Teaching No Greater Call: Public Speaking Boot Camp

I recently had the opportunity to attend a “public speaking boot camp” at a conference I attended for work.  The trainer was Christine K. Jahnke, a professional speech coach and author of the Well-Spoken Woman. (It’s endorsed by Gloria Steinem!)

I learned skills that would be useful not only for professional work, but also for giving talks in Church.  The fact that virtually all Mormons have opportunities to speak in Church is one of my favorite aspects of Mormon worship; the downside is that not every member who speaks has public speaking skills.  At times, the presentation can distract from the message. So how can we lay clergy sound like pros?

Writing Your Talk

  • If anyone else could pick up your talk and read it instead of you, it is less interesting. Put yourself in it. Tell personal stories.
  • Begin with a one-sentence topic statement that makes it perfectly clear what you will speak about.  This advice sounded alarm bells in my mind, so I asked about a personal pet peeve, beginning a talk with the sentence, “My talk is about fill-in-the-blank.” (This is probably the #2 most common intro to a Mormon talk, right after, “I hate talking in church, but So-and-so asked me to speak.”) She said that was okay!  So fine, go ahead, start your talk that way!  (But I still don’t like it.)  She also said that if you prefer a more elegant introduction, you could use a grabber.  
  • Of course, this led to my follow-up question, “What’s a grabber?” Grabbers draw the audience in. Grabbers might be questions, quotes (use caution here—Mormon talks tend to go overboard with quoting), personal experiences (remember that first bullet?), specific examples, clichés (e.g., go the extra mile), colorful words (e.g., devastating), well-crafted one liners (think Neil A. Maxwell), or a variety of other things. (I recommend reading the book for more.)
  • Start with your conclusion and repeat the conclusion at the end. Don’t start with a lot of background, and wait until the end to finally make your point. Your conclusion should be your final thought—a repeat of your final thought, because you should have brought it up long before this point. End with a grabber; a good technique is to circle back to your initial grabber.
  • Offer a heads-up signal when you will close the talk.  It is okay to use clichés like, “in conclusion” or “to wrap things up.” (Clichés got a much better rep at public speaking boot camp than I ever would have expected.)
  • Avoid information overload; if you tell them everything, they will remember nothing, or maybe  the least important thing. The message is more clear if there is less of it. Never have more than 3 or 4 things to say maximum.
  • So how do you fill your ten-minute time slot if you are saying less stuff? Repeat yourself. Repetition motivates and clarifies. That doesn’t mean you have to sound like you’re saying the same thing the whole time. Say it with a scripture, say it with a story, say it with a quote, etc. (Although, simply saying, “Let me repeat that…” and repeating one key point can be a good strategy.)


  • Ms. Jahnke recommends one hour of preparation time for every minute you will speak.  This means that you’ll need about 10 hours to prepare for a typical 10-minute Sacrament Meeting talk.  (Bishoprics everywhere, please take note and offer appropriate advance notice.) This preparation time includes writing, practicing, timing yourself, and watching your rehearsal video.
  • That’s right.  I just said video.  She strongly recommends videotaping yourself practicing the talk.  If you have a smart phone, this isn’t hard to do. At least, the physical act of making the video isn’t hard.  Ms. Jahnke noted that women, in particular, are very self-critical and tend to get bogged down in fretting about how their hair looks on screen.  But at boot camp, some brave volunteers allowed themselves to be videotaped and the results spoke for themselves.  It really does help to see and hear yourself from the audience point of view.

Ready, Set…

  • Format notes so you can easily see them without looking down and squinting. Use big font. The example she showed us was 28 point font. Print only on the top half of the page; leave the bottom half of the paper blank so you don’t have to tuck your head in to see what’s down there. Underline words that need emphasis.  You can even add notes reminding you to pause or smile.  Number the pages; you will drop them.
  • Plan for contingencies. What if a baby starts screaming during your talk?  What if you are the last speaker and you need to expand or contract your talk for time?  (According to our polling, most of our female readers won’t have this problem because we will never be asked to speak last due to the quaint—and sexist—tradition of male-only concluding speakers.)
  • Don’t let yourself stand in your own way! Arrive early and well-rehearsed.
  • No negative self-talk! Lots of Mormons do their negative self-talk publicly, while their Sacrament Meeting talks are already in progress! “I am so nervous.  I hate giving talks.  I’m not a good speaker…”  Don’t do that!  Please! (Especially if you really must start your talk with, “My talk is about fill-in-the-blank.” At least spare us the microphone-enhanced negative self-talk, okay?)
  • Replace negative self-talk by silently reminding yourself of your step-by-step plan, using positive language (e.g., “First, I will tell that funny airplane story, then I will share that lovely scripture…”)
  • Subtle movements can help you avoid tensing up while you wait your turn on the stand. Drop your arms, shift your body weight from leg to leg, turn your ankle, cross and uncross your legs, take a deep breath.

