Church-Hacker #3: Speaker Upgrade

This week’s Church-Hacker idea comes from BCC reader Gdub:

This is something that a former bishop of mine did, which greatly improved the quality of speakers in our ward.

Speakers would be called far in advance, and given instructions on how to prepare and deliver sacrament meeting talks. They would receive these instructions, along with a letter, in the mail. Although some rules were given, it was mostly full of counsel from church leaders in magazines and conferences on how to speak by the spirit. These instructions also urged the speaker not to simply use a previous talk from a general authority and merely parrot large quotes.

As for the speaking topic, usually the choice was left up to the speaker. However, on some occasions, topics were also given, but these were generally not some trite phrase like “keeping the commandments.” They were generally outlined in the letter in terms of the bishopric’s concern, or what their motivation was in the assignment.

Similar idea I was going to post: send prospective speakers a link to a good TED talk, so they can see the power of a good, prepared, rehearsed speaker.

Leave a comment on any of this stuff below. Got your own Church-Hacker idea? Submit it! (the church-hacking guidelines are here). See all entries in this series here.


  1. A number of years ago I was serving as bishop and the follow in the office next to me at work was, too. (Interesting coincidence since we were working at a Fortune 10 company in the midwest at the time.) So we’d share ideas from time to time.

    He did a similar thing in his ward full of university types (students and faculty) — sending a letter well in advance with topic, guidelines and so on.

    We tried to adapt that concept in our ward, too (a typical suburban ward with a fair bit of diversity across the economic spectrum). We tried to give speakers ample time (at least two weeks, preferably more), and to provide them resource material. But we did propose a subject.

    What we did not do is ask people to speak about a conference talk. We often did give a talk as resource material, but encouraged the speaker to consider prayerfully how (and if) to use it.

    Some speakers prepared very well (most, actually), but some didn’t. For those, I don’t think any coaching our counsel would have done much good. But those who succeeded were well prepared, and well practiced. Often their talks were downright terrific.

  2. We had a bishop that did this, but you were assigned 6 months in advance, and the topics were heavy doctrinal things. Made for very boring Sac Mtg, IMHO. Way too researched, stressed–with that much time, it felt like it had to be a dissertation!

  3. ps–we were very happy to move out of that ward.

  4. We lived in an amazing ward in MI that also did this. It was a blend of what Kyle and Paul have explained. I would only add that we were asked to pray and live our topic to the best of our ability and the result were some very powerful personal experiences and testimonies shared. Usually there was some good hearted joking as people revealed what their “talk topic” was. We had anywhere from 3 months up to give the talk, if you said you weren’t ready yet, they’d give you a little more time. I may sound over the top, but I looked forward to Sacrament meeting all week and wanted to sit as close to the front with my 6 kids so we could see what would be revealed! I honestly yearn for those talks even now, three years after I have moved out of that ward.

  5. Steve_G says:

    Having just finished my first month in a Bishopric assigning talks, I have been thinking about something similar. I’ve asked some people who find public speaking to be very challenging to give talks. While so far they have done well, I have been thinking what more I could do to help them prepare. A letter such as this may be helpful.

    Matching topics to speakers is also a challenge. I’ve considered asking people with more advance notice (3-4 weeks) and then asking them to submit their own topic after a week of thought and prayer. That way the topic still gets prior approval and hymns can be tailored to the topic.

  6. That sounds really cool. I could use any pointers on preparing a sacrament talk. I’d love to know what advice they offered.

  7. ErinAnn says:

    anita – That is some serious over-planning!

    I would love this. My ward is generally pretty good, but it would be great to see some public speaking instruction for our youth. There used to be speech competitions in the church. While I’m sure that wouldn’t be too popular nowadays, having an annual acitivity on how to *really* prepare a talk/speech would be very beneficial.

    I totally tune out when large chunks of other peoples work is quoted.

  8. We did something very similar in one ward in which I lived – with the added instruction that the talk was to focus on how the topic related to Christ, becoming like Christ and/or the first principles and ordinances of the Gospel. We tried to give at least two weeks notice but not more than a month. That seemed to be the ideal amount of time for most people.

    Sacrament Meeting isn’t supposed to be an extra Sunday School or an early PH/RS meeting. It’s supposed to be a worship service, so the talks ALL were about things that we felt had a direct relationship to worship and weren’t going to be discussed explicitly in the other meetings. (no food storage, Home or Visiting Teaching, tithing, Word of Wisdom, etc.) Since the highest form of worship involves not only praise but also emulation, we tried to tie everything we assigned into that basic framework.

