“Telling Personal Stories,” Ensign, Sept. 2002, 49
A story I heard in sacrament meeting several years ago changed the way I pray each day. A member of our bishopric stood up and said, “I know the Lord answers prayers.” He told how he prays every night, sometimes almost by rote, for the Lord to watch over and protect his family. Then he shared an experience about a night his family stayed on a houseboat while on a waterskiing trip. He awoke suddenly at 5:30 A.M. and for no apparent reason got up and walked to the back of the boat. To his horror he found his two-year-old son stretched out over the water, with his toes on the houseboat and his little hands on a speedboat that was drifting slowly away to the end of the mooring line. He grabbed his son, feeling grateful for how directly the Lord had answered his prayers. Since the day I heard that talk, I’ve asked the Lord to watch over and protect my family.
One of the most effective methods we can use when teaching or participating in a discussion—whether in the home, a Church classroom, or sacrament meeting—is to share a personal experience and then relate it to the point we are making. These points or main ideas should come from the scriptures, the words of living prophets, or other appropriate sources. Telling stories from your life—something that has happened to you—adds power to what you teach. The events that have shaped our character and make us who we are can be tools in the hands of the Lord to help others when we use them appropriately. Some specific counsel from our Church leaders includes:
“Teachers and class members are encouraged to share insights, feelings, and experiences that relate to principles in the lesson. … This helps teachers and class members strengthen friendships and see how gospel principles apply to daily life.”1
“Relating personal experiences can have a powerful influence in helping others live gospel principles. When you tell about what you have experienced yourself, you act as a living witness of gospel truths. If you speak truthfully and with pure intent, the Spirit will confirm the truth of your message in the hearts of those you teach.”2
The example of our Church leaders shows the impact of telling personal experiences. President Gordon B. Hinckley is a model for using personal stories to teach gospel principles. In discussing profanity, for instance, President Hinckley said:
“When I was a small boy in the first grade, I experienced what I thought was a rather tough day at school. I came home, walked in the house, threw my book on the kitchen table, and let forth an expletive that included the name of the Lord. My mother was shocked. She told me quietly, but firmly, how wrong I was. She told me that I could not have words of that kind coming out of my mouth.
“She led me by the hand into the bathroom, where she took from the shelf a clean washcloth, put it under the faucet, then generously coated it with soap. She said, ‘We’ll have to wash out your mouth.’ She told me to open it, and I did so reluctantly. Then she rubbed the soapy washcloth around my tongue and teeth. I sputtered and fumed and felt like swearing again, but I didn’t. I rinsed and rinsed my mouth, but it was a long while before the soapy taste was gone. In fact, whenever I speak of that experience, I can still taste the soap. The lesson was worthwhile. I think I can say that I have tried to avoid using the name of the Lord in vain since that day.”3
The next time you listen to general conference, note how often our leaders use personal experiences in their talks. For example, Elder Henry B. Eyring of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles shared this in a recent conference address:
“The afternoon my mother died, we went to the family home from the hospital. We sat quietly in the darkened living room for a while. Dad excused himself and went to his bedroom. He was gone for a few minutes. When he walked back into the living room, there was a smile on his face. He said that he’d been concerned for Mother. During the time he gathered her things from her hospital room and thanked the staff for being so kind to her, he thought of her going into the spirit world just minutes after her death. He was afraid she would be lonely if there was no one to meet her.
“He had gone to his bedroom to ask Heavenly Father to have someone greet Mildred, his wife and my mother. He said that he had been told in answer to his prayer that his mother [my grandmother] had met his sweetheart. I smiled at that too. Grandma Eyring was not very tall. I had a clear picture of her rushing through the crowd, her short legs moving rapidly on her mission to meet my mother.
“Dad surely didn’t intend at that moment to teach me about prayer, but he did.”4
The prophet Nephi was a master at blending the scriptures into his personal experiences. He referred to this practice as “likening” (see 1 Ne. 19:23). One example is when his brothers were ready to give up on obtaining the plates of brass and he said, “Let us go up; let us be strong like unto Moses” (1 Ne. 4:2; emphasis added).
