Home > For NAD Pastors > Articles >
Effective Preaching: Preparing Notes

The mind has a way of forgetting things when you need them and recalling things at just the wrong moments, like forgetting your sermon flow and remembering that you’re scared of public speaking just when you step up to the pulpit. There is hope. It has much to do with prayer and something to do with making usable notes to take with you. Since you likely know about prayer, let’s address the issue of notes.
The term “usable notes” does not mean you will have them in the pulpit. It means organizing your thoughts for recall, so you have them in your head. Usable notes make it easier to internalize and recall your sermon. Ideally, you will depend on them to prepare but not necessarily to preach. They must be concise, so there is little to memorize, and hit just the main points.
Usable Notes Help You Preach Note-Free
You can practice the art of seeing the big stuff next time you watch a documentary or lengthy news report. As you watch, jot down the major movements of the story. With just the list you make, you can repeat what matters to the storyline, either in detail or in summary. Try it. It works. With the same tactic, you can preach your sermon without notes. That is how usable notes work.
1. Preaching Note Free is Easy—Preaching without notes takes method, not genius. Prepare your sermon like scenes in a play. Then, you need only recall the order of scenes. The details of each scene will come to mind with that scene. Your notes trigger the scenes in sequence. Memorizing this sequence will allow you to memorize very little and preach note free. If you forget a few trifles, it won’t hurt the story. And, you will gain poise and audience connection.
2. Preaching Note Free is Better—Many preachers have laid a thick manuscript on the pulpit only to lose their place and render it useless. “Actually, that was a good thing,” recalls one veteran preacher. “Time and again, I learn the same lesson: When you know your core message and the basic steps needed to get there, you can preach without notes. Dozens of times, I have stepped to the pulpit with a jittery sermon on paper and left with a spiritual experience that came from the heart. A manuscript in the pulpit feels like a security blanket but does more harm than good.” There is a better plan.
The Process of Note Development
That better plan starts with the security blanket; write a manuscript. Make it a full transcript of the message; every word. This helps you think it through. Write careful transitions between scenes, transitions that review the last one and preview the next. Write an introduction that grabs attention and lays out the guiding question. Craft crisp language that moves. Draft a conclusion that reviews the sermon and drives home its message. Writing a manuscript develops the sermon and preserves it for years to come.
1. Start with a Structure—Let’s start at the beginning. Usable notes demand structure. The message outline from phase three of sermon preparation is a great start. This is the sermon blueprint and should govern every step of its construction. The structure of your sermon holds it up and is enough to show what the rest will look like. Writing it means filling in these details, and remembering it requires knowing the structure. If you know the structure, you can recall where the details go. But, of course, the details must be chosen first.
2. Add Illustrations—The illustrations developed in phase four have begun to add dry-wall and lighting but you can’t show the house just yet. If you have ever watched a house being built, you know that its framing shows enough to see where the rooms are and how big they are. But no one enjoys the house until the details are done.
3. Add Transitions—The first details to hang on the structure, after the illustrations (dry-wall and lights), are transitions. These are the doors from one room to the next. Write transitions that review and preview. For example, “So far, James says that words cause damage. What he says next is more hopeful.” Just like a door, one side should connect with one scene and the other with the next. A brief look back at where you’ve been, followed by a nod in the direction you’re going, keeps the audience with you. Good transitions help both preacher and audience see and remember the connection between scenes.
4. Write a Gripping Introduction—Next, write an introduction that grabs attention and lays out the guiding question. Starting the second you step to the pulpit, you have thirty seconds to clinch interest. If you fail then, it’s tough to win it later. In real estate terms, the introduction is curb appeal. There are spectacular sermons that nobody listened to because they start slow. A fast-paced story, a stunning statistic, a shocking or intriguing question or statement; any of these can do the trick. It should feel natural and energetic. If the introduction is too much work for the preacher to spit out, it is too hard for the audience to listen. Your introduction must do two things: get attention and introduce the guiding life question. Put another way, introduce the subject and make it matter to the listener.
5. Add Colorful Language—So far, you have a structure, you have an introduction, and you have transitions between points/scenes. But, the house still needs paint. You must paint each scene in clear and compelling colors. Explain the points of the text with memorable language. It is important to craft language that moves. Sermon language, even more than written language, must be simple. Give it the tongue test. Does it roll off well or get slowed down with awkward syllables and extra words? Write short, punchy, simple sentences. “James means to tell us that we should carefully consider the ramifications of the words we choose” is not as good as, “Choose words well.”
6. Add Style—“Extra” words can serve a purpose. But, only use them if that purpose is clear. For instance, “Choose words well; select with care; make sure they come from God,” says little more than “Choose words well” but it adds force. Like illustrations, put your best tools behind your big points. Remember, dynamite in the wrong place destroys. Use such techniques sparingly, strategically. A number of books have been written on stylistic elements but the best way to learn these is by hearing them. Listen to recordings of your favorite preachers and note the techniques that work. You will, over time, develop a sense for when “extra” words help. Until then, simplify, simplify, simplify.
