Speaking Tips

In the early 90s I was a young associate attorney in the public finance department of a large Chicago law firm. There was a public conference that our group was involved in, and we had to provide one of the speakers at this conference, and the senior partners gave me that assignment. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t because they knew I would do a good job, as they had never heard me give a public speech. I suspect I got the assignment because none of them wanted to do it, and as low man on the totem pole declining was not really a live option for me. (Public finance does not involve giving orations in courtrooms, it mostly involves drafting hella-complicated documents.) So I gave the speech, in a large Chicago conference center with about 200 attorneys from across the City in attendance. I honestly have no recollection what the topic of my speech was, but I do clearly remember the reaction of my firm colleagues. And that was back slapping and high fives. They were thrilled at the result and told me what a great job I had done. I was grateful for the praise, but not surprised that I had done an adequate job with the speech. Little did my partners know I had an advantage; as a life-long Mormon I have given many public speeches to audiences exceeding 100 people. I estimate that since my mid-teens I have given on average one such public speech (or in our vernacular, “talk”) a year, which means at the time I probably had given something like 15 such speeches in my life. Now that I’m in my 60s, that number has probably increased to something like 50.  And public speaking is one of those things that can really only be improved by the doing of it. And giving public speeches is just not something that the average non-Mormon does, unless they join Toastmasters or something like that.

(I sometimes visit other churches, and the pastors I have encountered are uniformly terrific public speakers (far better than I am), which only makes sense, because in the course of a year they give as many sermons as I have in my entire life.)

I thought it might be useful to pull together some tips for public speaking in the church context that I have learned (sometimes by hard experience) over the years.

  1. Brainstorming 

Usually when you are given an assignment to speak you are also given a specific topic to address. My practice is to almost immediately start brainstorming ideas. I might jot these down on some scratch paper or just do it in my head. Are there scriptures I want to use?  Stories from my past I want to tell?  For historical topics, are there nuances the average member probably does not grasp?

The most recent talk I gave was a year ago September, with the assigned topic of Jackson County.  As I brainstormed ideas, I immediately thought of how the average Mormon knows the Saints got kicked out of Jackson County, but hardly any of them grasp why they got kicked out of Jackson County. So I made that the thrust of my talk, focusing on three areas. First was the concept of “gathering.” If a half-dozen families had moved there, it would not have been a problem. But large numbers moved there, which created a political risk for the locals. Second was concerns about the Indians living nearby in reservations just to the west. The Mormons wanted to make friends with the Indians, but the locals were scared to death of the Indians and wanted nothing to do with them. But the main source of conflict had to do with fears about slave rebellion This is information I learned at an MHA Conference, the gist of which is reflected in this blog post of mine: https://bycommonconsent.com/2016/10/08/jackson-county-and-the-specter-of-slave-rebellion/

Since this was a recorded talk, I never got any feedback on it, but I was pleased with it.

  1. Practice, Practice, Practice

I have the distinction of having given the absolute worst talk in the history of the Church. This is not a joke or exaggeration. You can confirm it with the Church History Department if you don’t believe me.

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 used to read a book to my kids titled The Bike Lesson. The Papa Bear is trying to teach the Boy Bear how to ride a bike, but he keeps messing up. So he saves the teachable moment by saying “Now let this be a lesson to you, this is what you must NOT do.” And all the negative lessons work and the boy bear learns to ride the bike.

So let this be a lesson to you, this is what you must NOT do.

Ice Breakers

I began my BYU college career in late August of 1976. My older sister dropped me off at Deseret Towers, and there I was, alone, not knowing any of the 25,000 students on campus. Back in those olden days students on campus met in student branches, not wards, with a branch president called from the community. So that first Sunday I went to a theater on campus where our branch was to meet. I trudged my way there not knowing a soul. And most of the kids were in my same situation, just there by themselves not knowing anyone else, and I still can feel how heavy the tension was in the air.

So the first speaker gets up, a kid from California. And he says “When President X asked me to speak, he told me it’s usually a good idea to start with a joke to loosen up the crowd. I told him I only knew two jokes, neither of which was appropriate for Church. So he said that reminded him of a funny joke he heard the other day. He told me the joke, and it was indeed hilarious. And now I know THREE jokes I can’t tell in church!”

There was a beat of silence. And then the entire auditorium melted into laughter. I glanced at the Branch President, and he was laughing harder than anyone, and he almost fell off his chair.