Here’s how President Thomas S. Monson, First Counselor in the First Presidency, also wove a scripture verse into a personal experience: “As a 12-year-old boy I had the privilege to serve as the secretary of my deacons quorum. I recall with joy the many assignments we members of that quorum had the opportunity to fill. … The most frightening one, however, happened at the leadership session of our ward conference … [when] without the slightest warning, President Perschon stood and said, ‘We will now hear from Thomas S. Monson, secretary of the deacons quorum, to give us an accounting of his service and bear his testimony.’ I don’t recall a thing I said, but I have never forgotten the experience. Brethren, remember the Apostle Peter’s admonition, ‘Be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you.’” [see 1 Pet. 3:15].5
Why are personal experiences so effective?
1. They make the principles we are teaching more credible. The people we teach are more likely to accept our words when they know we have tried to live what we are teaching. What we have done carries greater weight in their minds than what we say.
Elder Gene R. Cook of the Seventy has counseled: “One reason why personal experiences are so effective is that they have touched our hearts—and when we speak of things that we feel deeply, it is more likely that we’ll be able to touch the hearts of others. If you read a lesson and tell a story in someone else’s words, it won’t have the same impact. … It is easier for us to apply a truth if we can see it in action in someone else’s life. And it is easier to commit to live a truth if we can feel the Spirit through those experiences of other people.”6
2. Personal experiences are interesting. Who can ignore the heartfelt story of how a particular event has influenced or changed one’s life? Stories seem to have a magic that entices people of all ages. When we tell others of our experiences, we are inviting them onto the sacred ground of our memories. Listeners sense that, and it strengthens their connection to the teacher and the principle being taught.
3. They are memorable. The details of a story help your listeners better remember what you teach. Illustrating a principle with a story enhances your listeners’ ability to retain information. When you tell a personal story to support a gospel principle, you are restating the principle, only in a different way.
4. Personal stories are easy to tell. When you rely more on your memory than on your notes, you will probably be less nervous and more confident and natural in your presentation. By telling the story in the way you normally talk, the real you is much more likely to come through.
When we share appropriate personal experiences by the Spirit and follow other principles of effective teaching, the Lord will use the gospel principles we have learned to touch the hearts of those who are listening and change lives for good. We will be able to more effectively fulfill our responsibilities as teachers of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Avoid embarrassing details.
Although the best stories come directly from your life, sometimes details about those events can be embarrassing to you and even hurtful to anyone who is characterized in an unflattering way. Avoid using stories without the permission of those who are in the stories. Leave out details that are unnecessary to the point. Be sensitive to the feelings of others. Pray for the guidance of the Spirit.
Don’t stretch the truth.
To make a story more dramatic or emotional, it may be tempting to alter or exaggerate some details of what actually happened. Don’t do it. Telling the truth is the right thing to do, especially when you are teaching principles of the gospel. Any variation from the truth will cause you to lose the Spirit, which will dramatically diminish the impact of your lesson.
Make sure your story relates to a gospel principle.
A story told merely to entertain will defeat the purpose of why we have gathered: to be “nourished by the good word of God” (Moro. 6:4). Tie your stories to the scriptures and the principles found in Church lesson manuals.
Avoid making yourself the hero of your stories.
If you are always the paragon of virtue in your stories, the one who never makes a mistake, you will lose credibility. Your students could easily get the wrong impression of why you are telling stories about yourself. “Be thou humble; and the Lord thy God shall lead thee by the hand” (D&C 112:10).
Be cautious about sharing personal spiritual experiences.
“There are some things just too sacred to discuss,” says President Boyd K. Packer, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Such experiences should not be shared, but “harbored and protected and regarded with the deepest reverence” (Teach Ye Diligently , 71). The Lord has said, “Remember that that which cometh from above is sacred, and must be spoken with care, and by constraint of the Spirit” (D&C 63:64). Trust that the Spirit will prompt you when it is appropriate to share experiences that are deeply personal. Wait for such promptings.
“Perhaps the perfect pattern in presenting faith-promoting stories is to teach what is found in the scriptures and then to put a seal of living reality upon it by telling a similar and equivalent thing that has happened in our dispensation and to our people and—most ideally—to us as individuals.”
Elder Bruce R. McConkie (1915–85), “The How and Why of Faith-Promoting Stories,” New Era, July 1978, 5.