Memorized Manuscript vs. Extemporaneous Preaching

Sermons from the last few weeks at First Christian Church can be found here.  The sermon “I Will Survive” was preached on May 13.  It was my traditional pattern of crafting a manuscript and then reducing key words and portions of the manuscript to a piece of paper–normal paper printed landscape with two columns, folded in half.  I practice this so that more or less I am preaching from memory.  There were a couple of long quotations  that were  read.  The sermon “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was preached on May 20.  It was preached from an outline only.  There was no manuscript anywhere.  Both sermons were good sermons for me. 

The extemporaneous sermon had problems with fluency at the beginning.  Too many vocalized pauses.  The memorized sermon had problems toward the end.  When I got to the section where I used the “Praise the Lord” refrain, the refrain “Praise the Lord” comes out flat because I was trying to remember the next pair of experiences. 

This past week, May 27, I again preached from an outline.  The sermon was worse than the previous two but, I don’t know that the outline was to blame. 

1.  I had convoluted cultural lead-ins–The sermon series has taken “B-Side Hits” (i.e., pop music songs that were originally released on the B-sides of a single that did better than the A side) and compared them to texts from the Minor Prophets (i.e., the B-Side of biblical prophetic literature.  However, I also used Peter Bregman’s “Two Lists You Should Look At Every Morning.” Trying to incorporate references both to “Focus” and “Ignore” lists and “Everyday” by Buddy Holly got convoluted.

2.  I had too many ideas.  Fred Craddock warns than when preachers preach three point sermons they often end up with three sermonettes rather than one complete sermon.  That was the case here.

3.  I didn’t have strong examples or narratives.  The supporting material was lacking. 

4.  Failure to rehearse.  One of the things I’m finding thus far with the extemporaneous approach is that I struggle to find the motivation to practice the way I do when I’m speaking from a manuscript. 

Extemporaneous Funerals

Since making the commitment to work extemporaneously, I have had four funerals.  They were all within one week.  Two on Saturday–graveside for one, community building for the other.  One on Monday in a Fort Worth Funeral Home and another on Tuesday.  This is unusually high volume but, they were all well-lived lives.  Two of the people were over ninety, one in her eighties, and one in his seventies.  All had been cared for lovingly by their family.  None died suddenly.  While every death brings grief, some are less difficult for the pastor.  These were not difficult.  It was easy to affirm the family that they had cared for their loved one and easy to affirm that the people involved had indeed fought the good fight, finished the race, and received the reward God had planned for them.

Typically, I write out every word of a funeral service–call to worship, invocation, life-marks, pastoral prayer, the message of hope, and benediction.  Plus comital and prayers for the graveside service.  In the services, I worked from an outline.  I jotted down structure and keywords for the prayers, family member names and dates and events on the life marks and an outline for the messages of hope.

In these situations, the extemporaneous approach didn’t work well.  Word-choice was at issue.  Frequently it felt like I was rushing things. Where I got to the part of identifying our spiritual resources the content seemed thin.  I don’t work from a canned message of hope.  There are some things that I say frequently at funerals but, I also try to find a unique way to say them.  So, I would say that I’m not satisfied with the content of the messages.  I’m not particularly satisfied with the eye-contact.  On the plus side, it was an intensely high number of speaking occasions to get done in a short amount of time.  The extemporaneous approach did help with the demands of the week.

Outliner–The Ball That Get’s Moved

Each Fall as football season approaches, Charlie Brown is tricked into attempting to kick a football as Lucy holds it.  Each year he tries even though he knows that she will pull it away at the last second, he will kick into thin air and the inertia of his foot meeting no resistance from a football will carry him sailing into the sky and land him flat on his back.

Finding a computer outliner is that experience for me.  I have tried repeatedly for well over a decade.  There are PLENTY of computer outliners available in freeware, shareware, and commercial form.  Some are fully featured and others are sparse.  There are one-pane, two-pane and three-pane versions.  I have tried many.  The problem that I have found is that the ones that do what I need them to do are not stable and the ones that are stable don’t do what I need them to do.  Or they are prohibitively expensive.


