Sacrament meeting talks: form and structure

I’ve been asked to participate in a fireside about how to give a church talk. I was invited because I teach composition and oratory classes and because I do a fair amount of public speaking around town, so my presentation will focus on process and structure, while others will handle other aspects, such as spiritual preparation. I thought I would approach it in much the same way I teach students to write a strong speech. I am not saying that this is the only way to give a talk in church, only making suggestions.

Here are some points I’m planning to make:

Preparation. I’m surprised how often people get up to speak without any notes at all — that they think they can have it all ‘up here’ (tapping the forehead) and just wing it. There are very few people who can do that well, but most of the time when someone gets up to speak without any papers for more than five minutes, it’s not that good. At least have an outline, some bullet points. If you want to write out the whole thing first, practice it a few times so it feels comfortable and you can sound more natural. (Another speaker will address preparation strategies more specifically.)

Time management. You should know how long your talk is going to run before you give it because you have timed yourself before you started. Stick to it. If the meeting is too short, it’s not your problem. If too long, you can skip one or more of your points.

Structure. Have an opening, a middle and a closing.

The opening will have more impact if you open with a strong, provocative statement or illustrative story, either of your own or from another source, rather than an explanation of how you were asked to speak or an irrelevant joke. You don’t need a disclaimer to show your humility. The listeners may find your talk easier to follow if you make a clear, central point and then list the big ideas you plan to cover, even numbering them.

The middle or body will probably consist of somewhere between three and five points you make about your topic. A way to think about these is PED: Point, Example, Discuss. State your point clearly, give and example and discuss that example. You can give more than one example for each point, of course. The examples can be scriptures, excerpts from conference talks, personal experiences, poems, hypothetical situations, movies, etc. A talk will be more interesting to more people if you vary the kinds of examples you use. Think about how much detail is really needed for each example in order for your listeners to get the point. As you move from point to point, you can help your listeners follow you by making transitions between points really obvious by showing the relationships between the points or even just numbering the points you are making

For the closing, you can just restate the main idea and bear your testimony about it. Other strategies would be to extend and expand the principle you’ve discussed further and in some cases to call your audience to action.

Save the strongest point or most dramatic examples for last. The statements that you really want people to remember can be repeated throughout your talk, especially in short, clear sentences. The purpose of your talk is to inspire others (I think), so think about how elements of your talk relate to that purpose; if something is likely to do otherwise, cut it, no matter how brilliant it is.

———————————–

I ask my students to consider of the prior knowledge and expectations of the audience when drafting a speech. But the range of prior knowledge in sacrament meeting audiences is potentially vast. How can a speaker effectively deal with this?

Anything I should add?

Comments

  1. Name (required) says:

    Sounds like its going to be a good fireside. I think that most of us could use a little coaching in this area.

    I think some people have taken the ‘relying on the spirit’ concept a little too far. These people seem to be proud of how few notes they use and how little preparation they’ve done. The results aren’t always inspiring.

  2. Since any topic can be approached in multiple ways, I always make my first request to a speaker thus:

    Pray for guidance as you prepare the talk – and ask specifically that you will be able to prepare a talk that will touch someone’s heart. Even if 99% of the members walk away saying, “That was nice,” you have succeeded perfectly if one member walks away feeling like God spoke to him or her through your talk.

    I second #1. That’s a fireside I’d like to attend.

  3. Those are all good points. Perhaps this goes without saying, but I think it is also important to emphasize the need to bear testimony so that the Spirit can witness truth to those present.

    I realize testimony meeting is different than meetings with prepared talks, but I was struck by the contrast of two testimonies last fast Sunday. One woman spoke for at least 15 minutes- she had a few good things to say but talked so long that I imagine she lost most people’s attention.

    The next testimony was from a little girl. She said how she wanted to know if Heavenly Father was real, so she prayed and asked if He was real, and she felt so warm and good. It was probably one minute at most, but I think it was much more powerful than the 15-20 minute discourse from the previous woman.

    Keep it simple, and bear testimony from the heart.

