Deeply affecting the listeners is one of the first characteristics of successful speaking. Although an audience may not remember what you said, they will never forget the feeling you created, the spirit present when you delivered your message. And whether you are giving an inspirational talk in Sunday School or making a speech in some other setting, there are certain principles of speechmaking that nearly always apply.
Talks that “stir souls” and motivate listeners generally have five things in common. They (1) gain the attention of the audience immediately, (2) include a variety of stories, experiences, and interesting facts, (3) have a goal, (4) are prepared and delivered with the influence of the Spirit, and (5) reach a conclusion.
Getting their attention
The first step in making an introduction is to understand the audience. For example, in The Man Nobody Knows, Bruce Barton gives a fictional account of Paul’s meeting with the men at Mars Hill who were worshipping at the monument to the unknown god. (See Acts 17:22, 23.)
These were the clever men of Athens—the joke makers and fashion setters of the time. They had hundreds of religions, and believed in many gods, and felt no need for any more of either. A missionary would not find them a particularly welcoming group, and Paul realized this. What approach should he take? He could have begun with: “Good morning, gentlemen. I have something new in the way of religion which I’d like to explain, if you’ll just give me a minute of your time.” A boisterous laugh would have ended his talk. A new religion—what did they care about that?
But Paul understood the way this crowd thought. He said in essence, “Men of Athens, as I passed up your main street I noticed that you not only have altars erected to all the usual gods and goddesses; you even have one dedicated to the Unknown God. Let me tell you an interesting coincidence, gentlemen. This God whom you worship without knowing his name is the very God whom I represent.” (Bruce Barton, “The Man Nobody Knows,” Grosset and Dunlap: N.Y., 1924, pp. 102–3.)
The crowd was eager to hear more. Paul had captured their attention and could now proceed with his message. He understood that to give an effective introduction you should first know a little about your audience—their interests, beliefs, ages, etc.—and then choose an opening that will be both interesting and appropriate.
Keeping their attention
After attracting the attention of the audience, it is necessary to maintain it, usually through a well-planned use of stories, illustrations, facts, and thoughts. The greatest teacher who ever lived changed the lives of those about him, not by preaching generalities and abstractions, but rather, by the use of a simple story of parable.
“Jesus … sat by the sea side.
“And great multitudes were gathered together unto him, so that he went into a ship, and sat; and the whole multitude stood on the shore.
“And he spake many things unto them in parables …
“… and without a parable spake he not unto them.” (Matt. 13:1–3, 34.)
As he spoke, the fishermen, the farmers, their wives and daughters and sons gathered to listen.
“A sower went forth to sow,” he began. “And when he sowed, some seeds fell by the way side, and the fowls came and devoured them up.” (Matt. 13:3, 4.)
He was talking about something they could understand! Nearly every one of them had gone through that experience—the thievish crows had spoiled many a good day’s work. “‘So this Teacher knew something about the troubles they had to contend with, did He?’ they thought as they listened. ‘Let’s listen to what he has to say.’” (Barton, “The Man Nobody Knows,” p. 107.)
Stories or poems will help your listeners remember the points you are trying to make. For example, a talk on ambition might include the following illustration:
A young boy named Tommy was showing a visitor some of his drawings.—birds, dogs, cars, houses. He confided that these were not his best drawings. “May I see your best drawings, then?” asked the visitor. “Oh,” replied Tommy, “I haven’t done those yet.” (Vaughn J. Featherstone, “Of Mind and Muscle,” Do-It-Yourself Destiny, Bookcraft Publishers, p. 109.)
Good stories are plentiful in the scriptures and in books you read at school or have at home. Personal experiences, either your own or those told to you by a grandparent or found in an old journal, can often add warmth and clarity to a talk. Sharing your own gospel experiences often increases your own testimony as well as the testimonies of those who hear it.
Reaching a goal
Be sure, however, that you don’t tell stories that have nothing to do with your main point. Telling something just because it is interesting or will get a laugh only confuses listeners. A speech must have a goal, and everything in it should be directed toward reaching that goal.
Sometimes we have so many ideas and thoughts to share that we give in to the temptation to tell a lot of stories that have nothing in common. While they may all be effective if given at the proper time, their value is lost when given with many other unrelated stories. This results in the following situation:
A farmer stepped into the town hall to hear the visiting speaker. The talk went on so long, however, that he sauntered outside for a bit of fresh air. A neighbor passing by asked, “Jim, what is he talking about?”
“I don’t know,” came the reply. “He hasn’t said.”
Begin preparation far enough ahead of time so that what you say will be clearly organized and contain new and interesting information. In addition, collect and file thoughts and stories, information and articles. Keep a journal of personal experiences. Soon you will be prepared to speak on many subjects, and speaking will become much more interesting and enjoyable for you.
Speaking with the spirit
President Harold B. Lee once said in conference, “You cannot light a fire in another soul, unless there is one burning in your own.” (Leadership, Sentence Sermons, compiled by Dean Zimmerman, Deseret Book Company, p. 128.) This is undoubtedly the most fundamental of all advice for speakers to remember. Believe in what you are saying and have the spirit of the Lord with you while you speak. Adequate, prayerful, preparation is essential, as is living the principles that you are speaking about. Realize, too, that you do not have to be a naturally talented speaker to present a powerful message. If you include your Heavenly Father in your preparation, he will be with you as you speak.
Ending on time
The final point to consider is how and when to close the speech. Concluding remarks should be timed so that listeners feel refreshed rather than exhausted. Have you ever heard a speaker say four times, “In conclusion …” and then listened as he continued for another five or ten minutes each time? Equally as frustrating is a speaker who goes on and on after making his point. Mark Twain wrote:
“Some years ago in Hartford, Connecticut, we all went to church one hot, sweltering night to hear the annual report of Mr. Hawley, a city missionary who went around finding people who needed help and didn’t want to ask for it. He told of life in cellars, where poverty resided; he gave instances of heroism and devotion of the poor. ‘When a man with millions gives,’ he said, ‘we talk a lot about it and praise him. It’s praise in the wrong place, for it’s the widow’s mite that is significant.’
“Well, Hawley really got me excited. I could hardly wait for him to get through. I had $400 in my pocket. I wanted to give that and borrow more to give. You could see money in every eye. But instead of passing the plate to collect money then, he kept on talking and talking, and as he talked it grew hotter and hotter, and we grew sleepier and sleepier. My enthusiasm went down, down, down—$100 at a time until finally when the collection plate did come around, I stole ten cents out of it.” (Thesaurus of Anecdotes, ed. Edmund Fuller, Crown Publishers: N.Y., 1942, pp. 58~59.) Don’t wait until the audience has quit listening before you quit speaking.
A speech should be understandable, leading to a goal and clearly delivered. If it is, the thoughts you have presented will enrich the lives of those who hear it, and you will come to enjoy serving the Lord and your fellowmen through eloquent and moving speech.