Speaking Tip

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.

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  1. Steve Evans says:

    Awesome, Kev!

  2. Oh yeah! Practice the talk and time yourself – very good advice. My mom drilled that into me since primary, when my 2 and a half minute talks were… 2-1/2 minutes!

  3. Latter-day Guy says:

    Great advice! Though, for me, sometimes a miserably bad talk can be even more fun then a good one. Talks that are kinda like this.

  4. I always practise my talks and time myself. I also time myself to under the time they assign to me. If they give me 15 minutes, I time to 12 or 13. I never take up more time than alloted to me.

    Not sure where I picked this up, but I know I have been doing since at least my mission.

  5. LOL, L-dG.

  6. You know a great way to get people to pay attention to your talk? Say, “Now in closing, I just want to say” or “My final point is” or whatever. Whether or not you are actually close to being done is irrelevant; studies show that people will perk up and pay attention more if you signal that your talk is nearly finished.

    I learned that trick from one of my pastors, and I’ve seen them use it to get people to pay attention to the last half of their talk.

  7. I’ve found that faking a foreign accent will do wonders in terms of enticing a charitable response from the ward, especially if most of them still don’t know you by name.

  8. There are lots of good tips here:

    Letters to the Editor: Sacrament Meeting Talks

    and of course this classic parody on the subject…

    Guide to Giving a Sacrament Meeting Talk

  9. On my mission (Central America, 1972-74), one of my senior companions gave me a valuable insight. He always insisted at leaving an investigator’s house after 45 minutes, no matter how well the discussion was going. His rule: you want the people to be anxious to have you come back, not dreading it. Sometime after my mission, I realized the same rule applied to Sacrament talks (no, not to “limit” them to 45 minutes, but to stay within the time allotted). I’ve had Sacrament talks where I was the closing speaker and only had 3 to 5 minutes before the meeting was to wrap up, and I kept my talk to 3 to 5 minutes.

    My proudest recent accomplishment was our ward’s Christmas program. My sweet wife Sandra is the ward music director and had responsibility for it (musical numbers plus scriptural readings, which I ended up doing [the readings, that is]). I actually set up an Excel spreadsheet with the program outline and estimates as to how long each number and reading would take, then did some adjustments to fit within the time allotted. The program — which our bishop had fully expected to go over — actually ended a minute or two early. ..bruce..

  10. I was born a story teller. All of my talks are anecdotal. I might include a scripture or two, though I don’t think I’ve ever used a general authority quote. I like telling my own stories, which I manage to fit into the assigned theme. I would fail miserably if someone were to insist that I stick to the template talk–scripture, joke, GA quote, a few musings, another scripture, in the name of …

    And I love to hear Kevin talk–whether he’s before a podium or not.

  11. I think the best advice is to end on time no matter what. Even if you only have 1 minute to speak. After the scheduled end time of Sacrament everyone is anxious and no one is listening.

  12. In response to #6/Bridget – the key there is to only say that once…I’ve heard many a talk that says “in closing” {5 minutes of discourse} “to conclude” {5 minutes} “in summary” {5 more minutes} and I start to doubt the speaker’s integrity and sanity.

    Kevin – kudos to your bishop for actually calling you on the time, if only THAT happened more often!

  13. Martin Willey says:

    I learned the “practice in advance and time yourself” trick after noticing that my wife (who consistently does that) always gives better talks than I (who feel like I can prepare some notes and wing it).

    But the more important lesson I have treid to learn (successfully?), which Kevin’s experience also highlights, is that we have to prepare our talks, lessons, etc., with an eye single to God. If we are focusing on how smart we will appear and how interesting we are, imagining the postlude kudos we will receive, we are already way off track.

  14. Kevin Barney says:

    Margaret, the talk I gave Sunday was probably more personally anecdotal than any I’ve ever given before, and it went over great.

    It’s sort of a golden rule thing. I noticed that the parts of people’s talks I really listen to and care about are when they’re talking about their own experience living the gospel. So I figured if that’s the part that I really care about, that should be the focus of my own speaking. And it worked out great. Someone sitting near the front told me that she looked back at the congregation, and everyone was sitting in rapt attention–something she had never seen before. So I think you’ve got a pretty good formula, which I intend to make greater use of in the future.