7. Write a Compelling Conclusion—Just one step remains to finish your first draft: write a concise, compelling conclusion. Draw all the weight of your sermon parts together, causing the listener to feel the full force of your message in a single stroke. This is the finish work on your house that makes the rest inviting. Review the sermon’s logical steps, or scenes, and then drive in its message. Driving that nail home takes four hammer blows: Allude to previous illustrations, repeat your summary sentence, make specific applications, and add one last story for the heart.
First, allude to previous illustrations. As you preach, your experience is much different than that of your audience. You are concerned with remembering all your points. They casually listen for random tidbits. You have entrenched yourself in the message of the text and lived its pathos. They hear it for the first time, with just your summary. You see the points first and the stories second. They remember the stories.
Those stories are your most powerful tools. Don’t set them aside when it counts most. Emotions have peaked with the punch line of each story. If you stack those peaks under your final message push, it will find its place in their heart.
Second, repeat your summary sentence. This is the message in concentrated form. It is what rides on those emotional peaks. Repetition aids memory and draws attention to the point. A great technique is the story-point-story-point pattern. Repeat the emotional peak of each story, and then lay down that summary sentence. Keep up the rhythm until all those peaks are spent.
Take an example. (Story allusion:) “When all seemed lost, Charlie found a friend. (Summary sentence:) God is near. When Sarah knelt at gunpoint, praying for a miracle, she got one. God is near. When Elijah ran to Mount Horeb in search of God, he learned that God had been there all along. God is near.”
Third, make specific applications to real life. Since you have already identified the various
life situations of your audience and made applications (see phase three), the present task is clarity. First,  acknowledge diversity. “This message applies in various ways.” This signals the audience to look for applications specific to them.
Second, state the options in “If…then” form. “If you are lonely, [then] say aloud, ‘God is near.’ If you are scared, [then] open God’s word and read the great stories of his nearness.” Give them something to take home and do.
Fourth, add one last story for the heart (see phase four). Your sermon may or may not need this touch. If the story-point-story-point pattern has done the trick, leave it alone. But, if your arsenal of illustrations is small, add one that encapsulates the point. Keep it short and clear. If it needs to be explained, don’t use it. The story should speak your point so well you don’t need to say it.
Remember, it’s not about looking creative, displaying your genius, or the chance to tell a good story; it’s about driving a message from the Almighty through your listener’s heart.
Re-outline the Sermon
You now have a manuscript. Take a deep breath and smile. Most sermons don’t get this far. But, even with a manuscript, you’re still a few steps away from usable notes. Next, take that manuscript and graph it. The outline might have changed in the sermon-writing process, so re-outline it.
List its scenes—just a brief sentence of each. It won’t take long. You may feel the need to scribble a few scene details under each heading, such as text references and illustration reminders. That is OK. Just be sure to distinguish between the heading and the details (by indenting the details on your notes) so you can see the sequence of scenes at a glance.
Add to this sequence of scenes your written transitions, your introductory paragraph, and your concluding paragraph. You will memorize these elements. Usable notes include all that you must memorize because that it what you should use them for.
Even if you take them into the pulpit, their simplicity will leave you free to preach without fear of forgetting or that nasty habit of note reading. They are not the house but rather the blueprint—everything you need for reconstructing the house.
You may have noticed that we switched metaphors in this chapter, from travel to building. “Blueprint” offers good imagery. But, if you prefer, it is a map for leading the audience  from their world to the biblical world and back again.
It doesn’t show you every tree or hill or stone but it provides enough to know where to go next when you’re there. That is all you need. More information may confuse you. There you have it. The process of making usable notes is hard work but it is the key to lifting the ceiling on your preaching. If you strive to soar above mediocre, the work will pay off. And, there is more good news: it gets easier
with practice. For preachers who do it consistently, it is almost second nature. Finally, God helps those who resolve to serve him with excellence.
Immerse Yourself in Your Notes
Six months is a short time to learn a language and yet many can do it in three weeks. The difference? Immersion.
To prepare for a trip to Germany, a preacher and his wife spent six months learning German from books, CDs, software, and even sermons they downloaded from the Internet.  It helped. The couple became about 30% effective at conversing in German by the time they left for Germany. The trip was only three weeks long but, by the end of it, they were more like 70% effective (at the basics, anyway). Immersion made the difference.
Preparing to preach is like learning German. For both, the goal is fluency. The difference is that speaking German requires you to be fluent in a language while preaching requires being fluent in your sermon material. Both come best by immersion.
But don’t let this talk of language learning scare you. Preaching is much easier. Your notes are not a foreign language at all. You wrote them.
Memorize Your Notes
We call them “usable notes” for a reason. Now, let’s explore how to use them. In a phrase, “Memorize them.” Before you think you can’t, try it. You may know them already. Close your eyes and see how much you can recall. More than you thought, eh? It can be done, and without much work, especially since this material is not new to you. Internalizing your notes takes four easy steps.
