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Friday, August 20, 2010

Giving Talks in Church -- For Mormons and More

Since Mormons have no professional clergy, members take turns giving talks (sermons) in Church. Our lay leaders generally assign us all a topic. Usually it is the same topic for all the talks that day. 


The talks are given in sacrament meeting which is our main worship service on Sunday. It is usually the first or the last of our three hour block of Sunday meetings.


I suspect other religions train their clergy to give sermons. I wish our Church would train people to give talks. Or, I wish people would pay more attention to the training and guidance we do have.


Not to worry, I'll tell you everything you need to know, or at least enough to get by. . .


BYU Campus Education Week: Preparing powerful sacrament meeting messages by David Mortimer, Church News, August 19, 2010.



The first is a news article covering a talk given at BYU's Education Week by Elain Witt, a public speaking professor. The second is a satirical piece by Jana Riess - a nice summary of how NOT to give a talk. The last is from an official Church publication.

I think you should read the Church News article first, the satirical piece second and the Ensign article third. I have my reasons for recommending them in this order.

1. In order to BEGIN to do anything you need to focus your topic. Often, local lay leaders give you an overwhelmingly broad topic like "Prayer," "Faith," "Our Heritage" or "Temple Marriage." Nobody can fashion a talk with a topic this broad. Witt encourages people to focus their own topic. I prefer to pull this out of my church leaders. That way I can't be accused of preaching my own beliefs.

They must have some overriding reason why they want you to speak. For example, if they will admit that people aren't saying their personal prayers enough or making prayer an important part of their lives this gives you clues. It tells you that they want people to be MOTIVATED or INSPIRED to pray. Chances are you do not need to spend much time on INFORMING people how to pray.

Witt says, "most mission statements revolve around inspiring, motivating or informing listeners." Once you know these basic things you can focus your talk better.

2. Avoid clichés, other common phrases or repetitive statements. They fill up and waste time, nothing more, like the following:

- Don't tell us where you were and what you were doing when you got the call.
- Don't tell us how scared you are.
- Don't tell us you are grateful for the opportunity to speak.
- Don't tell us you feel unworthy to speak.
- Don't define your topic with a dictionary reference.
- Don't tell us you forgot to prepare.
- Don't waste time fiddling with your resources like looking up scriptures.

Riess' satirical piece tells you how to give a talk using ONLY these mechanisms. Avoid them like the plague. They are the mark of a BAD talk.

3. You need to make certain you have relied on the Spirit, used quotes and scriptures effectively and personalized the concepts you are trying to teach by using your own stories. The Ensign article does a nice job of summing up.

Okay, what happens if you have three days or less to prepare? My advice is refuse to give a talk. That is not enough time for anyone to prepare a good talk. It's only enough time to prepare a bad one. Two weeks is a minimum  time limit. If you are a church leader and you habitually give people little time to prepare, then SHAME ON YOU! You are setting them up for failure and that isn't fair. Their bad talk will be charged to you instead of them. Well, that's my opinion anyway.

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