This past Sunday I gave a talk in sacrament meeting. As I prepared for the talk, I reflected on some of the hardest won wisdom about speaking in church I have ever acquired. So I thought I would share this little tip with others in the hope that you will be spared the embarrassment I experienced.
I had just returned home to Illinois from my mission to Colorado. This would have been late in 1979. I was invited to speak in sacrament meeting–I was to be the final speaker. I don’t recall specifically how much time I was given, but I assume it was 20 minutes or so. This was to be my first experience being the final speaker in a sacrament meeting. My assigned topic was “Marriage.” (Real subtle, there, bishopric!)
Now, when I left for my mission I thought I knew everything there was to know about the church. Being out in the field and talking to actual, skeptical non-LDS with actual, you know, questions made me realize that in fact I didn’t know anything about the church. So I resolved to learn, and in fact I did learn a great deal as a missionary. When I came home I was pretty full of myself again and thought I knew everything again, only to be humbled by a variety of experiences, including college, and this humbling would finally take. Now I realize that I don’t know very much at all.
Anyway, I was still kind of a cocky kid fresh off my mission. And I was going to show my old family ward how much I had learned and just how smart I was now. So I prepared this unified field theory talk examining what all four standard works had to say on the subject of marriage. Oooo, this was going to be good, I thought. This will blow people away! Little Kevin isn’t just a little kid anymore.
So the appointed day comes, my turn to speak arrives, and I stand up at the podium. And I begin my masterful discourse. I’m still in the Garden of Eden talking about Adam and Eve, when I feel a tug on my pants leg. It was the bishop. I had gone over my time (probably speaking for about a half hour), and I needed to wrap it up and sit down.
I quickly realized that I wasn’t even a fourth of the way through the material I had prepared. If I had gone through the whole thing, it would have been at least a two-hour talk! I had had no idea how long the talk was going to be, and I had never practiced it nor timed myself.
Well, since I had gone through so little of my planned outline, there really wasn’t a very good or coherent way to tie all the threads together, which I hadn’t even introduced yet. So I just mumbled a closing as best I could, and sat down.
I was absolutely mortified with embarrassment. This talk was supposed to be a triumph, to let my old ward family know that I wasn’t just a little kid anymore, I was one of the big boys now and could give a big boy talk in sacrament. But I had totally muffed it. Of course, most people were polite, but one old man, a longtime friend of the family, who was not known for sugarcoating the truth, basically told me in so many words how much that talk sucked. I didn’t appreciate hearing it at the time, but I knew in my heart of hearts how right he was, and that it was my own fault.
That horrible experience was actually the best thing that ever happened to me as far as speaking in church goes. Because now I always prepare my talks and practice them. I time myself so I know pretty well how long the talk is going to take. And if I’m the final speaker, I have little modules that I can either remove or insert to make the talk shorter or longer, depending on how much time the previous speakers have used.
I received a very positive response for my talk this past Sunday. I was very happy with it. And a large part of the reason I have become a pretty good public speaker in the church context is that Sunday shortly after my mission when I flamed out so spectacularly that I resolved never to let that happen again.
That bit of wisdom was so very hard won that I share it with you in the hopes that you can be spared a similar experience.