Have you ever sat in a Church meeting and wondered if you’d be able to endure to the end? Not to the end of life, but to the end of the meeting! Have you ever had to listen to a poor, disorganized talk, half mumbled and delivered in a dull monotone of lifeless phrases? Have you ever sat wondering what a speaker was trying to say?
Looking at it from the other side, have you as a speaker ever had the agonizing experience of facing an audience unprepared? And then have you watched helplessly as the congregation slipped away from you into inattention, languor, or drowsiness? Has your dramatic closing line (the only part you really prepared) ever been given to an audience that was asleep?
Many among us who teach, lead, and speak are well qualified and experienced and perform admirably. There are many others, however, who are less qualified and much less experienced. As a convert to the Church, I well remember my feelings of fear and trepidation as I hear the words that announced me as next week’s sacrament meeting speaker. That and other speaking experiences have caused me to realize the importance of learning and applying correct principles in our speaking assignments.
There are several basic principles—well known but not always practiced—that can and should be applied in a public speaking situation. These include (1) selecting proper subject material, (2) becoming familiar with the chosen subject, (3) being sincere, (4) observing time limits, (5) sticking to one topic, (6) speaking loudly and clearly, (7) being enthusiastic, (8) using effective stories and examples, (9) using visual aids and humor where appropriate, (10) preparing spiritually.
As a Church member and as a student and teacher of public speaking, I’ve heard many excellent talks over the years. The following examples represent talks given by a variety of individuals, both educated and uneducated and they illustrate the use of a number of the correct principles listed above. But perhaps these talks have one thing in common that is the most important—they were effective.
1. One talk I heard over twenty years ago illustrates how effective a talk can be when the speaker chooses the proper subject material and is personally familiar with that subject.
While living in New Jersey, I owned and operated a business that sold kitchen cabinets; and since I had built and installed kitchen cabinets for many years, I was well aware of quality construction and proud of our own custom woodwork. When I was approached by a large cabinet manufacturing firm from Pennsylvania who wanted us to sell their cabinets, I responded that I would decide after I had visited their factory and had seen their product.
While visiting the factory with other prospective dealers, I heard a man deliver a talk on how he was responsible for the shipping crates the cabinets were delivered in. This man’s vocabulary was not very broad, nor did he expound on any profound subject. But he was familiar with his subject material; it fit his speech capabilities and certainly fit the occasion; and it was very enlightening and interesting.
When the man was through talking, he took a regular cabinet directly from the factory and crated it. Then he took that cabinet and a second cabinet crated by a competitor and dropped both out of a second-story window. The cabinet our speaker had crated survived with hardly a scratch, while the other was damaged beyond repair. Words and demonstration combined to give an unforgettable impression—and convinced me that the product was good. A prime example of how words and a visual aid can motivate!
2. If I had to choose one principle that is most basic and vitally essential to effective communication, it would have to be sincerity. Do you really mean what you are saying? Are you really convinced of that particular principle? Audiences are highly perceptive to speakers, and if you are trying to convince them of a subject that you have not personally had a positive experience with, chances are you’ll not succeed.
I remember two examples of this. Shortly after joining the Church in New Jersey, my family and I moved to Vermont. Some of the members there were not highly educated as far as schooling was concerned, nor did they pretend to be anything but simple, strong, faithful workers in the kingdom. I remember one such individual who was called upon to speak at district conference. A native of Vermont, he was in his early sixties and obviously not skilled in the art of public speaking—but I’ll never forget his words.
He began by saying he had been having difficulty living an important commandment of the Lord, (Matt. 5:43) Evidently, his boss had been treating him quite harshly and seemed to delight in giving him all the undesirable work in the factory and refusing to consider him for a promotion.
In desperation he went to the Lord in prayer and sought his help in this unbearable situation. He related that as he continued in prayer his bitterness toward his boss began to subside and he actually began to like him!
Finally, after several weeks of continued prayer, this brother, standing erect and firmly grasping the pulpit, said through tear-laden eyes, “You know, brothers and sisters, I really began to love that man.” And from that time on their relationship improved and his life in and out of the factory changed for the better. A powerful message, simple, sincere, and straight from the heart.
3. A similar example, also from Vermont, was given by a recent convert to the Church whose hobby was restoring antique cars.
In his talk, he drew an analogy between his hobby and the responsibility we all share for helping to restore inactive members to Church activity. The ingredient that brought it all together was his sincerity—the obvious love he had for his antique autos and the greater love and concern he had for his brother in the gospel.
Besides sincerity, both of these brethren followed three other vital principles that further strengthened their effectiveness. First, neither speaker apologized at the beginning of his talk or made any excuse for his being in a speaking situation, even though neither talk was delivered professionally in any sense of the word. They assumed full responsibility for their subject matter and spoke out confidently. An apology or any excuse at the beginning of your talk indicates to the audience that you are not prepared or are uncomfortable. By doing this you will rarely gain their confidence or sympathy; rather, you will set the stage for a mediocre performance. Never apologize for your talk.