  • Single-pane–when composing a speech outline, it is hard for me to look back and forth between claim (i.e., the topic line of an outline) and data & warrant material (i.e., the substructure of a main point).  I’ve tried.  It doesn’t work for me.
  • Numbered lists–Because I’ve been doing this for a number of years, I know where I am on a speech using the old fashioned, Harvard style (I, II, A, B, 1, 2,) style of outlining.  I  prefer something that does exactly that.  I need something that at least numbers.  It’s hard to “signpost” orally if your outline doesn’t designate A, B, C and 1, 2,3.
  • The ability to easily move chunks of the outline around.  One of the chief benefits of an outline for speech purposes is to see quickly the flow and development of an argument.  Just having something that looks like an outline (which I can produce in MS Word) will not achieve what I need it to achieve. In Outline View, Word has some navigational tools but it doesn’t easily move chunks (i.e., a main point AND it’s substructure).  
  • Cross platform–I use an iPhone, Mac (at the office) and PC (at home).  
  • Affordable.
  • The ability to expand and collapse units.  
  • Omni-Outliner–works great in Mac.  Doesn’t work in any other environment.
  • Tree–seems to work so far well in Mac.  Doesn’t work in any other environment.
  • ThinkLinkr–seemed perfect at first.  Works online (like google docs) but has proven to be unacceptably unstable on many computers.
  • NoteMap–a PC outliner designed for lawyers, effective.  Prohibitively expensive (over $200).
I will be using Carbon Fin’s Outliner Online for any idea-jotting to do on the iPhone or other computer.  I can import it as OPML into either OmniOutliner or Tree on the Mac. Still looking for acceptable version to use on the PC.  

Going Extemporaneous

A couple of weeks ago, I was at a departmental meeting for adjunct and full-time speech faculty for Brookhaven.  The issue of extemporaneous versus manuscript speeches came up.  The crux of the discussion:  manuscript speeches are bad–very, very bad.  Most of the other faculty give very low grades to students who read excessively during their speech. There was a clear desire for the rest of us to grade “read” speeches in a similar way.

The rationale is sound.  Taking the time to write a manuscript is inefficient.  It decreases eye-contact.  It sounds written rather than sounding like speech, etc.  We are the only department that teaches oral communication and therefore we need to insure that students are developing oral skills not merely vocalizing their writing skills.  I was the one objector in the room.

My objection emerges from my experience.  The extemporaneous (i.e., speaking from an outline rather than a manuscript) dogma is what I lived with as an undergraduate.  At no point in either my undergraduate or graduate education was I ever taught how to write for oral communication.  But, there is a need to learn to write for orality.  The one I remember thinking about as an undergraduate was that of professional speech writing.  But there are others situations where it is needed.  Despite the potential for us to need to know how to write for oral communication, we were never taught it.

In Seminary at Brite Divinity School, the overwhelming bias–at least while I was there–was in favor of manuscript sermons.  The reasons we gave for using a manuscript also make sense.  When dealing with theological concepts we do not want to be sloppy with word choice.  Also, a manuscript provides for better time management.  I know to the minute how long a 3 page sermon will last but a half-page outline could be done in five minutes or take as long as an hour.

I adopted the manuscript practice.  On many Sundays I read my sermon word-for-word from the pulpit.  Starting around 2000, I started to memorize (more or less) my sermon manuscript and deliver the sermon with minimal notes.  If I can run through the sermon three times before the first worship service, I can pretty accurately recreate the manuscript from memory.  This stopped as my constant approach in about 2005 when my third child was born.  The lack of sleep made it a lot more difficult.  I’ve recently returned to my  commitment to preach without a manuscript in front of me each Sunday.  But whether preaching from a manuscript with me in the pulpit or preaching from memory and minimal notes, there has usually been a manuscript somewhere that I had prepared before preaching.

So, I had a dilemma.  My speech com undergraduate education and teaching needs pushed for extemporaneous approach.  My homiletics training preferred a manuscript.  My speech teaching responsibilities asked me to give a lower grade to a practice that I myself habitually and intentionally engaged.

In part to relearn how to do extemporaneous speaking and in part to test out the competing claims about mode of delivery, I have made a personal decision to give–as best I can–every speech (sermon, report, homily) in an extemporaneous mode between now and the start of school.  I will chronicle my experiences and draw conclusions based on what I learn.