrite them.
- They will always be legible, and you can easily enlarge them. (I would guess Miliband’s notes are in 20 point).
- They are much easier to file and store on computer (as long as you have a back-up system), rather than fiddling with pieces of paper.
- You can always retrieve them, and find something that you said before, either to reuse or to avoid duplication.
What are your experiences of using scripts or speaking script-free?
(A version of this piece was first published in September 2014)
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