  15. Great advice, Kevin.

    Margaret, I also tend to pick two or three quotes I really like and build the rest around personal thoughts and experiences. My own rule is that the lack of attention of the congregation is directly proportionate to how much you read someone else’s words.

    I spoke on charity in a student branch last this month, and someone said something interesting to me afterward:

    “Thanks for mixing it up.”

    I have to assume she was referring to the Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure reference (“Be excellent to each other.”) and the mention that I probably shouldn’t have said “killing a cat” in a sacrament meeting talk.

  16. Natalie B. says:

    Yeah, I agree that personal experience works better for the sacrament talk than quoting scripture or other talks. People are more interested in it, because it is new material, and I think that you also have more latititude when talking about your experience, because no one can argue with you about how you felt. If someone does a very good job of textual ananlysis, then I love hearing her insights. But most of us don’t have anything new to say about scripture verses.

    So on several occassions when I have been invited to speak, I have considered insisting on being the concluding speaker, because it bugs me that we seem to have a ritual going where a man always speaks last. However, every time I have concluded that no one actually listens to the last speaker, so I have never raised the issue! Going over time is definitely the worst mistake possible.

  17. I always say: “People listen longer when you talk shorter.”

    Go ahead and quote me on that.

  18. Some once said, (I cant’ remember who) that talks should be like a womans dress…short enough to catch everyones attention, but long enough to cover the essentials.

  19. I always get so frustrated when the bloggernacle gives how-to-give-a-sacrament-meeting-talk posts. Some of us are never actually invited to speak. After nine years I said something so I gave a talk 2 1/2 years ago. I wonder if it will be another 9 years.
    I get frustrated because it is not easy for me to give public speeches, but how am I supposed to get better and learn from my mistakes (like the OP) and feel more confident next time if I rarely get a chance to speak?
    I know, I know it goes against the unwritten rules to not dread it. LOL
    At least every year I get to help my three children give really excellent age appropriate and no whispering in their ears talks in primary. Today I prepared my 5 year olds talk with pictures so that she can give it herself. It’s fun.
    My daughter turns 12 in 7 months. She’ll probably give yearly Sac. Mtg talks while I must remain silent.
    Maybe they’ll ask my husband someday and he’ll want to call in sick and I can sub for him???

  20. Re. No. 14 (“…and everyone was sitting in rapt attention”)

    Wow. It must have been one heck of a talk. I’m guessing you must have been discussing worship of the goddess Asherah? THAT would have kept me awake!

  21. Natalie B. says:

    #19 – Now that you mention it, I haven’t been asked to give a talk in about five years. Part of this is a function of having moved wards a lot, but it does make me wonder how they choose who speaks. It must vary from ward to ward, but it seems like it would make sense to just go down a list.

  22. Elder Carmack gave a lesson on preparing talks to my mission. The thing I remember most about it is two words: Ho. Hum. The point is that people are perfectly prepared to fall asleep unless you give them a good reason not to.

  23. @19 – I’ll be at 12 years and counting this fall. Partly because in our area, new people speak when they move in, and we’ve probably average 20 new families a year for 12 years or so (and many ward splits). A bishop only has about 20 sacrament meetings to program a year (52 – 12 F&T – 5 general/stake/ward conf – 12 HC – 1 Easter – 1 Christmas – 1 primary = 20).

    Of course, I’ve taught a lot of classes in the last 12 years.

  24. #19- why don’t you ask your bishopric members if you can speak?? Or perhaps if that sounds too bold, ask if there is anything preventing you from being allowed the privilege of speaking. One of of our bishopric keeps a running list of the speaker, date they speak and even comments the person makes. When I was asked to speak last year, he remembered the last time I’d spoken and the topic.

    And if not in sacrament, offer yourself to your RS PRes, etc to be considered for a sub teacher,etc.