Second, each of these talks was short and revolved around one subject. How refreshing it is when a speaker comes prepared, speaks out clearly and confidently on one theme, makes his point, and sits down. A short and concise talk, revolving around one subject, can be a memorable one.
And third, each of these speakers spoke so that we could all hear him. This is perhaps the ultimate agony too many audiences are forced to endure—they simply cannot hear or understand what the speaker is saying. The fact that you may have a microphone in front of you may matter little if you don’t speak into it, or if you speak in a low voice or sway from side to side, or toward and away from the microphone. Many people begin in their normal voice and little by little speak softer and softer and faster and faster. Remember, if people can’t hear you then all your efforts in preparing your talk are in vain. Just a little attention to good speaking practices here can make a lot of difference to how your talk is received.
4. Another excellent talk delivered by a stake high councilor to our ward in Oregon combined all the principles we’ve discussed so far—sincerity, proper subject material, confidence, preparation, clear speaking, and keeping within time limits—plus one extra ingredient that can change an otherwise average talk into an excellent talk. That extra ingredient is enthusiasm!
This brother radiated enthusiasm in telling an unforgettable experience, and he effectively transmitted this feeling to his audience. His story dealt with the reaction of two fathers having a picnic with their children near a swift-flowing river. One father screamed excitedly as his little boy walked close to the river’s edge. The child was spanked and dragged away from the water. The second father kept careful watch on his son’s activities and then, kneeling beside him, he demonstrated the danger of the rushing water. Together, father and son threw sticks into the river and watched them be swept away by the current. The child’s curiosity was satisfied and he contentedly followed his father back to safer ground.
The high councilor asked us which of the two children received a lasting lesson from a parent who acted wisely.
We learned a lesson from this personal story, and we also learned a lesson from the manner in which the story was presented.
What a relief it was to have someone confidently stride to the pulpit and commence his talk with enthusiasm, confidence, and excitement.
One important principle followed by almost all good speakers is the ability to deliver a powerful message by telling a story. The very best talk is one that is built around a personal experience or one that you’ve heard about that can be adapted to a particular audience with a positive moral. As soon as the speaker says, “Let me tell you a story …” listener interest will increase. If that story is personal and related to the subject at hand, your chances of being understood increase tremendously. This is precisely why Jesus wove his stories around familiar subjects and situations well known to his audiences.
5. Another vital ingredient—but one that ought to be used wisely of course—is humor. I’ve seen many audiences and classes become alert and interested as proper humor was used in a talk. To get attention and emphasize an idea or to get your audience interested and involved in what you are saying, nothing is effective as well-chosen humor that relates to the point of the talk. Life is plenty serious, and unless we can occasionally pause and smile at some of the situations we find ourselves in, we may become overwhelmed by it all. One important caution here: humor must be appropriate. It is important to avoid anything that would detract from the spirit of any particular occasion.
6. As I have pondered our responsibilities in trying to become better and more effective communicators in the Church via the talks we are called upon to give, there is one area that I feel is sometimes badly neglected—our spiritual preparation. This may be true of any kind of talk we give, but it’s a problem that can be especially distressing when it comes to our preparation for and sensitive delivery of testimonies. For many of us, perhaps the most important “talk” we ever give will be in the form of a testimony. For it is in just such situations that the Spirit conveys to the listener that witness which each of us needs to be constantly nourished with—the witness that confirms the sacredness and divinity of the work we are engaged in.
As we come to our fast and testimony meetings at the beginning of each month, we should do so with fasting, prayer, meditation, and hopefully a renewed commitment toward our sacred covenants and obligations in serving the Lord. Fast Sunday ought to be perhaps the most spiritual of all Sabbath days as we come to that meeting with our temporal desires subdued by fasting and our spiritual senses in a highly receptive condition. This implies that what we say during testimony meeting ought to be in harmony with the Spirit and that we shouldn’t take excessive time to relate stories and incidents not in harmony with the intent and purpose of that gathering.
One testimony I remember well was given at a Young Adult and Institute conference I attended in California. On that occasion, a blind girl made her way to the front of approximately 400 youth and adults and bore a touching testimony. She said that while taking the missionary discussions prior to joining the Church, she began to lose her eyesight. Her parents strongly objected to the missionaries and the Church and urged her to stop taking the discussions. She simply replied that it was more important for her to have understanding than sight. She concluded by bearing her testimony—a testimony that I’m sure not many who were present will ever forget.
It isn’t necessary that we be expert orators; if we simply put into practice these basic steps and ask for guidance from the Lord, we can be better speakers and effectively share our thoughts with others. As Alma once said, “now ye may suppose that this is foolishness in me; but behold I say unto you, that by small and simple things are great things brought to pass; and small means in many instances both confound the wise.” (Alma 37:6).