“I’ve been known to spit when I speak,” he began. “So those of you in the front row are like the people at Sea World who sit in the splash zone!” I smiled at this clever attention getter given by the last speaker of the day in the “Introduction to Persuasion” speech class that I teach at Oregon State University. What I didn’t know was that the real attention getter was yet to come.
Teaching college students the art of persuasive speech is always a challenge for me. Although arguing comes easily for most students, constructing reasoned arguments is another matter. Analytical skills must be drilled and re-drilled. This, their final speech, was to be a polished culmination of the skills they had rigorously studied during the quarter. The assignment was to persuade their classmates to perform some action.
It had been a good day. The arguments had been strong and the issues relevant, and now one of the most promising persuaders in the class, Phil Sanchez, had just engaged our interest with his good humor. Phil was a newly returned missionary from my ward, and I looked forward to what he had to say.
But I was momentarily stunned by his bold delivery as he said, “One of my heroes is a man named Joseph Smith. Shortly before his death he said: ‘I have a conscience void of offense toward God and toward all men. I shall die innocent.’”
The attention of the class was abruptly captured, as was mine. I was seized with a sense of panic. I now felt powerfully protective of the things Phil was about to cast before this crowd of self-proclaimed nonbelievers.
In an attempt to give credence to critical thinking, I often goaded the students into frank discussions about a variety of controversial topics to allow them to test the waters of opposition. Conflict was no stranger to this group. As a result, everyone’s personal values, beliefs, and attitudes had been hung out for all to see. We had a snowboarder who pushed the limits of authority, admitted to drug use, and approached life as a party he was hosting. We had our so-called punk with spiked orange hair and body piercings. We had several students who openly opposed religion and any belief in God. We had a born-again Christian, and, of course, Phil and I were both members of the Church. It was a wonderful and diverse group of students who had developed a remarkable affection for each other, despite their vast differences.
Involuntarily, I stole a glance around the room, fully expecting to see a smirk or a hint of hostility. I wondered briefly if Phil had listened to my lecture on audience analysis. I was certain he had opened a gate through which a flood of cheap shots could flow.
Just then he dipped his long arms into a big box and announced that he had a gift for everyone. He called each student in the class by name and presented each one with a copy of the Book of Mormon. On the inside cover, he had written personalized messages to each of his classmates. To one he wrote, “Check out Helaman, chapter seven. You remind me of Samuel the Lamanite because of your individualism and courage. I think you will enjoy getting to know him.”
After all of the 19 students had their books, Phil asked them to read with him about Lehi and his family. They then turned to successive scriptural passages that were already neatly marked and followed along as Phil moved them through the key components of his message. I continued my surveillance of the youthful faces and noticed a visible transformation taking place. As I watched this class reverently turn to Alma, then 3rd Nephi, then Moroni, and eagerly and respectfully read along, I felt their willing collaboration as their spirits were touched. Phil gave his personal witness to this precious gift and glowed as he told of his joy in being a missionary. He closed by having them read Moroni’s promise that they could also know the truth. He then issued a stirring and sincere challenge for them to read the book.
Our routine was for each speech to be immediately critiqued by pre-assigned peers. On this day, the two assigned to give verbal criticisms had been particularly brutal with their comments in the past. As I called for the first critique, I warily wondered what words Ty, our wise-cracking “skater dude” would choose to describe his experience. He simply said, “This is the first time in my whole life I found myself believing something just because the person who was saying it believed it so much.”
The second student, Josh, had previously told the class on several occasions about his run-ins with religion in general and with various clergymen. I nearly shuddered as I asked for his response. Without a trace of defiance, Josh offered a lopsided grin and said how great he thought it was that Phil had taken the time to personalize the books and give them as gifts. He then vowed to read his book, openly admitting that this was the first time he had ever received a religious message without any feelings of malice or disdain and without wanting to argue back.
Then the time was up. The class was over. Nineteen students stowed their new copies of the Book of Mormon in their backpacks and quietly—almost reverently—filed out of the room.
The courage, testimony, sincerity, and good will of a young returned missionary had invited the Spirit, the best kind of persuasion there is.