  9. Steve_G says:

    Orson Scott Card’s article: Help Preserve the Lousy Talk Tradition, should be required reading.

  10. Eric Russell says:
  11. When I was ward clerk, our bishopric spent considerable time in council at the end of each year, prayerfully determining the subject for every Sacrament Meeting of the upcoming year. The topics were simple—for example, “mothers,” on Mother’s Day; “the Aaronic Priesthood” around May 15; etc.—but it made things so much easier for them. On very rare occasions, the speakers would step on each others’ proverbial feet a bit, but having all three speak on the same topic was really quite spiritual.

  12. I’m not converted to the everybody-speak on the same topic meme.

    Strong ideas, Kyle.

  13. I’m one of those freaks who actually enjoys speaking in church. It would be so wonderful to be able to choose my own subject sometime (even with a requirement for bishopric approval). Talks could be more personal, more worshipful, and less “we all looked on and came up with the same talks to quote from today.”

    Suggestions on how to prepare might help some people. Even better, I think, would be a conscious effort by bishoprics to call on a solid roster of good speakers for a few weeks in a row, even if it meant some people spoke more often, to set a pattern of good talks. I think more of us mimic what we see, whether speaking or teaching, and if it comes down to following a written list of tips OR doing the same “I looked up faith in the dictionary, and Webster says…” schtick they’ve seen so many times, nervous speakers are almost certain to opt for sticking with the pattern.

  14. andrew h says:

    Great ideas all around.

    Unfortunately I have seen the opposite trend in the last couple of wards I have been in.

    I just moved from a ward in Northern Utah and the last two Bishops we had, as well as the Bishops in the area that I was aware of, (don’t know if ths was a stake or regional inspired idea or just a popular local trend) instead of assigning topics, ideas, or themes, would assign articles from the most recent Ensign to talk about.

    Basically what we got most of the time was reading of large chunks of the article, if not the whole thing, with little else besides. Very Dull and uninspiring, and yes, and I know what President Kimball said about dull meetings.

  15. In my last ward, in California, the bishopric would send a follow-up email to the speaker after inviting him/her to speak in Sacrament Meeting. The email would describe the gospel principle they were requesting you to speak on, and the aspects of it that they were hoping you’d focus on. A General Conference talk would only be mentioned in the email as a study resource that you could use in your preparation.

    When I last spoke there, I asked the bishopric to forward me a copy of the email that went to the other person who’d be speaking the same day as I was, so that I could see what they’d asked her to talk about. Then I talked to her on the phone so that we could coordinate our talks, and not overlap each other or be repetitive.

  16. andrew h, I’m in Indiana, and that’s what my last bishop tended to do. Our current bishop—who was first counselor to the former bishop—continued the trend for a while, but only it only lasted a few months.

  17. Chris Gordon says:

    I LOVE this idea and am forwarding a link to our bishopric. For those who find it a bit too daring, I definitely think Paul’s observation that no amount of counsel and coaching would have mattered is spot on.

    We’ve tried to incorporate something slightly similar in our elders quorum. It’s obviously different in that the lesson is set, but what we’ve tried to do is keep our teachers in the loop as much as possible via email, conversation, and a quarterly “quorum council” meeting as to what our concerns are generally or even specifically when appropriate with the quorum. We’ve had good results and I would LOVE to see this incorporated on a ward level.

  18. Benjamin says:

    For the past couple of years, our bishopric has compiled a list of topics at the beginning of the year and selected topics from the list.

    The list currently comprises of the lessons from Gospel Principles (in reverse order, so as to avoid duplicating talks and lessons on the same day), the New Testament seminary scripture masteries, the parables used by Christ in the New Testament, and the most recent Conference talks.

    On a typical week we have three talks, each drawn from a different category. The only really bad talks are the ones based on Conference talks. The talks on the parables and scripture masteries are hit or miss, depending on the speaker. But when someone takes two verses and makes a theme, they are usually more interesting than the Conference regurgitations.

  19. Jacob M says:

    I think part of the issue is, though, that there are some people whose speaking style is dry and dull. We see this sometimes in General Conference, too. I think about when Elder Joseph B Wirthlin would speak, and his voice was rather monotone, to where I could easily see someone bored to tears, but then I’d read the talk, and I’d be amazed at how great the talk actually was. The lesson learned for me was that I needed to be less concerned with style than with content.