But what really made an impression on me was that the heavy sense of tension in the air was gone. Everyone was now at ease and relaxed and in a frame of mind that they could now listen to the talks and learn something. And that made quite an impression on me.

An icebreaker doesn’t have to be a joke; it could be a story. If you go this route, all I ask is that you tell a personal story, not a story you heard from a GA in conference.

My last two talks were prerecorded due to the pandemic, and so for my icebreaker I gave an introduction of myself for the benefit of new members who had not met me, something like this:

“Good morning brothers and sisters, for those of you who don’t know me my name is Kevin Barney. I was born in Logan, Utah, where my dad was pursuing a master’s degree at Utah State. Then we lived for a while in northern Colorado, where my dad got his doctorate. In 1965 my father got a job as a professor of education at Northern Illinois University, so we moved to DeKalb, which is an hour’s drive that way (point). At the time the Church in northern Illinois was very small; there was only one stake, the Wilmette Stake. We actually attended church in a small branch in Sycamore, just five miles from DeKalb. Although the branch was very small, we did have a building. It wasn’t a standard plan building like this one with a basketball court. It was an old Congregational church building, with stone walls and stained-glass windows. In retrospect it was an awesome building. And you know, I had a wonderful experience growing up in that branch, because we were like a family, we did everything together. I simply cannot imagine a better way to have grown up in the Church. Now, on to the talk….”

Sing a Song

A handful of times over the years I have sung a song as part of a talk. When I do this I just do it a cappella for simplicity. I only do this when the song has some historical significance. When I was in law school, my EQP was Michael Hicks, who of course was researching early Mormon music, and he was always coming up with cool stuff. He made a list of Joseph’s five favorite songs, and none of them was a hymn as you might expect; they were all sentimental ballads, often with a military setting. Two or three times over the years I have sung one of these songs over the pulpit, “The Soldier’s Tear.” I have a pretty decent bass voice (think Jim Nabors) and this is always a hit. Another song I sometimes sing over the pulpit is “The Stranger and His Friend,” which you know better as “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.” I like to sing it to its original, simpler tune known as Duane Street. Here is a post where I describe one of these talks:

Record Yourself

As I mentioned, my most recent two talks were prerecorded. In the past it never would have occurred to me to do a recording of me practicing a talk, but now I see clear value in it. You will be able to see tics and odd movements that you will want to clean up. Watching yourself giving the talk will give you confidence that you can present yourself well.

The Importance of Maintaining Eye Contact

In the early 70s AP young men were given church workbooks. 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 lowest 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! (After my mission I was walking in the Wilk and I heard BRM giving a talk in the Step Down Lounge, and I wondered why he wasn’t in the Marriot Center. I peeked in, and it was Mark making a speech. His voice sounded just like his father’s.)

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.

When the service ended I was mobbed by people I didn’t know, telling me about their neighbors or friends or relatives that they would like for me to teach. Several people who couldn’t get close enough to talk to me actually scribbled referrals on to scraps of paper and reached in and stuck them in my pocket(!) It was like girls trying to slip their phone numbers to Zac Ephron at the premier of HSM3 or something. That was as close as I’ll ever get to feeling like a missionary rock star. It was truly an amazing experience. I was and am convinced this reaction of the members 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 past 1C in our SP was 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 scriptures, 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.

Comments

  1. Good counsel Kevin! Oh, that our speakers would follow your example! Here are some additional thoughts: (1) Ensure all can hear you; (2) Listen to all who go before you in the meeting and begin by commenting on something that just happened in that meeting – a musical number, prior talk, prayer, etc. ; (3) Tell a story. Our brains love stories instead of lists. Instead of stringing together GC quotes and scriptures, illustrate their ideas with a story (not copied from GC); (4) A story is much easier to “memorize” and tell in a conversational way so you can maintain eye contact with the congregation – amen to Kevin’s shout-out for eye contact! Lack of eye contact means a snore-fest; (5) practice getting rid of ahs and ums. This may take years but will be worth it; (6) Speak on a subject you love. If you are not enthusiastic, your talk will tank. Ask the Bishopric if you can change topics to one that captivates you; (7) Nerves are natural. Remember that you have prepared and have something important to say. Focus on your message, not on yourself.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Excellent additions! I actually thought about mentioning ums and ahs. It’s natural to use those as fillers while your brain searches for the next words. Far better to train yourself to simply pause in those moments.