Effective Delivery

  • Shoot for a conversational style that does not sound rehearsed (but yes, do rehearse).
  • A good pace is about 140 words/minute. Time yourself!
  • Pitch should have variety. Do not drone on at one note.
  • Pauses give audiences a chance to take in the meaning of your words. Replace vocal fillers like um, like, you know, etc. with pauses.
  • Avoid repetitive patterns (repeated movements, vocal fillers).  Videotaping is a great way to catch these.
  • If you look bored, why would we care?
  • Don’t rest your belly against the podium. Don’t clutch the podium; touch it lightly like a piano. Stand with one foot in front of the other.  This prevents side-to-side rocking.
  • Hand gestures are good, but don’t point at anyone specifically and avoid shaky, jerking gestures. Keep gestures in front of the body, not too big.
  • For natural-looking eye contact, think of the chapel as four quadrants. Turn to a quadrant and look at someone. Stay there until you finish a thought or a sentence. Don’t look down at notes until after you’ve finished that thought. Then look at a different person in a different quadrant. It’s possible if you have familiarized yourself well with the content through writing and practice and if you have well-formatted notes. This process also helps fast talkers speak more slowly. Your key target is directly ahead above the head of the person sitting in back. Look that way when you are sharing your biggest ideas and want to appear to look at everyone. (Ironically, at this point you are looking at no one.)


Public speaking boot camp gave me great ideas for work and church. I can’t wait to read the book!

April Young Bennett

April Young Bennett is the author of the Ask a Suffragist book series and host of the Religious Feminism Podcast. Learn more about April at aprilyoungb.com.

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6 Responses

  1. spunky says:

    I love this in so many ways, April! Thank you!

    I love that this post and others are reminding us to rehearse the talk. I think I’ve become lazy and not done that– but it is necessary for timing, confidence and everything else. I love the grabbers and everything you’ve included. This is being bookmarked by me so I can use it not only for talks, but for conferences in the workplace. Thank you so much!!

    P.S. “First, I will tell that funny airplane story, then I will share that lovely scripture…”) Oh my– is it weird that I totally envisioned Uchdorf when i read this???

    • I thought of President Uchtdorf to when I wrote that! I recall one talk when he told a non-airplane story, and concluded with, “And now you are asking yourselves, what does this have to do with airplanes?” So funny!

      However, another reason I used the airplane example was because, since all the attendees at boot camp had flown in from other states, during our actual practice sessions several people told stories about happenings from their recent flights. I heard a lot of airplane stories!

  2. Dave Maller says:

    Here’s a very inexpensive and very profitable suggestion for anyone who MAY be called upon to speak in public. JOIN A LOCAL TOASTMASTERS CLUB. All of the things discussed in this article and a lot more you will learn and practice at Toastmasters. It will help you become a more proficient communicator.

  3. Ziff says:

    These are great! I particularly like the first one about putting yourself in the talk. One of my favorite functions of talks is social: they help everyone else get to know the speaker. I love it when speakers share interesting stuff about themselves. I’ve also found it’s a useful way to get to know other people who share your interests. I once mentioned offhandedly in a talk that my wife and I liked to play board games, and I discovered that there were lots of other people in our ward at the time who did too, and we ended up getting together with some of them to play.

  4. Liz says:

    I think you’ve probably convinced me to rehearse, and maybe even videotape it. Strangely, I’ve always resisted both, but I think you make a very persuasive case that it will make me more confident (rather than it being arrogant to do… why on earth have I always thought videotaping yourself to catch mental/physical tics arrogant? sheesh). Thank you!

    • I have watched myself on video many times, mainly because I quite regularly do TV interviews, not because I have always followed the most effective rehearsal strategies. During one interview on a Spanish TV station, I noted that after each sentence, a certain unflattering facial expression flashed across my face–denoting my stress and relief to be through another answer in my second language. Definitely good information to improve my performance in future, and I never would have known without watching myself on tape.

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