  20. Our old bishop had a habit of assigning everyone the same topic for the entire month. So we would hear the same quotes AT LEAST once each week, and sometimes twice within the same meeting. At least once we heard the same quote 6 times during a month.

  21. Steve_G says:

    I’ve also been in wards where they had one theme for the entire month. 2 or 3 speakers on the same topic is enough, by the end of the month we were thoroughly sick of the topic.

    On the other end of the spectrum, I’ve seen Bishoprics try to micromanage topics. All speakers were given the same topic for the month, but within the topic there was a separate subtopic for each speaker. I think there is a danger of managing the spirit out of the talks, when confining the topic too much. I’ve been trying to keep the topics fairly broad for that reason.

    Also, I have seen bishoprics who have made it too formulaic. They would assign topics on “The Presidents of the Church” and successively assign a new one until they were through all of them. Also, it felt odd to devote a talk to a prophet, almost deifying them in a meeting where we were supposed to be worshiping Christ.

    *** When I say Bishoprics I actually mean just the 2 counselors, all of the Bishops I have worked with in the past few years have delegated this task completely to their counselors. I wonder if this is a common trend or a local one.

  22. “The lesson learned for me was that I needed to be less concerned with style than with content.”

    …or that you aren’t consuming Wirthlin content in the optimal format. I think a good chunk of conference talks are more appropriate for reading than for hearing.

  23. Chris Gordon says:

    Anecdote RE: Elder Wirthlin: I understand that part of his challenge was that his vision was so bad in his later years that it was a struggle to cope with the teleprompter. I had the chance to hear him speak off the cuff a few years before he passed away and the difference in style was night and day. Off the cuff he was dynamic, charming, and funny.

  24. Jacob M says:

    I didn’t mean for what I said to be an attack on Elder Wirthlin’s style of speaking. Towards the end of his ministry I began to love him dearly, including anytime that he got up to speak. I meant to use him as an example of how we can give Apostles the benefit of the doubt when it comes to speaking style, and that we should do the same when it comes to our fellow ward members. I also think that frequently speakers feel that they are out of their element, which often results in some of the nervous quirks that can be quite annoying in some instances.

    I do like the idea of some pointers sent to the people who are going to speak, though. In the pointers, I would suggest that they don’t talk about being given the talk unless it is directly pertinent to the theme of the talk. I would also tell them that if they are going to write the talk to write it in LARGE PRINT. I remember when I was a youth that I had written a talk in the regular 12 font, and because I didn’t want to wear my glasses in front of the congregation, I couldn’t read it at all. I lifted it high enough for me to read it, but when I spoke, my hands got the shakes, so the paper was flapping next to the microphone. Good times.

  25. If I were sent a sheaf of papers bearing instructions, resource materials, and examples, I would probably not read it. And I am a reader. I don’t think any Church publication besides the scriptures should exceed one two-sided copy.

    Getting a packet like that would also, very likely, be overwhelming for the members of the congregation not at ease at the pulpit. It sets expectations too high.

    As a teacher, I do feel strongly that assignments should be extended in written form with, at most, several scriptures on the topic given for guidance. Obviously, not the same scriptures to all the speakers (for a month!). Bishoprics that choose one topic for a month (every bishopric I have witnessed in the past 8 years), are plain lazy. What on earth does the last speaker on the last Sunday have to add to everyone else’s thoughts on “obedience”?

    I would also LOVE to see people encouraged, expressly and by example, to quote mostly from scriptures (but not that much), speak rather than read, practice their talks, time their talks, prepare to edit their talks if needed, and to illustrate the principles they are discussing from their own lives. To give a talk no one else would give. And to include Christ.

    Is that so much to ask for?

  26. #21 Steve, I think your experience is common — bishop assigns one or both counselors to handle talk assignments. In wards we’ve lived in sometimes bishop chose the topics and let counselors assign speakers, sometimes bishop assigned the whole thing to a counselor (or both).

    I especially liked one bishop’s approach. He would bring a list of suggested topics to bishopric meeting and we’d discuss, and then assign one of his counselors to invite people to speak.

    This is a place where the bishop has a real chance to have direct influence over the ward, and I’m glad when he is personally involved.

  27. “To give a talk no one else would give. And to include Christ.”

    I think ESO nailed it. That could be the rubric for all talks, lessons, firesides, home-teaching lessons…

  28. I’d be happy to serve as your bishop.

  29. May I respectfully submit this instructional video?

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