Thursday, March 15, 2012

How I prepare to speak

Recently I posted on how I teach lessons in church. I thought I'd write about talk preparation, too, since the two are quite different for me. I tend to teach a lesson from an outline, but I'm much more formal in my talk preparations. I'm reminded of two stories I've heard:

One (from his biography) is that Elder Maxwell used to write draft after draft of his conference talks, working to get them right. The other is that I heard (I can't remember where) is that Elder Nelson memorizes his conference talks. I can't tell if that is true (I don't know enough about the placement of the telepromters in the conference center to be sure), but it wouldn't surprise me. Both these examples stress for me the care which these brethren give their conference speaking assignments, and they encourage me to give care to my speaking assignments, too.

I have to say that we get some really good talks in our ward’s sacrament meeting. I don’t think our bishopric gives any specific instruction beyond the assignment of a conference talk for reference. And to be sure we get a few of the “I’m assigned to talk about Elder So-and-so’s talk from last conference” talks. But generally, the talks we hear are a great blend of scripture, doctrine, gospel principle and gospel practice, including elements of the referenced conference talks and personal anecdotes from the speaker.

Our youth speakers are also really great. I remember years ago one of my older sons used to congratulate himself if he spoke for two minutes. Most of our youth talks are 5 – 7 minutes with pretty fair development of their topics. Youth topics tend to lean toward For The Strength Of Youth, Duty To God, Young Women’s Personal Progress Values and True To The Faith topics. But most of the youth seem to have mastered the ability to combine scriptures, quotations of general authorities and their own experience. They draw heavily on their seminary scripture mastery verses as appropriate, as well.

I know there are some who do not like to speak in sacrament meeting. I know this because I’m married to one of them. When I was in a position to assign speakers for sacrament meeting, I purposely shielded my lovely wife mostly to save us both from her pre-talk nervousness. (That said, my wife is also a great speaker; she prepares carefully and prayerfully, and, although nervous, she does a great job. Most recently she spoke in our Stake Conference general session a couple of months ago and was awesome. But that doesn’t mean she liked it.)

I enjoy speaking just as I enjoy teaching. So I’m happy when an assignment comes my way. I prefer to have two weeks (at least) to prepare, though our present ward’s pattern seems to be a week or less. Personally I think longer is better.

If I have a topic or a conference talk, I start there. I’ll read the talk a few times. I have a file of my father’s old high council talks (he was a high councilor for over 20 years and many of his talks and supporting material are organized by subject matter in a file he gave me late in his life). I often consult those. (I would rarely directly use one of my father’s talks because he and I have very different speaking styles, but reading his talks can give me some great ideas.)

I like to give myself a number of days to “cook” on the ideas for my talk. I’ll make a few notes, keep reading the conference talk, look for related scriptures and think of my own life experience as it relates to the talk.

In my view, an idea talk has a number of key elements:

1. Doctrinal foundation
2. Scriptural anchors
3. Teachings of the living prophets
4. Personal experience
5. Personal testimony

As I think about my subject, I’ll try and group my thoughts and material into those five categories. The doctrinal foundations hopefully reveal themselves in the scriptures and the teachings of the living prophets. My personal experience and testimony hopefully help bring relevance to the talk and hopefully make it interesting to listen to.

I like to write my talks word-for-word. (I type them; if I wrote them by hand, no one, including me, would be able to read them.) I write my talks out because I like to play with the language as I write. I like to make use of alliteration, parallel-language lists,simile & methaphor, and sometimes even rhyme to highlight a thought. By writing it out, I can do my best in the creation of the message and crafting of the words. (Not all of those devices make it past the drafting stages; the point of the talk, after all, is not to demonstrate my verbal skills but to bear witness of gospel truth.)

Ideally, I’ll have written a draft or two (or three) a week before I’m to give the talk. I then spend the next week memorizing the talk. Yep, memorizing. I do not memorize scriptures or quotations – those I will always read for two reasons: First, I don’t want to goof up a quotation or a scripture. Second, demonstrating that I am reading those portions sets them apart from the rest of my talk, the part that’s mine. I want everyone to be completely clear when I’m speaking for myself.

