Barneypalooza 1: Memorization and Eye Contact

Left Field’s comment no. 5 on my most recent post made me think of a series of related ideas that are too long for a single post, so I’m going to break them up into a three-part Barneypalooza. Part 1 is on memorization and eye contact; part 2 is on the importance of perceived competence in missionary work, and part 3 is on inciting a gospel conversation. (Since the blogs slow down on the weekends, I hope people won’t mind that I’m going to put up a trilogy of posts in rapid succession.)

What spurred my thinking was Left Field’s mention of Aaronic Priesthood handbooks from the early 70s. These were 8×11 workbooks (there were separate ones for deacons, teachers and priests). One of the sections was on goal setting, and one of the goals we were supposed to make was how many scriptures we were going to memorize during the year. My goal was always two, not because I actually intended to memorize two scriptures, but because you set the goal by circling a number and 2 was the lawest number you could circle. I didn’t intend to memorize any scriptures, because I quite frankly didn’t think I had the capacity to do so. (I probably memorized Moses 1:39 one year by default because it was our YMYW theme and we recited it every week. And at one point in my Primary career I think I had memorized the AoF. That was about it.)

So I go on my mission to Colorado in 1977. That was back in the days where you were supposed to memorize the discussions, in our mission at least 95% word perfect. I thought that would be a huge challenge for me, but it really wasn’t that bad.

Also in our mission we were required to memorize all the scriptures mentioned in the lessons–100% word perfect. There were like 75 of them, and some were up to ten verses long. I didn’t see how I would ever be able to do that. But the practice in our mission was that at zone conferences the MP would go down the line and give each missionary a cite, and he or she would have to stand and recite the passage in front of everyone, and we were expected to do it word perfect. It had a sort of military feel to it.

I didn’t want to be embarrassed in front of everyone, so I got a stack of 3×5 cards, wrote out the passages one per card in longhand, punched a hole in the corner of each card and put them on a ring. I then carried those cards with me everywhere, and whenever I had a spare moment I would practice them. And a strange thing happened; they actually began to come together in my mind. I learned that it was a simple matter of repetition.

Once when I was in Colorado Springs my companion and I were quizzing each other on the discussion scrips, and the bishop walked out from a meeting he had been in. The bishop was Mark McConkie, son of Bruce R. He asked if he could play with us, and he sat down and joined right in. He wasn’t 100% word perfect, but he was in the high 90s, and it was impressive as hell. There’s no way I could do something like that now without practicing them on a daily basis. Those McConkie boys definitely knew their scriptures.

One of the virtues of having all the discussion scriptures memorized is that I could teach without reading anything, and could maintain full eye contact with the investigator. I remember one time in particular I went on splits with a ZL to teach a girl and her very skeptical sister. I was doing the second discussion (the plan of salvation), and to me it was just a pedestrian lesson; I didn’t feel any special spirit. But as I was talking I was looking into the eyes of skeptic girl, and all of a sudden I saw the biggest, roundest tears I’ve ever seen spring from a human tear duct welling up in her eyes. By maintaining eye contact I got to watch it as it was happening, which was wonderful. Both girls were baptized.

Once I got the hang of it and became confident I could memorize scriptures, I went beyond the discussion set. I had some tapes of Handel’s Messiah, which were my salvation on my mission, so I decided to memorize all the scriptures used in the libretto. I didn’t actually have a copy, so I figured out what they were using the little concordance in the back of the old Cambridge missionary Bibles. I wrote them all down longhand in a steno pad and then promptly memorized them. For some reason memorizing those particular scriptures was a great comfort to me.

So I had just been transferred into an area and I was asked to speak in sacrament meeting. It was to be a five-minute talk on faith; very pro forma stuff. I prepared the talk (using lots of scriptures), and then almost as an afterthought I decided I would just memorize the scriptures I wanted to use so I wouldn’t have to read them. It wasn’t hard to do.

I’ll describe the reaction to the talk in more detail in part 2, but suffice it so say the talk went over very well, beyond anything I could have imagined. And I was and am convinced it was largely because I didn’t read anything but maintained eye contact with the audience.

