To script or not to script?

1411513093648_wps_20_Pic_Bruce_Adams_Copy_LobbEd Miliband admitted this morning that he omitted two key sections from his speech to this year’s Labour Party conference in Manchester—one on immigration and the other on the budget deficit. How could he forget such important sections, when doing do inevitably leads 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.

This raises a question 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?

BSAO070102900LThis 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.

_77782529_de27From 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 duplicating.

What are your experiences of using scripts or speaking script-free?

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23 thoughts on “To script or not to script?”

  1. In my experience, some students think that preaching without a script means less preparation (presumably as you don’t need to write out a script). It doesn’t – to do it well can mean more preparation. But I think the advantages are usually worth it. I’ve heard potentially excellent sermons killed because the preacher was reading it and, as a result, not engaging the congregation. And one or two students have found their preaching transformed when they left the safety net of a script.

    In my own practice, I’m similar to Ian (except I don’t type out notes). I have main headings for points I want to make, and occasionally sentences where I want to quote exact words. But I also agree that the discipline of writing for a short time slot is good – it helps to focus the sermon on what is essential to the message, (and what that message might be).

    • That’s interesting. I have also found the discipline of writing gets me into the practice of crafting words…which then makes it easy to craft a sentence on the spot.

      There is a real art to reading from a script well, which is a whole other set of skills, and again, not dissimilar to what one needs on radio.

  2. I think the modern revival of politicians speaking without notes was really kicked off by Cameron in his first party conference speech as leader, in 2005 – certainly not a result of anything that Obama has done (who is not a first rate orator, in my view).

    • Cultural fad—or contemporary form of communication? Did Jesus read from a script I wonder? (Or stand in a pulpit come to that..? Actually, I suppose he might have in synagogue.)

  3. I tend to write pretty much a full script on the computer, then reduce it to sparse hand-written notes (easier to glance down and find where you are, I find, compared with printed text). Then the outcome is a mixture of me remembering what I wrote, and speaking off the cuff. But it feels as though I’m actually speaking to the people in front of me, rather than just reading something out loud. I don’t have much to look at in terms of notes, so I tend not to look down too much. And I’m not reading from a script so I don’t sound as though I’m reading from a script (not having mastered the art of reading from a script well!).

    Seems to work for me personally, might not for others!

    • That’s really interesting Anthony. I agree with you that the work of writing something out in full enables you to do the work of crafting…which allows for the precision when you are then speaking in an engaged way.

      I am curious about your hand written notes—you must have better writing than me! But since you have typed up the full text, you address the issues I mention at the end which arise when people only have a hand-written record.

      Do you ever make use of the technique of appearing to think things up in the moment, when in fact you know what you are going to say…?

      • The hand-written notes are really sparse. Probably a word or two per sentence of the full script. Or less if it’s an illustration/story/application. The process of writing the hand-written notes is a way of going through what I’m going to say in advance, which I’d probably do anyway if I was reading from a full script. I tend to fold the paper up (A6 size), use different colours and draw a few lines here and there, which is time-consuming on a computer.

        Not sure I’ve used that technique – though trying to remember what I was going to say might look similar on the outside!

  4. Interesting how one passable speech has got the whole nation talking! Shows the power of a speech is still HUGE for persuasion and credibility. If Ed can do it, there’s hope for anyone I guess.

    9 times out of 10 I do it like this: (Obviously having internalised the passage and done some study on it, and I plan sermon series well in advance so I have some notes already to shape my thought)

    1) Prepare an outline for the talk on a big piece of paper/ flip chart with keywords, before doing any visuals etc so as not to get into Death By Powerpoint

    2) Dictate from that filling it out & my PA types it up (heaven), before I had a PA I always typed the whole thing up anyway

    3) Go through that first draft and shorten it – it’s always too much.

    4) Shorten it again.

    5) I often have the framework ‘Me We God We You’ adapted from Andy Stanley’s excellent ‘Communicating for a Change’ somewhere I can see it and remember it so it doesn’t become a dry piece of information but rather a relational communication as he calls it.

    6) Shorten it again.

    7) I send it to my Kindle Paperwhite and preach off that, I have the advantage of being able to speed read so especially having read it through a few times I ‘capture’ paragraphs and speak them out rather than ‘read it out.’

    I always remember J John telling us the story of the preacher who was advised by an old church warden, ‘There were only 3 things wrong with that; you read it, you read it in a boring voice, and it wasn’t worth reading.’

