Five Tips for Talks

photo by LHK

I imagine I’m preaching to the choir here. But if I were giving 5 tips on how to give a good sacrament meeting talk this is what I’d say…

1. No matter what the topic is, make it about Christ. This goes for talks about “getting the most out of Stake Conference” or Mother’s Day or tithing or the hazards of body piercings. Find some way to pull that surface topic back to the root of why we gather in the first place. This is the one meeting that is supposed to be His, so let’s keep it that way.

2. Use fresh vocabulary. Folks will get more exposure to some words than any person should have to hear in a lifetime. I make a point of not using them in talks I give just as a breather, a little vacay from the common lingo. Words I am not likely to use include: strive, duty, obey, righteousness, wickedness, evil, perfect, punish, condemn, special, indeed, and even. It’s not that I don’t believe in or understand the theological import and power of the obvious ones; I just prefer more original language.

Be smart about this, though. For example, to me it was TMI to learn that one fellow in the ward accomplished his post-mission objective of marrying a “hot babe with a bombshell testimony”.

3. Use Good Sources

A: Always include scriptures. When you are familiar enough with the scriptures to use them to support your points, you earn a lot of pulpit cred. Whenever possible and appropriate I try to work in scriptures involving a woman or women. Our scriptural sisters generally don’t get a lot of air time, so I do what I can to represent.

B: Use examples from other sources to support your points, too. Sometimes unusual sources get attention where the standard oeuvre won’t. I’d like to hear a talk with the wisdom of Mick Jagger:

You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes you might find
You get what you need
Oh yeah, hey hey hey, oh…

4. Be personal. People are much more likely to listen if you share examples and stories from your own life, especially ones that demonstrate your own vulnerability or struggles. But please, no travelogues and no embarrassing tales at the expense of your spouse or kids (or at least get permission from them before hand.) Believe what you’re saying. Avoid pontificating. Too much religious talk on broad topics puts people to sleep.

5. Take time to prepare well. Why are we so often plagued with dull talks read by droning adults? Because the talks are often pulled together on the fly. We can talk up the benefits of not having paid clergy to kingdom come, but if you grew up on good sermons like I did as a Protestant kid, there’s a stark difference. Address the topic (with the underlying focus on Christ. See #1.) If you work best from a written text, read it out loud beforehand. This will give you a better sense of how long it really is (shorter is generally better). You will also learn how to pace yourself so the important points don’t get lost in the shuffle. It will remind you to make eye contact, breathe, know where the tricky parts are, and to enunciate.

Okay, so maybe I packed more than 5 tips in there. What would your tips be?

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16 Responses

  1. Kevin Barney says:

    These are great tips; I agree with you.

    I like to start with a little joke. I realize that’s controversial, and not everyone buys into that (including Elder Oaks), but I find it works for me. Obvoiusly it has to be clean, ideally related at least tangentially to the subject, and if to work it has to be at someone’s expense, I just make it selfdeprecating.

    When I use scriptures, I memorize them so that I can maintain eye contact with the audience. I try really hard to avoid reading anything at all. When someone starts reading, I tune out, so I figure people are going to do the same if I start reading something. Better to paraphrase in your own words than to deaden your talk by reading a text.

    And I totally agree with your be personal advice. I notice that I always perk up when someone tells a personal story illustrating a point. People will remember the story long after they’ve forgotten your brilliant doctrinal exposition.

    Another tip when you practice is to time yourself. Don’t go over your alloted time. And if you’re the last speaker, you have to be flexible, because you won’t know until you stand up there just how much time you have. I like to have little modules that I can either insert or remove so that I can vary the length of the talk and still keep it coherent.

  2. Aimee says:

    Great advice–particularly the emphasis on personalizing your talk. A good personal story that really gets to the point of your topic has a better chance of sticking with me than a recitation of someone else’s experience. Plus, it’s always interesting to hear the differing ways people view and experience the same concept.

  3. Caroline says:

    I love your first point, Linda, about getting Jesus in there as often as possible. That’s my number one goal whenever I write a talk. And it usually works so beautifully for me, because Christ had so many wonderful interactions with women. Like you, I am determined to use as many woman-centered scriptures as I possibly can.

  4. James says:

    Great suggestions. If anyone ever compliments me on a talk, I often reply with canned response: “Thanks, hope it was worth the price of admission.”

    Led me to an odd (and maybe a bit crass) but interesting thought exercise – let’s call tithing the price of admission. With the help of my little black box, I estimate my ward has collectively paid over $400 in tithing funds for the “privilege” of hearing me speak. That’s a conservative estimate.

    I try to prepare well for talks, but I’ve rarely if ever produced a “$400 talk.” Guess I have to do better in the future.

  5. EmilyCC says:

    Great advice, Linda!

    Maybe other wards don’t have a problem with this, and I suspect this is an issue of not taking the time for preparation, but I think it’s smart to use to look up short quotes (no longer than 5 lines–tops) from talks you found memorable when you heard them rather than going to, typing in the given subject and then, cutting and pasting several GA’s talks into something you will read over the pulpit. Sigh…

  6. Jim Donaldson says:

    Don’t talk about giving the talk, just give it. The telephone call or hallway conversation with the bishopric member who assigned it is not an introduction to the subject.

    Talk about the gospel, not the church. There is plenty of time in Priesthood and Relief Society to talk about the church.

    If you are assigned a conference talk as your subject, do not read huge chunks of the assigned talk as part of your talk. Pick the sentence or two from the talk that is most interesting to you and use that idea as the starting point, not the ending point. Take the idea further or apply it in different contexts.