  3. bold of you to advocate for singing in a talk, I saw this many times in the ward I grew up in (in the Provo-Orem area), and never once was it not embarrassing

  4. This is wonderful, Kevin. Thanks for the fun anecdotes included.

  5. Great list. I’ll add 2 other suggestions:

    – Practice outloud in front of a mirror. Doing so will help with pacing, volume, tone, and eye contact.

    – Be yourself rather than trying to be formal. Audiences prefer real people. If you screw up in your talk, just about it. The audience will be on your side and it makes you more relatable.

  6. Not a Cougar says:

    No singing. Even if your name also happens to be Kevin Barney, please please, no singing.

    Also, I would caveat the memorization recommendation with the advice to have your notes available and in front of you if and when your brain locks up. There are few worse feelings than reaching for the next line in front of an audience and it not being there. Don’t ask how I know that.

  7. Care to share the three jokes?

  8. Bravo! It’s nice to have a practical post like this every once in a while.

  9. Gladys Knight pulled off singing in a women’s conference talk once. But she was Gladys Knight.

  10. As a bishop, I had to cue some speakers on a couple of occasions when they completely lost track of time. Just know that it is just as painful to have to cut someone off as it is to be cut off, because you know exactly how they will feel. But it has to be done, and you can’t avoid it. All in all, some great advice on how to give talks.

  11. eastofthemississippi says:

    As much as I dislike speaking in church… and I really dislike it… after 35 years I’m not too bad, using many of the tips already mentioned. It’s been a helpful skill to develop and when I do have an opportunity to speak outside of church people are genuinely surprised.

  12. A very insightful post. I enjoyed reading the author’s experience with the icebreaker. Those first few moments of a talk/sermon were often the only ones I could grasp as a child, and they do more than break ice –they create community. And community is something to rally behind.

    My mind wanders to Nephi, who said stuff about how he wished he’d been mighty when it came to writing.

    What if there are those among us who _are_ mighty in writing? What if they can write a talk really, really well. Better than they could ever adlib at the podium? Better than they could ever recite from memory? What if writing is their spiritual gift/talent.

    I’ve written some talks that have made a difference to people (including myself). I read them word for word because my mind empties, voice shakes, and palms sweat when I stand at a podium.

    The amount of men in my church experience who have stood up and said, “Don’t write your talks. Don’t read your talks,” makes me… frustrated. Because men are always the authorities in church. I, a woman and a professional writer, will never be in a position to say, “Yes, and I write every word of my talks down because that’s how God works through me.” Or “That’s great that you can memorize. I prefer to write a translation of verses/stories into everyday language and read that.”

    I’m envious of the author’s public speaking ability and comfort. It’d be nice to feel like a rockstar even just once at church. Even so, I wouldn’t trade the way my mind processes through written language for anything. Not that oratory skill and writing are some sort of binary…

    I agree there is ample room for improvement when it comes to the sermons we share with each other. I just wish there was more room in our community for celebrating that some of us are writers.

  13. By all means, yes, write out your talk word for word if that’s how your brain works best. No reason to stand up there making it harder than what it needs to be. I always wrote mine out and people thought I was a great speaker.
    The one time I didn’t, I went blank and my husband, who truly is a great speaker, told me to always write it out.

  14. seniorhalf says:

    I am currently serving as a senior missionary with my wife in a mission district. I will give talks in sacrament meetings at least twice a month but often more, sometimes with no notice (like yesterday) and sometimes with 24 hours’ notice, but more often a couple of weeks notice.
    After watching a certain Area Authority prepare talks while seated on the stand, I have tried to copy his method. He takes notes while the earlier speakers are speaking, then he talks about what they talked about. It really doesn’t work if you are the first speaker of course. But it is a great way to finish off a meeting, building on the foundation of the previous speakers. It is risky – but in small branches, if I stuff up only 20 people will witness it. But I have done it in a big branch of 100 or so, and it worked (I was second speaker). The last speaker stuck to his assigned topic and it had no relationship at all to what the first speaker and I spoke about, and so it broke the theme that the first speaker and I established. (We were not given any guidance at all for a topic).
    Like I said, it’s risky, but worth trying. Rely on your notes and the Spirit.

  15. I love the original “Duane Street.” I often think of John Taylor singing that version in the upper room of Carthage Jail, not the version we know today, which didn’t exist.

    It has an awesome shape note arrangement, also, and I love to lead it with a large shape note group. Hopefully that can start up again now that life seems to be getting back to something like normal, although if you were to design a super-spreader event, it might look like a shape note convention . . .

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