When I memorize, it gives me a chance to check the timing and to continue to play with the language of the talk. I try first to commit the flow of the talk to memory, and then the actual words. I practice my talk three or four times a day (often on my long commute to work) the week before I speak.

When I actually deliver the talk, I take only my printed talk to the podium. No scriptures, no other computer printouts or books or magazines. Just my printed talk. My goal is to speak to the audience maintaining eye contact except when I’m reading a scripture or quoting someone. I will often deviate from my memorized text. When I do it’s because I have more or less time than I expected, or because I feel prompted to leave a story out or to put a new one in. (I usually over prepare to minimize what is brand new when I speak, but sometimes there’s new stuff.)

I’m a firm believer that inspiration can strike any time, but that’s just as likely (even more likely) to come during my preparation as during my delivery. If the brethren can prepare their talks in advance for General Conference, I can certainly do the same for sacrament meeting.

Update: Just in case you're looking for more on this topic, I blogged about 18 months ago on things I've learned about giving talks from the Seventy in General Conference, here.


  1. Wow, except for memorizing talks, I think we were cut from the same bolt of cloth! Out here in the (true) mission field, when our Branch President assigns a talk and suggests a Conference talk for reference, most people READ the conference talk to the congregation. It drives me crazy. Or there are the ones who get up with no notes of any kind and just ramble for 40 minutes! Thank you for sharing your methods. I'll use them for my next class on how to prepare and give a talk. Keep up the good work.

  2. Rozy, I've only seen one member actually *read* the assigned talk...

    As a missionary church, I suppose we have to expect especially that newer members will create some unique experiences in sacrament meeting talks. I've learned a lot listening to the general authorities speak in conference -- not just about their subject matter, but also about what works and doesn't work for me as a listener. I think most of the 70 do a superb job with limited time, a well-scoped message, and clear delivery.

  3. Paul: This is really good - especially the big finish. I always feel it to be a bit disingenuous when someone doesn't prepare, then says they want to be guided by the Spirit as they are speaking.

    Also, I completely get this: " I purposely shielded my lovely wife mostly to save us both from her pre-talk nervousness." AMEN

  4. I enjoyed what Elder Matthew Richardson said in Oct General Conference about people who don't prepare for talks (or write their talks down) because they want to be "led by the spirit" when they deliver their talks... yet... in General Conference, the most important meeting of the whole Church, the prophets and apostles and other leaders usually write their talks word for word.

    I, too, prepare early and write my talk word for word, but I will also sit with a pen when I am on the stand and re-read my talk and scratch through parts, change words, etc.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.

  5. I am in awe over the fact that I prepare my talks nearly identical to how you do it. The only difference is, I jot down stories, quotes, scriptures through the week and then I cut them all up and put the talk together like a puzzle. You probably do the same thing on the computer with cut, copy and paste.

    btw, Thank you for sticking up for me on MMM's blog post on reverence.

    Now I'm off to see your other post on talk preparing. Thanks for the link.

  6. Would you move to our ward?

    As interpreters, we ask that our speakers provide drafts of their talks ahead of time, so that we can prepare. For instance, if all their personal experiences revolve around carburetors, it gives us the opportunity to learn the necessary vocabulary.

    We practically never get said copies. I'm afraid that most talks are prepared at the end of the game. We frequently hear that old chestnut, "I don't write out my talks, I want to be guided by the spirit."

    When I hear that, I always think (and sometimes say) "You think the Spirit only works in the chapel???"


  7. Robin: "When I hear that, I always think (and sometimes say) 'You think the Spirit only works in the chapel???'"

    Best comment of the week!

    I have given a number of talks in bi-lingual settings (starting on my mission in Germany), so I'm sensitive to translation (though, to my knowledge, no one has ever interpreted in ASL for me), and it's another reason I do what I do.

    When I speak in our Spanish branch, I prepare my talk in English, translate it to Spanish (usually using an online translator which I then check, and then I have a native speaker check). I speak in Spanish and give the English copy to the translators (missionaries).

    My experience as a translator and as a recipient of translation is that "on the fly" foreign language translation by a lay person results in about a 50% "capture" rate of the message. As speakers, we ought to do all we can to help that number improve.