This post is for anyone who–in some sort of public fashion–speaks, teaches, leads, communicates, motivates . . .
For the last several years, I field a simple question. “Josh, I can’t figure out how you speak for 30 minutes without notes.” One person adamantly accused me of hiding a teleprompter. After assuring them several times that I don’t use such a device, they quipped, “Well, I’m watching. I don’t know how you do it, but I’ll catch you.” That person still isn’t convinced I’m telling the truth. At least, that’s what the teleprompter told me to say on the matter.
Here are some basic observations. (BTW-the main reason I write about this is because I want to get better, I want to learn)
1. I actually do use notes (just not when I’m speaking). 9 days ahead of time, I write a 4-7 page manuscript based upon study, creative elements, story-telling. I do this for me. It helps me make sure I have good flow (an entirely different blog post). It also allows me to catch repeated phrases, habits, etc. Every once in a while, just to be crazy, I do use notes for a section, quote, careful annunciation. This also helps the other people on your “team” (in my situation: worship planning, life group leaders, class teachers, etc.) know what you are trying to accomplish.
2. I have a plan. 3-4 days before I speak/teach, I draw a visual embodiment of the “talk” or “teaching” I’m going to give so that I’ve exercised both sides of my brain (READ PINK–he knows what he’s talking about). I used to read my notes over and over and over–both the prose manuscript and the image version. Now, I only need to read over my notes about 3-4 times and I pretty much have it memorized. I think that is simply because I’ve done it so many times over the last 8 years. It’s amazing what the mind can accomplish when it is pushed, stretched.
3. I stick with the plan regardless of how I feel. I believe in repetition. An artist does the same thing over and over and over. So does a baseball player, a writer, and a craftsman. So it is with speaking/communicating. The devil is in the detail. But so is the angel.
4. I reverse outline. Once I have the bulk mss. completed, I do a big picture outline of where I start versus where I finish. I usually can find a) holes in my thinking b) places that lack life and c) space for embodied story-telling. It’s fun once in a while to outline what you’ve actually said and compare with what you intended to say.
5. I treat the notes as a script. The goal is not to deliver a perfect speech. The aim is to connect to people’s hearts, souls, and minds. Therefore, I treat my notes as an actor would a script. I know a) where I’m going and b) how I’m going to get there but I allow room for creativity, improvisation, and freedom. This keeps it fun for the speaker, by the way. I am always amazed at what “comes to me” in the moment and what “comes to me” afterwards. “I should have said this…” is a phrase I often repeat. “Here’s how I could have made this better.”
6. I use images and video NOT an overhead. Most speakers/presenters use PowerPoint like a chalkboard/overhead is used. That’s like bringing a bike to the Indy 500 or a rock to a gun fight. People feel in images. So, I use screens (when I have access to them) to simply enhance, not distract. This is key. The images/video/words that appear while I’m speaking only add to what I’m saying. I don’t know how to get around this . . . it’s part of our world, language, and orientation. Let the technology help you not dominate you. Less is more. If you are looking for tangible ideas, check out TED TV. If I am speaking at a retreat (a more intimate setting), I generally don’t mess with technology.
7. I try not to take myself too seriously. I take my calling seriously, but not myself. Audiences appreciate preparation, passion, and focus but those all get “ignored” if the speaker takes herself too seriously. Especially if you are teaching/communicating to the same group multiple times a year. As a communicator, you are a chef. You prepare the main course, and if you are lucky, people will remember that they ate well but they won’t necessarily remember what they ate. That’s the good news and bad news.
Here’s the “So What?”–in 2004, I interned at a large church as the preaching intern. I labored over my notes, trying to get every word right. Following my third sermon/teaching, Kara gently encouraged me to consider leaving my notes. “We like it when we get you, not your notes. Your notes feel like a wall in between you and the listener, a wall separating what you really want to say versus what you are actually saying.” When she said that, the light turned on. I thought of my favorite musicians, poets, etc. Most of the time, they were connected with their audience, with little barrier.
EDITORIAL NOTE: Some of the best speakers/teachers/communicators I know use notes and lots of them. I’m not saying this works for everyone. I’m saying this is what I’ve discovered for my own journey. As a communicator, you are an artist (God, the original artist, used words to bring about creation in Genesis 1) and you have to work at this in community. I hope you dream big and go after your dreams. In the spirit of Howard Thurman . . . Don’t ask what the world needs, instead ask what makes you come alive because what the world needs is living people.