Think back into the deep recesses of your memory. When was the last time that you heard a talk in sacrament meeting that you considered amazing? Can you remember it? If you can, think back before that for another amazing talk. Now you are in trouble.
Let’s be honest with ourselves. Sacrament meetings are usually boring and difficult to sit through. I know that Spencer W. Kimball said that he never sat through a boring sacrament meeting. Often times, we use that quote to show that it is never the speaker’s fault that the meeting was mind-numbingly boring.
But it is the speaker’s fault. Mormons are not very good at public speaking. We have picked up tons of bad habits over the years, and now instead of giving thrilling, interesting talks, most of us give dull, boring talks and then just expect the audience to get something out of them.
That shouldn’t be the case! We should be excellent public speakers. I work at BYU-Idaho as a public speaking tutor, and sitting through sacrament meeting is painful. I always want to get up and help the poor speakers give good speeches. They have fine ideas, but the execution is terrible.
Here are four ways that Mormons are bad at talks, and ways that you can fix them, so that your talks can turn into amazing pieces of rhetoric.
1. Terrible Introductions
Every talk starts the same: “Hello my name is ____ and today I was called to talk about _____”. What a bland, boring introduction! Nobody wants to listen to that. It has no excitement, no energy, no enthusiasm. Your talk sounds perfunctory, like you are only giving it because you have to, not because you feel passionate about the subject. Even if that is true, you still need to sound excited to keep your audience’s attention.
And this sort of intro is unnecessary. Your name is on the program, the bishop announced who the speakers are by name. You are in a ward where people probably know you. The only justifiable reason for stating your name at the beginning of a talk is if you just moved into the ward the day before and the bishop forgot to announce your talk and the program maker did not write it in, so you are giving a secret talk. Ok, introduce yourself.
But for heaven’s sake don’t tell us your topic like that! Think of it like a news article. You never read articles that start like this: “I am writing about a hurricane. Today a hurricane hit Mexico…” That feels awkward and forced. So do not do it.
INSTEAD: Start your talk with some energy. Introduce with a cool story, a good quote, a personal experience. No jokes. Make that your first thing. Literally say nothing else when you get up, just start with your attention-getting device, whatever your chose from above. Then you can give a brief overview of where the talk is going. But do it in a natural way. Instead of saying: “So that is why I am speaking about patience” you can say: “This story demonstrates Jesus Christ’s patience, a characteristic that we can emulate in our everyday lives…” Your audience gets what you are talking about.
2. Quote talks
Look, Mormons love their general authorities. It makes sense. We are taught from a very young age that they speak directly for God. So you might as well use some quotes from them right? How can you get better than quotes from God himself? In fact, you might as well just make 80% of your talk quotes from general authorities. Quote them, tell the stories that they tell, tell stories from their life, etc.
The problem is that your audience already knows most of those quotes. Guess what, when you think its profound to quote President Uchtdorf’s “Doubt your doubts before you doubt your faith”, none of your audience does. They know these stories and snappy catch phrases. When you spend your whole talk quoting general authorities it is frustrating for the ward members. We have already heard those talks! We want to hear your thoughts. So use quotes, but use them sparingly. If you have a story you want to tell from the life of a general authority, paraphrase it. Don’t read anything directly unless it is a quote where you have to get the wording right for it to work. Otherwise, give us your own thoughts. That is unique, and its something we want to hear.
3. Too much biographical information.
Ok, you are a special snowflake in a world of special snowflakes. You have interesting life experiences that you would love to share with everybody. That is why Facebook is such a big deal. But is a talk really the time to fill people in on your biography?
We’ve all heard those talks where the first third is an extended life story: This is where I grew up, this is how I met my husband, this is why we moved here, this is why I went to college… on and on it goes, adding nothing useful to the talk and boring the audience. Now here is a hard truth, so I’m just gonna say it: People don’t care about your life. If you are a Mormon, your life was most likely pretty normal compared to everybody else in your ward. Your experiences are not very unique.
Even if you do have a lot of cool life experiences, share them sparingly.
Think of it like a movie, Star Wars for example. Boba Fett was super cool in the original trilogy because we only got to know a bit about his life, it gave us mystery and excitement to learn more about him. But then the prequels came along and filled in all of his back story. And it was lame. Now Boba Fett is ruined, because we saw him as a stupid little kid with a bad haircut. We learned too much about him. Be original trilogy Boba Fett. When you tell people only the necessary information that directly applies to your talk then you make yourself interesting, you leave your audience wanting more. Use your stories to support the material of the talk, not as a time filler.
And please, for the love of all that is holy, do not share how the bishop called you for the talk or how your studied for it. Nobody wants to hear that.
4. Terrible conclusions
The most important part of your talk is the intro and conclusion. The intro gets people interesting, the conclusion is what people remember. Whatever you say in the end will be what the audience walks away from the talk with. They will go home with that on their minds. You could give the King Follett Discourse Mk.2 and ruin everything with your conclusion.
Here is what a good conclusion does.
- Re-states the central ideas
- Reviews what you talked about
- Issues a compelling call to action
- Has an awesome power line at the end (also known as a “Mic Drop”)
Your talk should end like a Mic Drop. Powerful and interesting. Guess what that means? You have to be really careful with your testimony. For some reason Mormons decided that every talk had to end with a testimony. I do not know why. Fast and testimony meeting is for that. Talks are not. Anyways, your audience can probably assume that you believe in Jesus at least a bit after listening to your awesome talk.
So do not give a five-minute rambling testimony. Especially because most testimonies end up veering far from the subject of the talk itself. Instead, do the four things above. Once you’ve done that, you can end with “In the name of Jesus Christ amen.” But your audience should not need to hear that little phrase at the end to know that the talk is over. When you formulate your talk effectively, they will feel that the talk is over, and get a sense of completeness. They will walk away from your talk feeling satisfied and exited.
Go forth my little Mormons. Give amazing talks!