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.