It’s time to embark on a long-overdue project. In recent years, Church leaders have instructed us on how to bear (and not to bear) our testimonies in Sacrament meeting. We have been given detailed procedures regarding when and how to give priesthood blessings. The Church has completely revamped the missionary discussions, encouraging a more flexible lesson schedule and malleable pedagogical approach. But for some reason, no one in Salt Lake has yet felt the need to provide an instruction manual on how to give (and not give) talks in Church. Thus, it is out of my amazing sense of selflessness (or perhaps my interminable obsession with ark-steadying) that I’ve decided to single-handedly take on this project. (What’s that you say? “Aaron, you’re like Mother Theresa! You’re a modern-day Martin Luther!” Yeah, I get that a lot.)
After so many years of attending Church and listening to speaker after speaker, it’s not hard to recognize the reoccurring tired phrases and time-killing gimmicks that so many of us use. And while some of them are only mildly irritating, others are enough to make you want to run screaming from the building into on-coming traffic. To borrow the pompous Latin distinction, some of these oratorical indiscretions are truly malum in se (kind of like murder, adultery, pre-marital sex, wearing paisley). Others are only malum prohibitum (parking in a handicapped spot, driving over the speed limit, failing to wear a white shirt on Sunday), simply because I’ve declared them to be so. “What?” you exclaim. “Where does Aaron come off declaring what is prohibited and what isn’t?” For those confused souls who think I’m being presumptuous to unilaterally declare Church doctrine or make Church policy, I encourage you to just have faith and not question your permablogger. Trust me, these things deserve to be banned, never mind your adolescent authority issues.
So, without further ado, here are 7 common features of LDS talks that needed to be retired long ago. There may be others as well. You tell me if you think I’ve left anything out.
1. Starting off with a joke that isn’t funny
No one intends to aim for laughs and fail, of course, but it happens fairly often. Alas, it’s tricky to avoid this completely because you can’t always know in advance whether or not you’ll be funny. Funniness turns on so many things, like your mood, the audience’s mood, your comedic timing, what’s been said by the person just preceding you, the general tone set by the preceding speaker, etc. Even the funniest comedian flops once in awhile. But my rule of thumb is this: If you’ve planned your joke in advance, it’s less likely to work than if you think of it like 5 seconds before you begin. Words of Wisdom.
2. Talking about the circumstances in which you were assigned your talk.
This is particularly irritating when its done as if it’s just oh-so interesting. “But, Aaron,” you exclaim. “There is such an interesting set of circumstances in which this speaking assignment was given to me! I’m sure everyone wants to hear about it!” Um … I’m sorry, but no they don’t. Regardless of the circumstances under which the Bishop telephoned you, what you were doing when the phone rang, and how unbelievably fascinating you’re sure this all is, let me let you in on a little secret: No one cares.
3. Defining terms out of the dictionary.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I’ve got no beef with defining terms, per se. In fact, defining terms is often crucial, and the failure to do so is the source of a lot of confused and boring semantic sideshows. But what I don’t need to know is that you got your definition from the Webster’s Fourth Collegiate International Unabridged Dictionary, rather than the Oxford Ninth National Interstellar Abridged Dictionary, and I don’t need you to take 10 minutes to pronounce the full name in slow motion (like we might want to go down to Borders and locate the precise dictionary you mention, in hopes of looking up the term and confirming that it was delivered accurately. Sounds like fun! Hell, I’ve got nothing better to do on a Friday night.) Next time somebody does this, I’m going to raise my hand from the audience and ask for the SSBN number, just for kicks. I promise.
4. Making some banal observation about how ironic it is that you, of all people, were assigned this topic.
Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Admit it, you all know this one by heart: “Hello, Brothers and Sisters. I’ve been asked to talk on _____, and it’s so funny/interesting/timely that I would be assigned this topic, given that it’s never been my strong suit, but I’m so grateful for the chance to give it, because preparing for this talk has really helped me learn a lot about … zzzzzzzzzzzz (As Renee Zellwegger might put it, “You had me snoozing at “Hello.”)
5. Using that word I hate.
You already know how I feel about this one.
6. Reading long block quotes from the Standard Works or the Ensign with minimal or no accompanying analysis.
Somebody really ought to put this habit in a bottle and peddle it as a Nyquil substitute. Seriously, we don’t come to Church just to hear the sound of your voice reading a book that we have on our shelf at home and can read ourselves when we get there. We actually want to hear you analyze and apply scriptural teachings, even if only in a superficial way! We’re sympathetic that this helps you eat up time at the pulpit, but remember, we have to sit through your talk too! I swear, this habit is almost as bad as showing a movie in Priesthood or Gospel Doctrine. Can you think of a single instance where plopping in a video has ever been an effective or engaging teaching tool in Church? Yeah, me neither.
7. Pretending you’re a General Authority.
You aren’t. Just stop it. You’re not fooling anyone. We know you don’t really talk that way in real life, and that your sing-song cadence is totally affected. In fact, we’re laughing at you behind your back. Spare yourself the humiliation, spare us the torture, and just be yourself. (And if you really are being yourself, then please — be somebody else).
So there it is. Seven deadly sins to avoid like the plague. But let’s face it … you won’t avoid them, will you? Next time you give a talk in Church, you’ll probably engage in one or more of these atrocious bad habits. Shame on you, in advance.
There’s been a lot of discussion about Church discipline of late, with Grant Palmer, Thomas Murphy and Simon Southerton each making the news. Many members are offended by their writings and actions. But surely their sins, real or imagined, don’t hold a candle to the abominations I’ve listed above. However one comes down on the propriety of tossing out the adulterers, the intellectually heterodox, or those prone to air their ecclesiastical grievances in the press, I hope we can all agree that my list of oratorical faux pas should be excommunicable offenses.