    Unfortunately I have sat through many of those.

  5. I still tend to write out the sermon in full but those now only form my notes for speaking, they no longer force me to follow. The act of writing helps my memory.

  6. I preach almost always without notes. I saw American preachers do this (they are trained to) and the engagement between preacher and congregation is much greater. It also allows the Holy Spirit some input mid-sermon!

    Here are my tips for doing it:

    1. Be prepared! Write out the sermon beforehand.

    2. I craft my sermon like most of Jesus’ parables – with a storyline where one part follows naturally into another. This is very important for two reasons – It is easier to remember and easier for the listener to follow and make sense of it. You can use this even for deep theological stuff, you have to keep it on the simple side. Also if the Holy spirit has interrupted, you can get back to your place.

    3. Use the Roman Room method to remember the sequences, you are less likely to forget the general gist. You prepared memory will fill in the rest.

    4. If your sermon isn’t word for word what you have on paper, don’t worry, that too is the Holy Spirit doing his work.

  7. At college we had someone come in to do a communication workshop with us on exactly this kind of issue (not just speaking from a script, but also more generally about how to communicate well in a sermon).

    These days I tend to preach from a flowchart – I hand write it and just have a few words in each bubble. I find that if I’ve done the hard work of exegesis, it’s much easier to preach like, and it comes across as being more authentic – it feels like I’m talking to the congregation rather than reading something out to them.

    On a related note, I’ve also bought into the idea of “one point preaching”, which I think ‘Communicating for a Change’ (mentioned by Anthony above) talks about. You have one point you want to say, and every other part of the sermon works to contribute to it. I’m still working on it but I think it is a better mode of communication than three points beginning with the same letter!

  8. Taking it for read that prayer and exegesis has been done…and that other methods have been considered (drama, role play, story, testimony, puppets, congregation participation et al)

    I’ll make ad hoc notes all over a sheet of paper, sometimes with a variety of these: doodle sketches, some kind of pictorial flow chart, notes and paragraphs. Sometimes I’ll type it up, sometimes I’ll make a highly visual ‘PowerPoint’ (but I use keynote on iPad, it’s easier) I rarely read from the presentation, it’s mainly pictures that illustrate a point.

    Only at funerals do I always actually read a script word for word.

  9. I have bullet points outline for weekly sermons, and use Powerpoint preparation as a means of clarifying the key points (visually and verbally). And then it’s a full manuscript for funerals and the Christmas Carol service (I restrict myself to 10 minutes), and fullish notes for weddings.

    However, the two people who have most recently intrigued me were:-
    (a) a colleague who uses a mind-map as his outline – just key word concepts
    (b) a colleague who draws/paints her sermon notes.
    …I have no idea how the latter functions, but clearly it served her needs!

  10. Terrific post, thanks. After 30 years preaching using a script I have, in the last few years, moved towards using far fewer notes. Reactions from my home church (I preach twice a term) have been very positive. Not always the best monitor of course, but interesting that comments such as ‘more animated’, ‘that’s the best I have heard you’. I sensed a greater trust in God as I ‘searched’ for the words, and more consciously engaged with those I spoke with. I think Haddon Robinson’s advice in ‘Expository Preaching’ to ‘write the message out but don’t take it into the pulpit’ may help some, though I still need notes and occasional sentences in full, especially for transitions.If you are starting out, a full manuscript may be the best way, but I would encourage people to give fewer notes a go, in the way you suggest.

  11. I follow the suggestion of Donald Coggan in ‘Stewards of Grace’ (1958), which is (1) prepare a full text, (2) reduce it to pulpit notes. I also make a point of practice-preaching from my full text, so that I’ve had at least one experience of going through exactly what I prepared.

    Coggan said ‘Many a heresy has come out of a preacher’s mouth in the pulpit because it didn’t stare him in the face in the study first’. I value the discipline of preparing a full text, – it helps me to be accurate and exact. But I don’t like preaching from it – I much prefer the notes.

  12. Geoff has never used a full script in his life and from the beginning has only ever used notes. I need to work from a full script – crafting words is important to me.

    But there is also a personality issue here. Study done on introvert personalities has found that their minds go a blank when they are standing up in front of people but don’t have a script. Extraverts by contrast need the freedom. So I reckon a lot of this is about the sort of person you are!


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