  4. Great idea for a fireside; I’m going to have to suggest that to the bishop.

    I think your appoach is solid and concise. As for how to deal with the vast experience of the audience, I’d say lay a foundation for the biggest (I was tempted to say lowest, but I’ll be kind) common denominator, and throw in a few eclectic references that would touch the academes and/or Church scholars while not leaving the status quo behind. I find in priesthood, where there’s such a mix, introducing moral dilemmas and working them out with scriptural & doctrinal solutions has wide appeal. Making points with ironic illustrations has worked for me, too. I guess above all it’s implementing your observations & personality into the talk while being cognizant of the group. You won’t reach everyone, but you have a good shot at getting the ones who came be fed.

  5. Keep it short. Studies show that after about 7 minutes, even the most powerful speaker looses a large part of their audience. And tell stories, stories, stories. Make them colorful and vibrant. Talk about the location, the surroundings, the weather or other specifics. The more you can make the story come alive, the more you’ll keep your audience. If your audience remembers anything, it’ll be the story told and if it’s a good one, it’ll resonate for a long time. I write speeches and our president is an amazing speaker. Why? He has the best examples, analogies and stories. I love to sit down and listen to him talk– even if it’s about the financials because he always has a great way of telling a story to make his point.

    And finally, a strong beginning and a strong end. At the end, a call to action is a great way to end on a high note.

    PS: I will probably get flamed for this one but keep the emotions to a minimum. I know people get choked up when talking about some experiences and their testimonies. But the more composed you stay, the more credibility you’ll have.

  6. Lulubelle,

    We have a sweet, pretty sister in our ward who has a trademark “choke-up” she uses in every talk, and it melts all of us like Velveeta.

  7. Kevin Barney says:

    This looks excellent. We ask people to give talks in church, but offer very little guidance, so I think this is a great idea for a fireside. (Did you see Jana Riess’ tongue-in-cheek guide to new converts that appeared in Sunstone on how to give a talk in church? Very funny stuff.)

    I would emphasize personal stories as the illustration in the church setting. I always perk up when someone tells a personal story, because (a) I haven’t heard it before, unlike 90% of everything else that gets said over the pulpit, and (b) I typically love and care about the person so I’m very interested.

    And I’m a big advocate of preparation. I usually speak without notes, but not because I’m just going to wing it; rather, I have prepared carefully, and so I can get away with not using notes and maintaining good eye contact.

    I’ll explain why I’m an advocate of preparation in a separate comment; you actually may be able to use my (negative) example in your presentation.

  8. Norbert, your part about opening with something other than: a story of how you were asked to speak, how you forgot about it until earlier this morning and thus feel so unprepared, assertions of humility and ignorance, or (I would add) a dictionary definition of the topic they have been assigned, should be italicized, capitalized, and underlined three times. By the time a speaker in our ward has apologized for their lack of preparation and ignorance, they have already lost me.

  9. Kevin Barney says:

    OK, here’s my story:

    When I returned from my mission, I was asked to speak in sacrament meeting. I think I was supposed to talk for 15 or 20 minutes or so, and the topic was “marriage.” (A subtle hint, no doubt…)

    I was kind of full of myself when I came off my mission, and I thought I knew everything. So I prepared this incredibly unified field theory talk, where I would go through all of the scriptures and discourse on what they had to say on the subject of marriage, starting with the OT.

    So on the appointed day, I held forth at the pulpit. I’m just getting going, when I feel a tug on my pants. It’s the bishop, letting me know I had already gone about 10 minutes over time–and I was just getting started! I weakly wrapped up and sat down; the talk must have been totally incoherent. Only then did I realize that it probably would have taken me 45 minutes to an hour to give the talk I had planned in my head, and I had has no idea!

    That humiliating experience turned me into a much better speaker, though. Now I always prepare carefully, practice repeatedly and time myself. I know how long the talk is, and if we’re going long I always have points that I can seamlessly omit.

  10. One more suggestion, learned through my experience in the classroom and sales:

    Don’t try to impress anyone with your vocabulary. In Sacrament Meeting, speak at a level that can be understood by the average 12-year-old – since an average 12-year-old in the congregation might be the person who needs to hear God speak to her through your talk.