  25. Thomas Parkin says:

    I find I always have two competing motivations when I prepare a talk.

    First is my Walter Mitty motivation, where I’m the hero, well received. Even admired. Even adored.

    The second motivation, which I pray for, nay plea for, is the desire to find through revelation anything at all that might be of help to someone in the congregation. This is not easy, because I have an elephantine ego.

    If I can find that better motivation, however, I never fail to have the guidance of the Holy Spirit. If I can’t get past myself, however, I never have the Spirit, the ideas presented are only mine … and the congregation may just as well have attended any old church or no church at all as come listen to me – because I’m just some dude.

    I spoke this last Sunday, too. I had about 25 minutes, but could easily have spoken for an hour. I’ve become very very good at wigning it. ~

  26. How great would it have been to have both Kevin Barney and Thomas Parkin in the same sacrament meeting. There’s a double feature I’d pay to see.

  27. Floyd the Wonderdog says:

    We were trained as High Councilors to NEVER go over time. So I began timing my talks. I even highlighted portions that could be left out incase time was running short. These portions were also timed with the time saved noted in the margin, so that I would know exactly how much to leave out.

    Once I spoke in the Stake President’s ward and was only left 5 minutes. I gave my testimony on the subject and sat down. We ended on time. The Stake President was unhappy that the other two speakers had taken all the time. Who would have thought that a teenage boy would speak for 30 minutes? So now the HC speaker is the first speaker and we are limited to 20 minutes.

    I like giving personal experiences because the enthusiasm is evident in my voice and that catches people’s attention. I also can give copious amounts of eye contact at that time, which helps. I don’t tell jokes however after the deaf translator literally fell off his chair laughing at my joke. Now that was an attention getter.

  28. #18: OK, James, that’s the funniest (and best!) comment I’ve ever read about Church talks. Thanks for sharing that. ..bruce..

  29. Great advice! It seems most everybody agrees with the mentality that “less is more.” I have found this to be the case in all things, including sacrament meeting talks. The more you cut things out (in writing, speaking, or whatever) the more people suddenly become interested.

    Now, if only I could take my own advice…

    Thanks for the great post!

    P.S. For those of you who want more practice giving talks, PLEASE come and visit my branch in Romania. We have about 10 members, so I “get” to speak at least once a month. The last four times I have been asked right before sacrament meeting begins.

  30. You could always give your two-hour talk on the BCC Zeitcast and wow everyone with your intellectual prowess… :-)

  31. Michael says:

    One should always feel free to use Testimony Meeting as time to give talks they haven’t been asked to give. We’ve got a guy in my current ward who has taken a minumum of eight minutes per month for each of the past 24 months. Last year, we got 10 minutes on his nosebleed, and yesterday we got 12 on how fifty years ago, the doctor didn’t want his wife to get baptized because pregnant women couldn’t take baths because all that dirt in the water would give the baby an infection.

    We’ve got a big ward, so callings to speak don’t come around very often. It’s Elder’s Quorum where I get asked to give the lesson after the quorum business has taken place.

    The quote about a talk being like a dress is especially relevant to Mormons. We seem to think everything should be covered. And just to be safe, it should be covered with multiple layers.

  32. WillsWords says:

    Your post opens up a great opportunity to plug becoming a member of a Toastmasters club. Toastmasters gives you wonderful program for developing speaking skills. Sticking to. and preparing for a time limit is one of the fundamental principles of the Toastmaster, er, gospel.

    You can find your local club here: http://www.toastmasters.org/find/

    I’ve been a member of Toastmasters now for about three years and it is interesting to see parallels between the voluntary (but of course secular) organization of Toastmasters and that of the Church. We could probably learn some things about membership retention, speaking, and leadership meetings from TM.

    Too bad the Church just can’t acquire Toastmasters International, like a corporation acquires a smaller company. ;-)

  33. Kevin Barney says:

    WillsWords, great idea about Toastmasters. Thanks for the thought.

  34. I’d like to begin my talk with a quote by J. Golden Kimball..

    Oh, look! The bishopric’s suddenly awake!

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