As a result of that experience, I almost always give my talks without reading anything, and if I have enough notice without using any speaking notes at all. And I have been very pleased with the results; to me it makes a huge difference in the quality of a talk. I see this as someone in the congregation as well. Whenever someone turns his eyes to the podium, it just deadens the talk. In contrast, our 1C in our SP is a very dynamic speaker, and he never reads anything, and his talks are always terrific.

There are a lot of things that go into good public speaking. But as a young missionary I just stumbled onto one thing that will probably give you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of making an immediate, noticeable improvement in your talks: don’t read anything. If you want to use scriprures, memorize them. Maintain eye contact with your audience. I’m confident you’ll notice the difference this makes in how people react to your talks.


  1. I don’t memorize anything, but I do put things in my own words and maintain eye contact.

    I usually write a very scant outline and try to look at it as little as possible.

  2. Great post, Kevin.

    It’s especially important for all these young folks who read BCC, since the time to memorize everything is now, before you reach middle age and memorization becomes much much more difficult.

  3. Aaron Brown says:

    I visited BCC today just as my daughter turned on Barney & Friends on the T.V. Needless to say, Barneypalooza isn’t quite what I initially feared it might be. Thank goodness.


  4. This also hoilds true with music. I directed the choir in one particularly talented ward. We were up to about 40 choir members, and I was looking for something familiar, but mildly out of place (better put – non-traditional) for an Easter closing. I landed on Sally DeFord’s arrangement of “I Stand All Amazed”.

    Now the song is lovely, and when you really think about the words, it’s a great Easter piece. However, the arranger set the beat in four, instead of it’s original three. Now that’ll wake some people up – beleive it or not.

    But the true inspiration came when I was late to church, but had BYU TV on in the bedroom. In the Seattle area, it was ending, right when church should be beginning, so I was about a 15-minute drive late. I caught the last comments, when the choir always turns to the audience and sings “God be with You Til We Meet Again”. For a brief flash, it was llike they were singing to me directly.

    That’s when it hit me – no music for the choir. Turn the dry old “I Stand All Amazed” into a personal testimony from each choir member to another in the congregation.

    Well, the choir thought differently. Too much work! “I already know the song; why should I learn it?” But I persisted and on Easter morning, I pulled the music from their folders.

    The eye-to-eye connection, even spirit-to-spirit, that was demonstrtated that day still keeps me hanging on to my faith. Despite all the troubles I’ve been through with various leaders and decisions, I keep coming back. Somehow, we DO and CAN communicate the deeper feelings and thoughts. We just need to get the paper out of the way and look in each other’s eyes.

    PS The SP happened to be sitting with his family that day, in our ward, watching what was going on. He bolted from his chair after the closing prayer and demanded that we reprise the whole setting at Stake Conference in three weeks. We did, and the same beautiful things happened. It’s truly remarkable.

    Thanks, Kevin for reminding me. Sometimes, I forget.

  5. Kevin Barney says:

    Matt W., that’s the idea exactly. Good on you.

    Mark B., good point about memorization (like language acquisition) being best done when young.

    AB, my poor family has had to suffer through decades of odd uses of the name “Barney” in popular culture. For my dad it was Barney Google. For me it was Barney Rubble. For my poor son it was Barney the dinosaur. I’m afraid he got the worst end of the deal.

    Kevin K., absolutely! Same principle applies. I appreciate learning about your experience; it sounds wonderful!

  6. That’s a great idea! I’m going to try that next time I have to speak. BTW, I have a testimony of Barney the Dinosaur. He speaks to my inner 4 year old.

  7. cahkaylahlee says:

    Agreed. I learned this going to BYU devotionals. Any talk where the speaker did not use the Teleprompter is automatically interesting and engaging.

  8. I had a smart mission president in the early eighties, who taught us to always have a 5-minute talk ready. That meant that the main points and the scriptures used were committed to memory.

    I have used that lesson in other venues besides Church, and it has worked. You give a more confident impression when you’re not reading from paper or fumbling through scriptures (or whatever it is that you are using).