  11. Thanks for mentioning the “joke” as intro aspect. Most talks begin with a “funny” anecdote about how the Bishop called them at the last minute, or how much they hate speaking, or how long it has been since they spoke, etc.

  12. mondo cool says:

    I think the big temptation to mention the circumstnaces of having been given the speaking assignment comes, in part, from the “Thursday Night Call” asking one to speak. I often see it as an apology for “Why the talk you are about to hear sucks.” If I were a rebel, I’d advocate in your fireside that most of us should refuse to speak in Church unless we are given ample time to prepare – and that ample time is different for each person. Ask your audience how much lead time is enough.

  13. It drives when people begin their talk by saying, “The Bishop has me to speak about ______.” If the text is well-prepared, the listener will very quickly understand your topic. Also, starting with such a bland opening statement invites people who aren’t interested in the topic to tune out before you can hook them.

    Also, I cringe anytime anyone begins by exclaiming “ALOHA!” It’s even worse when done by somone whose only connection to Hawaii is that he served a mission there a few years back. Please advise your audience to quell their urges in this regard.

  14. What suggestions do you have if, in the case of our ward, speakers are often assigned a General Conference talk as their “topic”?

  15. #14 – Use the talk as a source just like you would use the scriptures – not as something from which to quote extensively, but as something to inform your preparation. I used to tell speakers explicitly that we didn’t want to hear the talk again; we have tapes for that. We wanted to hear how the talk helped them understand the principle being taught better – exactly like if the source assigned was a specific scripture. I also told them that we didn’t care if they didn’t quote from the talk at all.

  16. Nice. I liked Kevin’s emphasis on preparation. I know that he memorizes the scriptures that he is going to use in his talks. The last time I spoke, I was inspired by Kev, and decided to try that…unfortunately, my preparation was insufficient, but I had a back up, which leads me to another point. I think that folks should print out the scriptures they are going to use. I find the slogging through the giant quad to be a bit distracting.

  17. I would also suggest to have the “optional” parts of your talk highlighted.

    If the person speaking before you is inconsiderate and goes well beyond their time, you may need to shorten yours to keep the meeting from going over time.

    If the last speaker goes over time, it either affects all of the sunday school teachers, and if any of them go over time, then priesthood / rs / primary are either cut short or they go overtime and the kids get cranky!

  18. As a high council member, I have to go around to the different wards in our stake, and speak just about every month. Just so you know, my last assignment, due to some scheduling conflicts, actually paired me up with another HC member, with him going first and me second.

    I generally try to prepare ahead of time, use notes and an outline rather than a written out talk, so better to keep eye contact. However, on this occasion, I suspect that I should have practiced my talk at least once, but without glossing anything over, I delivered a real clunker, and ran five minutes over to boot. That occasion certainly will go down as one more confirming nail in the coffin of the reputation of HC speakers.

    Norbert, your suggestions are on the money. I usually do something similar, but last month just blew it. I think it was the holidays that got me in trouble. Next week, I am speaking about Joseph Smith, and I am going to do better, including practicing my talk at least once before I go, so I have a good feel for the time, and know what I can cut out if time is running out.

  19. The only talks in Sacrament Meeting I’ve ever considered “bad” are the ones I didn’t hear because the speaker was too quiet or spoke incoherently.

  20. Mark Brown says:

    Norbert, maybe you should say something about “voice”. Sometimes people go with the radio announcer voice, sometimes they go with the ultra-spiritual singsong. The best sermons are the ones where we get to hear the real person, not the one trying to be somebody else.

