Perhaps the most frequent question I get asked about teaching the Bible is: “do you write out your notes word for word or speak from an outline?” Often this question is followed by: “What does your page you look like? Do you color code or use different fonts?”
Over my 20+ years of teaching, I’ve tried every method for notes: speaking from memory, writing my talk word for word on paper and/or a tablet, using an outline, using an annotated copy of Scripture, using Powerpoint slides with and without the notes feature, and even working from old fashioned index cards.
Tips to find your style
Ultimately, how you handle your speaking notes depends on personal preference. Here are some ideas that may help you find your style:
- Only speak from a tablet when you know what the lighting will be like in the location at the time of day you are speaking. I’ve run into troubles with too much glare in the room to see the screen. It’s distracting to the audience if you’re constantly tipping and tilting the tablet to see your notes.
- If you have trouble staying within your time limits, try writing out more of your speaking text. I find more text helps me stay within time limits and avoid side tracks.
- The more you know the material and the more you have taught it, the less you probably need to write. By the third or fourth time I’ve taught I passage, I find I can teach from a 1-page outline or annotated Scripture passage. But the first time I teach a passage, I want more notes.
- Write enough so that you can return to the material and know what you said. A phrase like “analogy of the soccer trip” may mean nothing to you in 10 years even though you could tell the story verbatim from memory today. Even if you don’t intend to speak from the full text, write enough content to give your future self the full picture.
- If you quote someone, copy the quotes into your text so you can read it without taking time to open a book or a computer window. Remember to include the source of the quotation in your notes for future reference.
- Use a method that builds your confidence. Everyone gets nervous no matter how many years they teach. If more text on the page encourages you to trust and relax into speaking, speak from detailed notes; if less text on the page helps you to establish rapport and a conversational speaking tone, speak form less notes.
- If you use paper, remember to number your pages. I know this sounds silly, but you’d be surprised how many times pages numbers have saved me from disaster.
- Whatever method you choose, practice with it. Before the event, do a dress rehearsal –in the location and with an audience who can give you real feedback if possible. Time your practice, make a video and/or audio recording and learn from it.
My hybrid outline style
I’ve found the method that works best for me is a hybrid outline and full text. This hybrid outline allows me to quickly scan the page for the next main point; the full text allows me to drop into reading if I get flustered or lost. I created a style set in Microsoft Word (called “Talk Style”) that contains my standard formats.
I use Arial 14-point font because it’s clean, easy to read and large enough that I don’t have to worry about lighting in the room. With this font and hybrid style, 12-15 pages is about a 30 minute talk; 15-20 pages is 45 minutes. Since my typical talk is limited to 40-45 minutes, if my notes format to over 20 pages I know I’m too long. Here are the styles I use:
NORMAL – Font: Arial, 14 pt; Left justify; Line spacing: single; Space After: 10 pt; Widow/Orphan control on. I reserve this style for main points and transition statements. If it’s crucial to understanding, it’s on the left margin. When speaking, I can quickly glance down the left side of the page to see my next main point and/or transition. I keep this level to 1 or 2 sentences, so it is short and easy to grasp at a glance.
Level 2- same formatting as Normal, except Indent: Left: 0.25″. I use Level 2 for explanations or sub-points underneath the main points. I keep these paragraphs short, with no more than one idea per paragraph. Typically the first sentence in the paragraph is the most crucial and the only one I need to read to know what I want to say. Sometimes I use the highlight feature to make me notice key words or concepts.
- If I need to run through a list, I use bullets with the Level 2 formatting.
- This helps me know where the list falls in the outline.
- I keep th bullets short so I can scan each idea
Level 3 – same formatting as normal except Indent: Left: 0.55″. I use Level 3 for asides, tangents, or the answer to an anticipated audience question. These paragraphs are the ones I can skip if we got started late or need to shorten the schedule. If I think this particular audience needs to hear it and we have time, I include them. But I know I can skip them for time.
If this idea is a true aside that I know I don't want to include, but want to remember the idea. I use Level 3 formatting with a smaller font. Typically this might be background information or technical grammatical points.
Scripture Quotes – Whenever I quote Scripture, I copy the entire text I want to read into my notes, put it on the left margin, in italic and often in a different color. This helps me time my talk will talk and allows me easily find Scripture so I can easily refer to it during Q&A. Note: if you are making an audio recording of your talk, read Scripture yourself into the microphone rather than asking an audience member to read it. This practice ensures people listening to the MP3 in their cars can hear it.
I use Subheads only for the major sections like: Open, Review, Body and Conclusion. I use subheads during preparation to remind me what still needs to be written, then I ignore them when speaking.
I write the body of the talk first, then add the examples or analogies. The last thing I write is the open and close. My typical preparation looks like this:
- First draft/Blank page – I start with the body of the talk: main points and sub-points. My goal is to get every idea from my head onto the paper. I give no thought to organization, word choice, or style. Editing is not allowed. I write and don’t look back until all the ideas are in my document. No filtering, no editing, no second-guessing at this point.
- Second draft – In addition to working on the content, I also begin working on the transitions and organization. The goal here is to improve the flow of thought, clarity and word choice, add transitions, prune the extraneous and fill in the gaps.
- Third draft – I call this my polishing stage. At this point I tackle the heavy editing and second guessing (do I need this? is this clear? What have I assumed the audience knows or doesn’t know?). This is also where I add examples, application (if not already covered in the second draft), and finally write the open and close.
- Final Draft – the week of the talk I do a dress rehearsal, timing and/or taping the talk. Yes, I practice every time and no matter how many times I’ve given the talk before. This is my last chance to fix any problems in content, timing and delivery, and it makes the content fresh in my mind.
If you’re thinking “wow, that takes so much time!”, you’re absolutely correct. Especially since this process starts AFTER I’ve completed an inductive study, an analytical outline, consulted commentaries, and done copious amounts of research.
When I hear pastors joke about starting their Sunday sermon on Saturday night, it mystifies me. I hope there is no truth behind these comments. I once calculated that I typically spend 12 hours in preparation for every 30 minutes I speak.
Presuming to explain the Word of God is a calling we ought to take seriously, putting in the required time, study and prayer. Besides time spent in Bible study is truly rewarding and valuable! Like any new skill, it seems overwhelming at first. But once you taste your first fruits of understanding, the joy is sweet and satisfying.
Photo used here under Flickr Creative Commons.