Tuesday, July 18, 2006

How To Speak In Church

I frequently fantasize during church about standing in sacrament meeting and giving a talk about giving talks in church. Eric touched on this subject a few months ago.

A couple of Sundays ago after some consecutive bad speakers, I stole a sheet of paper from Crystal and made a point-by-point outline of some of the concepts that I would include in such a talk. Tonight I've knocked out eight items on a to-do list in front of me, and digitizing this sheet of paper is the last item on the list.

I'm putting the list to good use. I strongly believe that the Spirit you feel in a meeting is equally dependent on presentation as it is on content. I frequently tune out talks because they're being presented poorly. My mind can't help it; if a message's medium isn't working (in this case the speaker), then my brain has better things to think about, which it promptly gets to work doing. I'm assuming that any message you present in church will be of some importance, so why would you want me to ignore it?

Please, church speakers of the world, take the following tips in the spirit in which they're given. I want to hear and understand your message, and I want you and your audience to feel good about the way you present it. I'm not being mean, I just want what's best for everyone.

  1. Don't tell a "When The Bishop Called" story. I've never heard a good one, and I bet you haven't either. We know that you were called, we know that you had a feeling not to pick up the phone, we know that you didn't know what to talk about, we know that you're nervous, and we know that playfully threatening the bishop is fun. It's all been done. Write your own material.
  2. Slow down, look at your audience, look at your text as needed. I don't get a thing out of a breathless, page-long talk that you delivered in thirty seconds. I'm too dizzy! PRACTICE....SLOWING....DOWN. Especially if you know you're going to be nervous, and especially if you're a fast talker anyway. And it's completely ok to read a sentence from your notes, look at the audience, deliver that sentence thoughtfully, and then look back at your notes for the next sentence. At least this way I get to process the information, and you might look thoughtful.
  3. Don't apologize for your material. Present your message unabashedly, and if a story you want to use is told every six weeks or so in sacrament meeting, show a little respect for your audience and take a few minutes to say it another way. If you must use something that's overused, don't apologize, just present it better than usual and move on.
  4. Favor stories from your own life over stories from other sources. J. Golden Kimball was really cool, but I'd rather hear a story about you. You are a real, live person who I know (or could know) personally, and J. Golden and most of his ilk are dead. Telling your own story will allow you to build a relationship with your audience, let you give more detail, and help you avoid telling the same old story again (See rule #3).
  5. Use quotations in context. It's pretty tricky to misquote King Benjamin, but it's a lot easier, and a lot more common to quote him out of context.
  6. Vary your volume. It's ok to be quiet, and it's ok to be loud, as long as you do both appropriately.
  7. Bring or memorize a small amount of backup material. General Authorities frequently tout "Speaking by the Spirit." This is not making things up as you go. It's knowing your material and a little more so well that if you feel that a certain part of your talk needs to be dropped, you can do so and you'll have other material ready to fill the gap.
  8. When you use a quotation, pretend you're the person it came from and speak accordingly. When I quote Brigham Young, I stand up straight, look up a little, and speak in a booming voice. Brigham Young wasn't just a bunch of words, he was a large, visionary, opinionated man who was also a prophet of God. Don't short change him and others who provide your talk with meat.
  9. Quote, then explain. This is really important when you quote anyone who died before 1950 or so. Old English is hard, and your audience need help with what Paul just said in his epistle. Don't let them down.
  10. Don't be afraid to stray from your text a little. Decide that you'll say what the Spirit tells you to, even if it isn't written down. Don't rob your audience of what the Spirit just told you to say.
  11. If you find you're off topic, take a moment to find an appropriate place in your text to continue.
  12. Never apologize for silence or weeping. These are powerful, and apologizing trivializes them. If you wish, you may explain the silence or weeping. An explanation can magnify the strength because it helps the audience understand you.
  13. If your talk is instructional, have a few copies of your text or notes ready to give away.
  14. If you need a moment to gather your thoughts, thank your audience for their patience and don't apologize.
  15. Have a clear goal of what you want the audience to learn, think, or do from your talk. Make sure that this goal stays the same when you're writing the talk, and when you're delivering it.
  16. It's a good idea to memorize your talk, as this allows you to be more flexible. This takes lots of practice, and if you don't have time to practice giving it from memory 10 or more times, still practice it, but plan on using notes.
  17. If you're an expert on your topic, you might try standing and speaking without a written talk or notes. This is a skill that grows with practice, and atrophies quickly.
  18. It's ok to address the audience, and individuals in the audience, briefly.
  19. Create a summary sentence that you will deliver at the end of your talk. It should state your goal for the audience. This will let the audience set their own goals, and it will give your talk a sense of purpose.
That's my list. I'm also really fond of the rule of opening with a joke or a lie, and I usually follow it. I like to use a lie that's so outrageous that it's immediately recognized as a joke. Also, one of my mission presidents told us to always close testifying. I like to lock the testifying into the theme of my talk, but I've seen the shotgun approach work as well.