  21. Hope to have just a few butterflies (a little adrenaline helps us do our best). Get comfy with them. Then take a deep breath and think about communicating, not about yourself.
    If you can’t look into the eyes of the audience and rotate your eyes from person to person casually, look just over the head of the audience member furthest away and rotate on that plane. Most people will not realize you are not making eye contact. Then work on making eye contact; it’s much better.
    My husband and I, vicious people, sometimes get a kick out of identifying those “running for general authority.” There is a voice. It’s a little monotone, a lot monovolume and it almost never smiles. (No threadjack; just a comment on delivery.) And on those with less spiritual strength than the GAs, it’s particularly ineffective. Model professional speakers. Vary pitch and rate; speak as conversationally and naturally persuasively as you can.
    Avoid mannerisms, such as “you know”, shifting body weight, scratching.
    Try to use “we” instead of “I” when you can.
    Use shorter sentences, simple, clear, direct language.
    Ditto with those who counseled against the opening apology. Regarding that practice,Oliver Wendall Holmes said “an apology is only egotism wrong side out.” It focuses the audience on us, not the subject.
    It’s pretty well established, however unfortunate, that we decide whether a speaker is really worth listening to in the first 10 seconds to 1 minute we focus on him. Dress and move confidently. Speak up. Choose carefully the first thing you say.

  22. I’ve noticed the assignment of general conference talks as topics too. As one example of where one can go with this, a talk on the First Article of Faith can easily segue into Mormon pneumatology.

    I personally think the speaker should read the assigned article and then follow the inspiration that rises from it. Quoting once from the talk is icing on the cake. I don’t know that a book report is really necessary.

  23. Thanks for the feedback. I think the voice issue is a good point. Someone emphasizing one’s radio voice is always hilarious, although I think the nervous monotone is more common here. Shorter is better, and I forgot about the horror of the dictionary definition opener. And identifying which of the points or examples will go if you have less time is a good idea.

    I agree about printing the scriptures out ahead of time is better, but isn’t quite as easy in languages besides English and Spanish. But at least have good bookmarks. I like Molly’s idea about the pronouns, although I would add ‘we’ is better than ‘you’ when giving advice about what can be done better.

    I personally don’t believe in assigned topics for talks as a standard practice, and when necessary they should be broad and not the same for all speakers. But if a GC talk is the assigned topic, use it as the springboard for dealing with the principles. Quote it in the opener and closing, and pack the sandwich with more varied ingredients.

  24. Kevin Barney says:

    A friend recently asked for some help for a talk she was giving. She had been assigned a scripture from the Psalms. And I was struck by how rare a practice that has become; imagine that, actually assigning a scripture rather than a GC talk!

    On voice, I like to try to pretend that I am speaking across the breakfast table to dear friends, which is to say I try to speak casually and informally.

    Although I agree with all of the complaints about opening by telling how badly prepared you are and so forth, I actually like to start with a joke. I try to make it relevant to the topic at hand. I just find that it puts both me and the audience at ease and relieves the inherent tension in the air.

  25. Point very well taken, but I wouldn’t change all the you’s in my comment and I’d hate to see you change all the you’s in your post. They work; it’s a very correct and effective statement. Stating objective standards and principles, as of speaking, doesn’t get preachy and condescending like statements of character and right behavior, so often the subjects of sacrament meeting talks.

  26. StillConfused says:

    When I give a talk, it is always a story — parable if you will — of something interesting that happened in my life — the motorcycle wreck, some air traffic controller stories. The whole talk is a dynamic telling of the story. Then the last few sentences are when I tell the moral of the story. “When we come acros someone who is injured, what do we do…” kind of thing. And that is it. Everyone loves the talks and they are never boring. hey, if parables worked for Jesus… why not us?

  27. Ditto on everything. I would emphasize the use of personal stories and experiences–I hate it when people just read some other experience. The emotion is just not the same. I think people need to realize that their daily experiences can be just as interesting and powerful as those of general authorities. Also, remind people to clearly state the source of quotes, and even better, get quotes from their original source so they understand the context. There seems to be a big trend of people who collect quotes and don’t realize that they actually come from somewhere. I cringe when I hear things like “President Hinckley gave a good quote…” or “I read a good quote in an email…”

  28. On the topic of stating sources: occasionally, I have heard people start reading a story without giving any kind of setup to let you know that it’s someone else’s story. The one that stands out in my mind is the time I heard a teenage girl start out her talk with “as a young officer in WWII,” or some such thing. It seemed clear that she was relating someone else’s experience, but it left me a little bit confused all the same….

