Teaching No Greater Call: Connecting from Behind the Pulpit
Guest Post by Kalliope
Kalliope is a former college instructor in both written and oral communications courses. She earned an MA in Linguistics from BYU and recently began a PhD program at University of London. She has two naughty kitties that fill her days with glares and snuggles.
I have a confession to make: I am an unabashed note taker. I have journals and notebooks filled to the brim with scribbles, arrows, diagrams, and cursive loopings cramped along margins. I take notes on everything because the act of writing things down helps me to learn and remember. It should come as no surprise, then, that I not only note-take during General Conference, but also during standard Sunday meetings.
Sometimes I fail miserably because I cannot keep my mind to my task however hard I try. Part of this is certainly my own issue, as I may allow myself to get distracted by uncomfortable room temperatures (I’m looking at you, chapel), stomach grumbles (hello Fast Sunday), or other issues. But I taught at a college for a few years; in fact, I taught public speaking, so the shoe has been on the other foot as well. Many times have I stared into the unblinking void that is an audience whose focus I have lost, and so many times have I sought to regain the attention of a wide variety of (mostly) night-class students, tired after a full day of work and then subjected to a long evening of sitting through my Gen-Ed courses, required for the completion of their degrees. Poor souls. But having been on both sides, I’m here to say that there’s a lot we can do to make our Sacrament meetings an easier, more educational, and more spiritual experience.
As I have also taught writing courses, I can’t help but notice that public speaking newbies go about preparing their first speeches in the same manner as they write their papers: a main idea, fleshed out with supporting facts and figures. This is fine for paper writing, but makes for a dry speech that may be difficult to follow. See, we don’t process information we hear in the same we that we process information we read, and so talks need to be presented and even structured differently, so they can be more easily processed by our audience: the congregation.
How? I was rather hoping you would ask. Here are some tips:
We’ve all been invited to speak publically throughout our tenures in the Church, whether it be in primary, or upon our baptism. We speak all the time! We do it at baptisms, when giving spiritual thoughts or missionary moments, bearing testimonies, sacrament & conference talks, etc. So why aren’t we better at it?
First, let’s talk about structure. We all know that we need a strong opener. Most talks begin with a joke, quote, dictionary definition (could we move away from this, please?), an apology (I’ll get into this later), or a joking lamentation on how we tried to avoid the guy handing out talks. Jokes can be a hard sell because church, and sacrament meeting in particular, is a somewhat formal setting. Quotes and stories are good because they give people something to hang on to and remember – audiences are great at remembering things that influence their emotions and stories are great for that. Now about the dictionary definitions. This is a great place to start research and even in a minor way to develop your talk: but the dictionary is not scripture, and need not be quoted as such
Other things that are not easily digestible? Numbers. When speakers start rattling off numbers, whether they be statistics or Bible references, I get a bit lost. I’m great at processing numbers when I see them, but when I hear them, they may as well be meaningless. It’s not just me. It’s how humans process information. Numbers, especially large or complicated numbers, can be difficult for us to wrap our heads around. So do yourself and your congregation a favor – keep it simple.
Also, don’t use too many scripture references in a row, but instead invite listeners to get exact references from you later. Sure, we cite exact references in papers that we write for school. But that is a different medium. The method isn’t as successful with a room full of listeners. In my experience, at least, references are spoken very quickly so I lack the time to either write it down or look it up myself, so I just end up flustered.
So what is successful? Let’s think about it. Think about the best talk you’ve ever heard. What do you remember from it? Heck, what do you remember from any of the talks you’ve heard? Do you remember exact scripture references and statistics? Probably not. Most of us remember stories that made us feel certain ways, stories that we could connect to personally. So let that be a lesson to us. Stories are an effective means of illustrating points and conveying information.
And not just any stories. I don’t remember impersonal stories told 4th or 5th hand about whatever. I remember stories about the speaker’s actual grandparents or spouse or children. I connect when the speaker dares to connect, as well. Please don’t tell me a story you looked up on the internet. Tell me something true about your own life and your experiences with your assigned topic. Connect to your material, so that I can connect to your message.
Keep your organization simple and don’t try to pack too much into your talk. Ten minutes flies by a lot faster than you think it will. Give yourself time to fully develop one or two main ideas only, rather than hitting quickly on a slew of ideas. Depth of discussion will have a deeper impact than breadth.
I think my last point should go without saying, but in my experience, it still needs to be said. Please remember that you’re standing in front of a remarkably diverse group of people. Your ward family is a beautiful amalgamation of people of varying genders, ages, martial statuses, sexual orientations & identities, education levels, political affiliations, racial & ethnic identities, and more, all in different places in their spiritual journeys. So remember to try to be inclusive of God’s diverse children. Don’t address only a portion of your audience to the exclusion of the rest. God’s words are for all of us.
Now let’s talk about delivery. My Rule #1 is to never, ever read a talk. Have you ever thought about why we read to children to help put them to sleep? Our voices become modulated when we read. The sounds we make while reading are very different from those we make while speaking. Our tones become almost soothing compared to the sharp and exciting moderations that occur during more natural speech. Another serious issue with reading a talk is that having a talk written out gives us a crutch, a safety net. And speaking in front of people is a very stressful activity for most people. So what do we do? Dive face first into our safety net and we don’t come up for air until it’s over.
But here’s the issue: you can’t connect with your audience if you’re not looking at them. Speeches, talks… they’re a 2-way form of communication and if you’re looking down, you’re cutting off half the process. So do yourself and your congregation a favor – pick up your head and talk TO them instead of AT them. Eye contact is crucial to the successful communication of ideas. If a speaker looks down too much, they appear to lack confidence. But when a speaker takes care to really look at us, it is easier to connect with their words. The same is true as a speaker – if you’re looking at your audience, connecting with them, they will connect back with you.
Referring back to confidence, I have a pet peeve I’m going to share. I do not like it when a speaker, whether in church, a lecture, or elsewhere, gets up and apologizes for not preparing. The speaker is telling me that listening to them will be a waste of my time because they didn’t respect MY time enough to prepare. Perhaps that’s not the case, but that’s what a lot of audience members are hearing. “Oh, you don’t have anything prepared? Facebook time!” Don’t start a talk or a lesson by apologizing. It’s sending the message that your words won’t have value. An audience looks for confidence in a speaker so that we may have confidence in their words. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot before you get started.
What you SHOULD do is practice. Out loud. Practicing and rehearsing out loud will help you gain control of your ideas and the flow of your talk in a way that rehearsing in your head cannot. Practice. Use notes, of course, but only make notes for items you will really NEED. If you fill index cards with tiny scribbles in an attempt to get as much information as you can onto a cue card, it won’t be very helpful because you won’t be able to find what you’re looking for in those crucial moments when you’re looking for a prompt. Rehearse and then trust yourself.
It’s hard, though. It’s a scary thing to get up in front of people, and scarier still to get up in front of people and tell the truth about our pains and fears. It’s hard to tell a room full of people that we’ve struggled. That we’ve had dark days and bleak nights. It’s hard to say, “I don’t know, but I’m working on it. I’m trying.” But we have to. We have to reach out our hands in honesty so that others may be invited to reach back. This is the gospel – becoming one in Christ. Finding Him in each other and in ourselves. It takes so much bravery, but we can do it together. The talks we give are not just assignments; they are opportunities to reach out. Next time it’s your turn, take it.