    When the babies start crying and the kids get noisy, you’ve lost the congregation. Move on. Parents manage to keep their children quiet when there is something interesting they want to hear. Instant feedback. Harsh, but true. No babies ever cry during talks about polygamy.

    There are about 10,000 interesting things to be said about the gospel, but we keep repeating the same 200 over and over; 100 of which we should repeat as much as we do, but the other 100 should take their turn with the 9,900 remaining. Try to say at least one thing that nobody has heard before. It is actually easier to do than you think if you sent out to do so.

    Talks which are either far shorter or far longer than assigned scream that the speaker did not have sufficient respect for the congregation or other speakers to actually prepare a talk (at all or) the assigned length. Either write them out or work from an outline and time yourself, as others have said.

    When using the scriptures (and you should), don’t cherry pick the single proof text (i.e.. “scripture mastery”) verse. Put the scriptural passage in context. Tell the surrounding story. At least half the meaning of any scripture passage is contained in its context. This is particularly true of the parables of Jesus, where the adjacent parables nearly always contribute to the meaning of the one you are talking about.

    Personal (true) stories are best, as others have said. If you don’t have one that fits, try to find a scriptural or literary one that works. Relevant narratives are usually the most memorable things about the talk.

  7. jan says:

    My advice is for the listeners: take a good book to church with you. That way, all talks are good.

  8. Lashley says:

    Thank you Linda.
    I agree with your tips, great summary.

    I often weave some lines from Rilke into my talks. I highly recommend Rilke’s Book of Hours: Love Poems to God.

    If i had my way, I’d want the following tip to be read over the pulpit in every meetinghouse in the world:

    Please do not begin your talk by telling us how you avoided the Bishopric and they finally caught you and assigned you a talk which you’ve been dreading all week, how you didn’t have time to prepare, or how bad your talk is going to be because you suck at giving talks so we “just have to bear with you”….

    When I hear this, I stop listening, and pull out my book. Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic The Sabbath is far more interesting than a lame/ill-prepared talk.

    I like James’ idea about “price of admission” and the thought of precious tithes paying for the talks. It should inspire more thoughtful preparation.

  9. EM says:

    Great article. And I also loved what Lashley had to say as well. Last Sunday was painful; the last speaker’s talk was read from the Ensign word for word. We really do need to have a class on “How to give talks in Church”. People who think they can publicly speak – can’t. One thing that really bugs me is when the High Council speaker gets up and tells the congregation that he “brings greetings from the Stake President and that he loves you” Puh-lease, the SP doesn’t even know me, let alone ever spoken to me! I find that women give better talks than men. Most men I’ve tried to listen to, tend to pontificate – at which point I turn off after a big eye roll.

  10. annegb says:

    I would add “don’t tell me how happy the gospel has made you” while sobbing and looking really really sad. Smile, shout his praise. Get a little evangelical. Lift my heart; don’t make me feel worse about myself. DON’T BRAG!!

  11. Peter LLC says:

    Better to paraphrase in your own words than to deaden your talk by reading a text.

    In my experience it doesn’t seem like the problem is too much preparation and slavish devotion to the written word (excepting long quotations from the Ensign as others have noted). Instead, the problem is too little preparation and not enough text to reign in the free association and natural speech impediments. Paraphrasing in your own words usually entails lots of umming and ahhing, reverting to platitudes and wandering off the reservation with the talk typically consisting of a couple of notes joted down between breakfast and sacrament meeting.

  12. Lauri says:

    PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE stick to the time limit. I heard a member of the Seventy say that when the time is over, the Spirit leaves. I believe that. I am constantly frustrated when people go over time for Sacrament Meeting to end. It’s also really nerve wracking to be the middle or last speaker and the first speaker takes the whole time. Basically, all you can do then is bear your testimony and sit down.

  13. Chris says:

    Excellent post and comments. I especially love the first point, that every talk needs to include a reference on the Savior. I feel empty when I leave Church and nothing has been said about Him, when He has not been worshipping or reverenced (except for the Sacrament and prayers.) Hopefully, we will remember that Sacrament meeting should be more than giving people a to-do list but should center around our Creator, His mercy, kindness, omnipotence, and infinite love.

  14. JtG says:

    No matter what, time your talk before you actually give it! Once, a very nice sister stood up, shared her talk evasion story, and said, “I don’t know how I’m going to fill up 10 minutes.” She then spent 20 minutes reading a talk filled with long quotes, had no discernable point or thread of points, and injected 10 minutes of commentary into the talk. I was starting to hope the Bishop would do us the favor of telling her that she had far, far exceeded her alloted time! Her random, side remarks were actually very interesting. If only she’d limited her talk to those it would have fit the time nicely!

    That said, when preparing a talk, ask, “What do I want people to take away from this talk?” What do you want them to learn, do, or feel as a result of the talk? If what you’re saying doesn’t contribute to your objective, then take it out of the talk.

  15. Kirsten says:

    I hate when talks begin, “I looked up (insert gospel term here) in the Bible dictionary and it says…”
    I like your list of words to avoid, Linda. My kids kept tally marks one Sunday of many of those. The one they always laugh when people say it is “even” as in “he felt the Comforter, even the Holy Ghost”

    When my husband give a talk, he likes to connect two things that seem to have no connection at first glance. He’s used baseball, the US Space Program among other things in connection with gospel principles. It makes them more memorable and can cause you to think about things in a different way…

  1. January 26, 2016

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