    I generally don’t give exact scriptural citations in advance of actually reading the scripture, though. All of the scripture-chasing in the congregation tends to drive me nuts, but I admit that that’s just a personal preference.

    jrw

  29. Lulubelle says:

    I’ll add tone, which is soooo important. Speak slowly, deliberately, and use good and variety of inflection. I have to say that the tone used in GC is strange to me. They all speak in the Exact Same Way– all of them. Not sure why that is but it almost always puts me into a trance-like sleep.

  30. #29 – The talks are being translated into dozens of languages. It helps to speak with as little inflection as possible. Sometimes practical matters affect delivery as much as content.

    That’s what makes some talks stand out even more – when the spirit shines through the need for a bland delivery, grabs you by the throat and knocks you reeling. Trained ministers do it by emotional manipulation; it’s interesting to watch it happen without any “props” or “polish”.

  31. ~depending on the topic, remind speakers to try to consider in an empathetic manner those who might have a hard time w/a certain topic or be struggling.

    For instance, in speaking on marriage, be aware and sensitive to those who are single, divorced, widowed, etc. In speaking on raising children w/success, be sensitive to those who might have lost a child and/or have children who are less active, etc

    ~ don’t chew gum when giving a talk, it looks awful!

    ~ my personal pet frustration: in sacrament meeting, please don’t share the dumb BYU jokes in referring to meeting your spouse.

  32. Sacrament Meeting talks are not the same as speeches. I love giving speeches. I’m a weirdo who enjoys public speaking—when I can write a speech all out, rehearse, etc, beforehand. Problem is that’s never been an option for me when giving church talks. I always pray about whether I should write out my talks beforehand—and you can guess what answer I’m hoping to get. And the answer I always get is the one I don’t want to hear: No. Wing it.

    I usually think of a few points I want to make, have some scriptures marked, and some stories I might want to share. And then I wing it.

    I sit down afterward and think, that was the worst talk EVER. So unorganized, all over the place. I’ll feel like a complete idiot. And afterward several people will tell me I’d said something that was exactly what they needed to hear.

    For the record, most people do not read talks very well. I have a very hard time listening to people talk, especially if they’re just reading something. Most of the time, I’d much rather hear a disjointed, unorganized talk that’s off the cuff than one that’s read right off a page.

  33. #28: I second the comment re reading scriptures. Just let the congregation hear the words of the scriptures. A talk isn’t a study session or a BYU Religion class. Let people experience the power of the scriptures within the flow of your exposition, rather than tempting–or worse, inviting–them to distract themselves by messing around with another medium.

  34. LEAVE THE MICROPHONE ALONE!

    All the rest of the advice I’ve read above is great, too. A personal favorite is the “Well, the Bishop gave me this talk to base my comments on today.” The apology for lack of preparation also irks to no end. That seems like a good way to tell people to do something else for the next ten minutes.

  35. err. . . I don’t know what happened, but it was supposed to read, “A personal least favorite is . . . “

  36. Some more great points, especially those regarding telling one’s own stories rather than an inspirational tale from Especially for Mormons. On the other hand, I was sitting on the stand once when someone read ‘Footsteps,’ and while I was having trouble restraining my eyes from rolling, I could see several people in the audience tearing up. So who can say?

    Susan M: I’ve had the same experience, but that should be the exception rather than the rule.

  37. Things along this line have already been mentioned, but it bears repeating: Don’t start out a talk by saying how much you hate giving talks.

  38. Peter LLC says:

    Generally I think apologies given as an introductions are lame, but mostly because they are poorly executed.

    However, let us not forget that expressions of humility or incapacity as the result of a lack of preparation or sinfulness, weakness, etc. have a long tradition, particularly in a religious context, and are a rhetorical skill like any other that can be used to good effect.

  39. Bro. Jones says:

    Question: how does one determine if a joke is “lame” or not? We often think ourselves funny, but the people listening may disagree. Short of waiting for the sound of crickets after dropping a particularly bad joke in a talk, how should one self-check one’s humor–particularly since we’re dealing with a worship/sacred context here?