1. Learn the Scene Sequence—Memorize the scene summaries until you can say them without trouble. We have explored this story-sermon concept in depth. If the sermon is formed into cohesive scenes, you need only a mental kick to trigger the scene and the details will come.
This works when the kick is a short sentence on paper. But, if it is short, there is not much to remember. Why not etch the scene list on your brain? That way, you have no paper on which to lose your place. It could make life easier.
If you’re a visual learner, keep the list in your mind’s eye. Fix an image of the page in your brain or a picture of the list carved on granite or written in the sky. Whatever works—the goofier, the better.
If you are auditory, say them aloud, with gusto, until you can hear yourself saying them even when you’re not. It might help to say them with rhythm or sing them.
If you go by feel (kinesthetic), attach each scene to one finger and touch that finger to your thumb when you repeat the scene summary. Following the same action when you preach will help you recall it. Be creative and use a combination of memory aids. I call them recall devices.
2. Learn Transitions—Using the same recall devices, memorize transitions. These should be easier than the scene list because transitions are simply a review of the last scene and a preview of the next. So, if you know the scene list, you basically know each transition. The task remaining is just to get crisp language fixed in your mind. Repeat each one several times. Then, practice everything together; mentally go through the list of scenes, adding transitions. After a few runs through, it should feel comfortable. This is all you need. Relax. The language will come to mind when you need it.
3. Learn Key Language—Memorize other key language—phrases or clever sayings you want to recall. Don’t try too hard on this one either. Repeat the phrases five to eight times and then let them flow naturally. Don’t force them. If they aid communication at the time you present, they will come to mind easily. If you don’t recall them, you probably don’t need them. Trying hard to memorize every word you’ve written will damage your presentation, not help it. Tuck favored language into your mind and let come what may.
4. Learn the Introduction and Conclusion—Memorize the introduction and conclusion. Your first words win or lose interest. Your last words secure the message. You can’t afford to ramble or seem lost at either place. Memorize at least the first three sentences and the last three of your sermon. The first two minutes are also your most nervous. Having three sentences to say with punch and confidence will get you past the jitters. In your last thirty seconds, you must drive the message home with force. Keeping language tight adds momentum.
Allow Germination Time
Once you have ingested your sermon, stop. Don’t practice for a while, maybe a whole day. It needs germination time. After a little practice, time away from your notes gains more than continued practice.
For most people, it works best to sleep on it. The next best thing is to take a walk, play a game, or read a book. Your mind will work on the sermon subconsciously and, when you come back to it, you’ll be miles ahead. You will find that you remember most of it and just have a few details left to sharpen. This means, of course, you must finish writing sooner than the night before you preach.
Strategically Reduce Stress
Most energy spent preparing is wasted. It’s like the dog that wears himself out trying to break his chain, leaving no energy for play when his master unchains him. Fear of failure takes more work to beat than learning your sermon. So, know yourself. Notice what lessens anxiety.
1. Start Early—The first anxiety buster is starting early. Remove those chains of fear that waste energy before you’ve strained at them all week. The earlier you start, the less anxiety you’ll suffer. Anxiety cripples both creativity and your ability to memorize. You may find that reading your notes just before you crawl in bed works best. You will wake up knowing them. It’s hard to feel anxious while you’re sleeping.
2. Seek God’s Spirit—The best anxiety buster is the Almighty Spirit of God. His presence is calming and empowering. You cannot change your audience for eternity. Without God’s Spirit, you are, at best, an entertainer. But, with Him, you cannot fail. Pray for His presence as you study, as you prepare, as you preach.
The absolute necessity of God’s Spirit reminds me of a story. A sophomore-year college student was a thirteen-hour drive from his girlfriend, but he drove it almost every other weekend.
On one such occasion, he borrowed his brother’s car and enlisted a crew of companions to share costs and driving time. All went well until they hit Minden, Louisiana around 3 a. m. He was asleep in the passenger’s seat when a growing awareness of something wrong pulled him awake.
The engine was clattering. He asked the driver how long it had been making that sound. His brain began the same unsettled clatter when he heard his response, “About half an hour.” He said, “Pull over.” Just then, whatever was clattering got tired of it and escaped through the side of the engine block, making its own way out.
They were stuck in a strange town at 3 a.m. It was 591 miles from home and 256 miles from his girlfriend. After an early morning bus ride, a friend’s borrowed truck, and a last-minute rescue effort by his brother – they were saved. That was good but how much nicer it would have been to just have an engine.
The tow truck driver remarked on how nice the car looked. I’m sure he meant well but it didn’t do them much good without an engine. Do you see the parallel? Your sermon can be a literary masterpiece and not change lives. The Holy Spirit is the driving force behind all effective preaching. It’s the engine… and so much more.
“The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…” (Isaiah 61:1 NIV)
That is your commission. It is the task this series has laid before you. Fulfill it as one “who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15 NIV)
This is the fifth in a series of five units on preaching taken from the iFollow Discipleship series produced by the North American Division.  The complete series with handouts and slides is available for download at http:www.ifollowdiscipleship.org/indexphp?id=83&lessonID=29