Breaking the fourth wall of conference

Amongst other things, General Conference is a sort of theatre, with specific conventions expected from the genre. The use of the teleprompters, the darkened background, the cadence, the structure of talks: we all know what we’re getting and very few conference talks depart from that formula. There are many reasons for those conventions – some are technical requirements, some grow out of our love for tradition, and some are an extension of our anti-liturgical fear of distraction in religious spaces.

(Are these conventions just the ethos of conference, or is there a written guide for those who speak or pray in conference? And if there is a written guide, when did President Packer write it?)

One of the most pronounced conventions of conference performance is the presence of the fourth wall. The speaker is standing in front of  thousands of people live, but besides laughter, there is no response from them. I imagine the houselights are low if not entirely out and the lighting needed for the broadcast make the audience invisible to the speaker. The use of the teleprompter gives a semplance of looking around the room, but the moments of intimacy come from the speaker’s interaction with the camera, not the live audience.

That’s why I was so struck with a little moment from the end of the Priesthood Session. President Monson had finished a strong, focused sermon on the need to see the potential in others rather than just the state they are in now, transitioning seamlessly to the need for missionary work. He said, ‘The responsibility is upon us, bretheren.’ And then he stopped, looked up and scanned the audience, and then held up his hands to indicate the people there, in the same room as him, and then he ended the talk.

It was a break from convention, a gesture that indicated a recognition of the audience that was there, not just in word (which is completely conventional) but in silent gesture. The silence is as unconventional as the gesture.

What I realized about President Monson is his desire to reach beyond the gulf between himself and his audience and indicate that yes, he is actually talking about them, as individuals, as people, not as abstractions. It reminded me of his blessing during the last conference, and his desire to show that he was really, literally blessing the people there (and which was so unconventional that he flubbed it and it got a nervous laugh from those present).

Some of you will accuse me of watching too carefully, of reading the tea leaves of conference, of making too much of too little. But this man is my prophet, and I have agreed to sustain him. I live nine time zones away from Salt Lake City. My only access to him is through conference and the church magazines, both of which are so steeped in convention and correlation that getting a sense of humanity is almost always impossible. That small moment of silence, as he looked at the faces that surrounded him and gestured to recognize that they are his ‘bretheren’ and they literally bear the mandate of which he spoke, well, that’s all I’ve got. And it was for me maybe the most touching moment of conference.


  1. I agree, it is theater. I didn’t attend the priesthood session but if you are reporting it accurately I take it as a positive attempt to connect more with the audience. The 50s corporate top down monologue needs to go. They should be mingling more with the members and occationally taking questions (even hard ones) as Jesus did from those in attendance.

  2. Howard, what you are suggesting is what generally does happen in Stake Conference and additional training meeting sessions. It’s actually what the Apostles are doing the rest of the year. GC featuring the Apostles giving monologues is an exception, not the rule.

  3. Norbert, I appreciate your observation and your interpretation of what President Monson did. I think you’ve called it just right, too. I’ve noticed more than once this tendency in President Monson to reach beyond the fourth wall and interact with his audience, to reach the one, to suggest (sometimes slyly and sometimes somberly) that he knows he speaks to a vast group of individuals.

  4. There have been several similar moments in Women’s conference. I am not at home now, so exact dates are not coming to mind. I will look them up when I am home. Ironically, I think those moments happen in Women’s Conference more than Priesthood Session, or at least the ones I have seen since they became available online. :-)

  5. I attended my first conference session live this past weekend and was surprised to see how much light there is during a session – except for right around the speaker. Up in the “nosebleeds”, there was enough light to comfortably read a book. I was surprised by this, as for prior conference sessions that I watched in chapels, the lights were generally all turned off.

  6. J. Stapley says:

    Nice thoughts, Norbert. Thanks.

  7. Good to hear David T, I haven’t encountered it yet with the brethern. But I was impressed to see a video of President Beck in ID taking questions and hugging members shortly before she was released. I hope this style will become the norm.

  8. I really really like this.

    I think that over the years – and maybe it’s accelerating – there has been an increasing amount of human feeling coming from the GAs, even at Conference. Maybe the old Harold B. Lee era instruction that leaders should look at their leaders exclusively and not at the members is wearing off. If so, that would be a good thing for everyone. On our end, there is likelihood that we will feel like we are being treated as abstractions more than as competent and human.

    More of the Brothers and less of the Brethren, please. I will go to the mat for a brother. I am less inclined to go to mat for someone who seems to be issuing commands from a star chamber.

  9. I concur with Dave K: there’s ample light to read comfortably. The effect is more drastic since the camera focuses on the light source at the speaker and creates more of a contrast. Up close there’s plenty of light to see the GAs sitting on the rostrum.

    I have two theories about this phenomenon:

    1) I think generally the speakers are getting more adept at dealing with a teleprompter. Rumor has it that EH [to borrow a convention from a previous post] is actually the most “on-script” and easiest for the translators to follow despite his animated delivery. This increased skill allows them the comfort to just communicate better within the confines of pre-prepared remarks.

    2) Either I’m more aware of it than I was, but there’s some benefit of the cumulative effect of these brothers being “out there” amongst an increasingly diverse church body more than at any other time in history. As the church becomes less homogenized and the brothers (and sisters) are able to spend more time with the “less-homogenized” parts of the church, that can’t but increase their insight and sensitivity.

    Just theories. Would love to pick their brains some time, though. :)

  10. What year did President Hinckley invite the brethren to remove their jackets? It was a great line, something like, “I don’t know of anything in the scriptures or handbooks that would forbid you from taking off your coats.”

    I think that was in conference or some big meeting of some sort. Unless I’m wrong. Anyway, I don’t think this convention is as strong as some might think, at least in the past decade or two.

  11. “Maybe the old Harold B. Lee era instruction that leaders should look at their leaders exclusively and not at the members is wearing off.”

    What is this statement referring to?

  12. Yankee Sojourner says:

    Many, many years ago when the Deseret Gymnasium was still standing and General conference was held in the old Tabernacle, I arrived early for a session of General Conference and found a seat near one of the aisles. Elder Boyd K. Packer was also early and took it upon himself to descend from the stand and walk up the aisle greeting, meeting and chatting with the Conference attendees. Having met him several years before in Boston, I was taken aback when he reached where I was seated, (however, I had already arisen on his approach), looked at me for a long moment and then
    extended his hand and greeted me. Still looking at me he said, “You look familiar, have we met before?” I responded,
    “Yes, Elder Packer, in Boston a number of years ago.” We then chatted for a few moments about the city, New England and the growth of the Church there before he continued on.
    I think that it would be wonderful if the General Authorities adopted that as a General Conference tradition before each session begins. It might help dispel the “ivory tower” distance we feel from the first councils of the Church leadership. Perhaps there are security reasons why the General Authorities no longer do this, but if there are none it would be refreshing, not to mention most memorable for those who have traveled far, for the Authorites to make this a new and permanent Conference tradition.

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