    I will add, though, that I recently heard a talk where the speaker introduced himself with a wonderful joke about plural marriage of all things, and it was both a great joke and a great talk.

  40. a random John says:

    Things I don’t want to hear in a sacrament meeting talk:

    - When it was that you got asked to speak.
    - When it was that you wrote your talk.
    - What happened to you this week.
    - Any quotes from a General Conference talk longer than a paragraph.

    I’d make a list of what I hear nearly every week but that would be redundant.

    I think having a fireside on how to give better talks is a great idea. Many of us could us the help. If everyone is going to be asked to speak then everybody should get some minimal training.

  41. I am scheduled to give a talk next Sunday, and these comments have been incredibly helpful. I think a fireside on giving talks should be done in every ward twice a year! Thank you all for your comments. I am of the prepare, read, time and thing wing it crowd.

  42. - When it was that you got asked to speak.
    - When it was that you wrote your talk.
    - What happened to you this week.
    - Any quotes from a General Conference talk longer than a paragraph.

    Nicely said.

  43. You should look at Celeste Elain Witt’s book devoted to the topic, Amen: Speaking in Church with Purpose & Peace (Provo, Utah: Perihelion Press, 2005). Its many short chapters hit on both practical and spiritual angles. Elain teaches public speaking at BYU and has done a great job thinking this through.

  44. I don’t generally cite my scriptures (especially if they’re pretty well known,) but I do say “so and so said” with my regular quotes. This of course is mostly a normative rather than descriptive statement: though I won’t say it on the stand should I be called upon to speak, I have in fact *never* been asked to give a talk in Sacrament meeting. But that’s how I did the baptismal talk I did today, and how I do my twice-yearly YSA FHE devotional talks. I’m trying to take notes, in case the worst happens.

    Some of these pieces of advice (that everyone in the thread has been giving) are going to get thrown out at the last minute, though. I *can’t* talk if someone asks me to speak last minute: I suspect I may have been skipped over for talking in Sacrament because I flat-out refused to give the opening prayer one day. I really, truly, freeze up if I don’t have time to prepare, and I have to have it written out, period — if the Spirit has been telling me to ‘wing it,’ I’m afraid the abject terror has been too loud for me to hear it.

    I’m also pretty sure that if I tried looking up scriptures or telling a joke that I’d rip the paper or accidentally say something blasphemous. For the last ten years I’ve been working on the “make eye contact” thing: practicing on my CTR-8s has helped (yes, I get nervous making presentations for second-graders, and moreover ones that I see every single week.) Once I have that mastered, I plan to go back to working on “go slow enough for people to hear you,” as I think I blew that today, and I also nearly called Jesus Christ the son of the eight-year-old getting baptized. Sigh.

    In any case, I hope that your fireside will have a presentation for the folks who collapse into a pile of weepy despair at the mere thought of being asked to speak, and who don’t recover until two to three days after the event. I’m actually still twitching from today, and I only just recovered from my December Sharing Time anxiety. ^_^

  45. I have been preparing a talk for today this week and have found this post and discussion incredibly helpful. Our Primary presidency is speaking and I also forwarded this link to the others. We all agreed that this was priceless information. Funny, but even though it annoys me when people open by disclaiming their entire talk, I probably would have done it myself if I hadn’t read this thread! Instead, today I’m starting with a story that happened in our Primary that really emphasizes our speaking topic. Thank you so much for posting your ideas and comments! I’m keeping my fingers crossed that I make it through today!

  46. Some great comments about talk prep. Perhaps you could give some suggestions on how to prepare to express your testimony on Fast Sunday. Yes, I feel it is possible to do that while contemplating bearing your testimony during the passing of the sacrament. Getting up there and babbling about some relative that has serious drug problems, or how proud you are about your wife/husband and family members, or you are sorry if you have offended anyone, or your kid has been removed from your custody, or …

    I understand you should express love and appreciation for spouse and children in private, not from the pulpit. Also, the spray method of asking for forgiveness doesn’t cut it. Again, do that in private with the person you likely know you offended.

    just my thoughts

    Jon

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