“The Six Best Talks I Ever Heard,” Ensign, Jan. 1978, 41
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 been the victim of 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 who has plunged into the “thick of thin things” without adequate preparation? Have you strained your ears because you could hardly hear a word that was spoken, and then after the meeting said to yourself, “It wasn’t worth trying to figure out!”
On the other side of the coin, have you as a speaker ever had the agonizing experience of facing an audience unprepared? Have you ever found yourself drifting off into abstractions you couldn’t really explain well and no one could relate to—but which, at the same time, you couldn’t simply back away from and leave hanging? 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 greeted with snores?
Some of these things will have an all-too-familiar ring to many Latter-day Saints. And perhaps this is inevitable in a church where we all teach each other instead of relying on a paid clergy of professional elocutionists. Even so, 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 heard 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 schooled and unschooled, and they illustrate the use of a number of the correct principles listed above. But perhaps these talks have one common denominator 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 kitchen cabinet business; and having built and installed kitchen cabinets for many years, I was well aware of quality construction and proud of our own custom woodwork. When approached by a large cabinet manufacturing firm from Pennsylvania who wanted us to handle their line of 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 off the factory floor 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 sold me on the product. Our business gave that company an extra $50,000 a year. A prime example of how words and a visual aid can motivate!
2. If I had to single out 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 sold on that particular principle? Audiences are highly perceptive when it comes to “reading” speakers, and if you are trying to sell them on a subject that you have not personally had a positive experience with, chances are you’ll not succeed. There are too many nonverbal clues that can give you away. But if you have a testimony and deep conviction about your subject because it is part of you and you’ve experienced it, those who listen will respond.
Two short examples come to mind.
Shortly after joining the Church in New Jersey, my family and I moved to Vermont. Some of the members there were not highly educated in the academic sense of the word, 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 Vermonter, 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, “Love thy neighbor.” Evidently, his boss had been treating him quite harshly and seemed to delight in giving him all the dirty work in the factory and refusing to consider him for a promotion.
“Well,” he said, “I really hated my foreman and wanted to quit but couldn’t because I had no education and had a large family to support.”
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! As his feelings for his boss changed from hate to acceptance, then to understanding, he felt a certain kinship with the man growing within 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, especially Model A Fords. 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. He worked elements into his talk that were meaningful to him and understandable to all, drawing a vivid word picture of the restoration of fenders, hood, and other parts to an old auto and then comparing this with the restoration of friendship, love, and understanding to an inactive brother until both were “whole” and “restored.” But 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 observed three other vital principles that further served to strengthen 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 is a signal to the audience that you are not prepared or are ill at ease. By doing this you will rarely gain their confidence or sympathy; rather, you will set the stage for a mediocre performance. They’ll expect it and you’ll probably comply. Anxiety transmits quite readily to an audience; but you want them relaxed and expectant of the best—not showing and sharing your nervousness or uncertainty. 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. I’ve heard many fine talks that suffered from “overkill.” After a point was well made, the speaker continued to “maul” the subject matter over and over, droning on and on seemingly trying to prove that for a talk to become immortal it had to be eternal. 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 back and forth or in and out. 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—if you mumble, gargle, or drone on and on without pauses, without inflection (raising and lowering the voice for emphasis), and with poor diction—then all your efforts in preparing your talk are in vain. Just a little attention to good speaking practices here can make all the difference in the world!
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 be the frosting on an otherwise average talk. That extra is enthusiasm!
This brother radiated enthusiasm in telling of an unforgettable experience, and he effectively transmitted this feeling to his audience. It seems that while he was a student at Brigham Young University he once was invited by one of his professors to a faculty picnic in Provo Canyon. Their picnic site was alongside the Provo River, which is quite fast and rough at times. Across the river at another picnic site was a family, also on an outing. Suddenly he saw one of the smaller children of this family start toddling toward the rushing river. The child’s mother, seeing her baby moving toward the river, screamed excitedly. She rushed toward her child, jerked him off his feet, and shook him vigorously. Repeatedly pointing to the river, she spanked him and then proceeded to drag him away from the river.
The high councilor asked us if we thought the child had received the right kind of lesson and if that parent had acted properly.
He then resumed his story, saying that shortly after this incident he noticed that the river had an attraction for other children as well, because as he watched, his professor’s son began to make his way toward the rushing waters. After viewing the scene across the river, he was naturally quite anxious to see what the professor would do. The child’s father soon saw his son, dropped what he was doing, and quietly but quickly walked up behind the youngster as he neared the fast-flowing river. As he came beside his boy, he placed his hand on his son’s little shoulder, slowing his advance toward the water, and knelt down beside him. Soon he was talking to him, and, taking his child’s hand, he led him closer to the water and began throwing stones and sticks in the water, obviously to show him the swiftness with which these objects were swept away. After spending some few minutes at the water’s edge with him, he led the boy back to safer ground.
Experiences like this one can be “felt” by an audience, and when accompanied by sincere enthusiasm they can electrify those who listen. This is what makes enthusiasm a device that can balance many of our other speaking shortcomings.
Thank goodness for the speaker who looks and sounds like he’s happy to be alive! Just as nervousness and boredom are readily transmitted by the speaker to his audience, so is enthusiasm. Eyes light up, smiles appear, and people generally perk up and silently say, “Now here’s a speaker who has something to say, and I’d better listen!” Too many speakers appear to have been trapped or in some way coerced into giving a talk. What a relief to have someone confidently stride to the pulpit and commence his talk with enthusiasm, confidence, and excitement.
One important principle illustrated in the above example and adhered to 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 judiciously, of course—is the element of humor. I’ve seen many audiences and classes come to life as proper humor was introduced into a talk. As an attention-getter and point-maker or audience warmer-upper, well-chosen humor that relates to the point of the talk can’t be beat. It also gives you time to gain some momentum in your talk and develop rapport with your audience. If you’re nervous, don’t apologize—relate an appropriate humorous incident. It will help you over your initial uneasiness and endear the audience to you.
One of my favorite stories was told by our former stake president at the first ward conference he was presiding over in our ward in Oregon. He began by telling about the doctor who received a call from a patient who excitedly informed him that his wife was at death’s door and could the doctor please come and help pull her through. The doctor replied that indeed he would come but that he had another emergency house call to make not too far from this man’s house and that if he would be patient, he would visit both of them. “That way,” the doctor said, “I can kill two birds with one stone!”
Now while this story isn’t a talk, I include it here to show that such a beginning to your talk can help you relax and, more importantly, gain the attention of your audience for what follows. Life is plenty serious, and unless we can occasionally pause and smile at some of the situations we find ourselves in, we may become smothered 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, whether it be a 2 1/2-minute talk or a sacrament meeting address; 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 our verbal expressions 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 vision than sight. She concluded by bearing her testimony—a testimony that I’m sure not many who were present will ever forget.
Elder Boyd K. Packer, in his book Teach Ye Diligently, makes this significant statement:
“Every member of the Church teaches for virtually his whole lifetime. We are teaching when we preach or speak or respond in meetings, for preachers are teachers. … The similarity of the words preach, teach, and speech is not accidental. When we are speaking and preaching, we are teaching.” (Deseret Book Co., 1975, pp. 2–3.)
Perhaps with this kind of perspective each of us ought to take more seriously our opportunities to speak at our various meetings. It has been said that there are two kinds of speakers: one who electrifies his audience and one who gasses them. I sincerely hope that these examples will help each of us to electrify and edify our audiences and aid us in becoming more effective communicators, especially as we teach one another the gospel of Jesus Christ.
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 doth confound the wise.” (Alma 37:6.)