Jake said...

I ripped the photo from LightPlanet.com, because they had the only recognizable LDS sacrament meeting photo that Google Images would cough up.

I now half expect my bishop to stumble upon my blog and ask me to speak, at which point, I may actually have the only entertaining "When The Bishop Called" story in existence.

Gary said...

I noticed how you say, "don't apologize" so many times. I would add that an apology means you made a mistake. It is not an excuse.

JoyousJulia said...

This is a great topic. Thanks for posting it Jake. I really like the part about acting like the person who you're quoting. It's amazing how much umph you can give to even the shortest of texts by really giving thought and consideration to who said them and why they said them. Don't be afraid to study the person as well as the principle.

Nathan said...

Amen and amen! Although I would make two, no, three edits to your list.

One: This often collocates with 'When the Bishop Called': Do not begin by telling me that your talk is going to suck. Don't tell me how late the Bishop called, or how busy you were until last light, or how awful your last talk was. Don't even hint it. Your talk is probably no worse than the High Councilor's was. (If your talk really is going to suck, bear a real testimony and sit right back down.)

Second: Use the microphone correctly. That means it should be in front of your mouth, pointed into your mouth, and surprisingly near your mouth. If you couldn't take a bite out of the mic without moving your feet or losing your balance, repent.

Third: Advice about quotes applies to the scriptures too. Moses, Matthew, and Moroni were people who had something to say. So say it like a person talking! Do not use the monotone voice we learned in Primary when 'reverent' just meant 'quiet' and we couldn't read very well anyway. If you do, don't apologize. Re-read the passage in a real voice and move on.

Jake said...

I agree, Nathan, those are excellent additions to the list.

In line with you're first point: Your talk in sacrament meeting is not the place to air your complaints. If the bishop called late, you should have told him so already and that you don't appreciate it directly on the phone or face-to-face. Your bishop needs to know, but this is the wrong time to tell him.

Amen about the microphone. I have nothing to add to that one.

I guess I should have been more clear on the quotations rule. By all means, use your imagination and pretend you're Moses, Pharaoh, Ruth, Mary Magdalene, or even Sidney Rigdon. I don't know the mannerisms of any of these folks, but I can imagine, and just trying will be better than nothing.

And about Jesus; probably an easy, serene manner would be appropriate in his case, unless you're quoting him fresh from thrashing the marketplace at the Temple.

Finally, Nathan, I tried to view your profile, but Blogger threw up this link:


...Which claims to be forbidden. Please leave a link to your own blog here so that I can get to know you a little.

Nathan said...

My blog is very, very meh. I mostly use it as a repository for links, and even there I've drifted into inactivity lately. If I were smart, I'd be posting my irregular emails-to-family-and-friends thereon; but I'm not that kind of smart. Anyway, it is at http://flat-earth.blogspot.com/ for your perusal.

A fourth correction, to your item #9. 'Old English' refers to the language that bit the dust in 1066 with the Norman Conquest. The terms you want are 'Early Modern English' and 'archaic English', for the KJV and texts that imitate its style respectively. Other old-fashioned ways of talking can be called 'nineteenth-century English'. Or you could just say 'old-fashioned ways of talking', I guess.