Tuesday, June 26, 2007

How to Improve Church Speeches

If you’re an active member of the LDS Church, you have sat through many speeches in church meetings and you have likely given speeches yourself. For those that are unfamiliar with Mormon worship services, the nature of the services differ from those of many other denominations due to the church’s lay ministry. Congregational leaders are called from among the members of the congregation. They serve voluntarily without pay.

Mormon congregational leaders concern themselves with administering church programs, managing congregational finances, seeing to members’ spiritual needs, and caring temporally for members in need. Each willing and capable member is asked to serve in one or more volunteer positions. In the LDS Church, every member ministers at some level. Callings generally change and are rotated every few years.

Given the church’s lay ministry, the weekly Mormon congregational worship service (known as Sacrament meeting) does not include a sermon or homily by a pastor. Rather, following the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is a program that lasts about 40-45 minutes that consists of speeches and musical numbers presented by members as assigned by congregational leaders. While children as young as three learn to give speeches in Primary (the children’s auxiliary organization), usually (but not always) only members 12 or older participate in Sacrament meeting programs.

These meetings are not the only time church members deliver speeches to each other. Momons have many meetings where public speaking occurs. This is to fulfill the scriptural commandment to edify one another. All members are expected to take their turn, regardless of public speaking abilities or interest in public speaking. Speaking in church is considered to be a sacred responsibility, so Mormons tend to view it differently than general public speaking.

Regardless of speaking ability, desire, or comfort level, there are a few things we can do to enhance church speaking assignments.

It begins with the person extending the calling to speak. I have found that much of the end quality of a speech has to do with how the leader handles asking the member to speak. Each such calling is a sacred opportunity that should be handled as such. The assignee should be approached in a proper setting and with reverence (not in a busy hallway). The assignment should be given three or more weeks (two weeks at the least) in advance. The leader should give the assignee very specific instructions that include the topic (or choice of topics), the date, the time frame (i.e. 8-12 minutes), and instruction to seek inspiration from the Holy Spirit. It is also nice to provide information such as placement on the program, ideas for resources to use, and how to get help preparing. I like to present the assignee with a slip of paper that includes all of this information.

It is also important for leaders to schedule the appropriate number of speakers and musical numbers for the program. The average meeting can include one or two youth speakers (with a max of 5 minutes each), a musical number, and two adult speakers (with a max of about 12 minutes each). If you schedule more than this, you can expect the meeting to go long. And frankly, people just hate it when meetings go overtime. When a higher dignitary speaks, make sure he/she lets you know how long they expect to speak, and then tailor the rest of the program to fit.

When you have a calling to speak, it is important to seek to properly fulfill the assignment. Law professor Craig Johnson has a great article that is forbiddingly titled The Seven Deadly Sins of Sacrament Meeting Talks. It includes some essential points that all church speakers ought to understand. Let me try to rephrase his points as positives.

1. Properly prepare to speak. Preparation differs for each person given the person’s abilities. Some need to have each word printed to read. Others can have a few ideas jotted on a card. Regardless, use the most appropriate resources (scriptures, church magazines, books by church leaders, your journal) and avoid less appropriate resources (forwarded emails). Rehearse your talk. Rehearsing need not prevent you from changing things during delivery as directed by the Spirit.

2. Make sure the meeting ends on time. This mainly applies to the final speaker of the meeting. About five minutes are needed for the closing hymn and benediction. Almost the very moment a speaker begins encroaching on that five-minute closing time, the congregation’s listening mechanisms shut down, regardless of how great the speech is or how important the message is. If you are the final speaker, you should prepare a flexible speech that has elements you can easily drop if necessary. If your unit has Sacrament meeting first in the 3-hour block, you must not end more than five minutes early or you will cause problems for leaders and teachers. If your unit has Sacrament meeting last, never feel bad about ending early (even substantially early). The youth in my ward call that a high-five Sunday, since they give each other high fives on the way out of the chapel. The adults don’t mind either.

3. Limit your speech to the assigned time limit. Johnson says that the last speaker often goes overtime “because [a] preceding speaker committed a brazen theft of time.” Regardless of the value of your message, if you go overtime on your speech, you are stealing time from someone else that has also prayed, agonized, and prepared. Or you are at least stealing time from the congregation. I have found it very useful to actually rehearse and time speeches at home. My wife has often helped me eliminate extraneous material so that I can hit the important points in a shorter amount of time.

4. Keep your sources pure. We have so many good and validated sources to draw from today, that use of urban legends is entirely inappropriate and unnecessary. Many feel-good stories that circulate are of dubious credibility. These may send tingles up the spine, but they do not convey truth and cannot edify. If you want the Holy Spirit to confirm what you are saying, make sure it’s true.

5. Use appropriate material. It’s great to employ appropriate humor in your speech. President Hinckley does this frequently. But please avoid inappropriate humor. You might get a laugh, but you will not get approval from the Holy Spirit. A good friend of mine once used a reference to a scene in Pirates of the Caribbean to make a point in a church speech. It wasn’t appropriate. I’ve heard references to Star Wars, graphic depictions of the violence of the French Revolution, and stories about boys going skinny dipping. Not appropriate. Again, why go there when there is so much available that will help bring the Holy Spirit into the meeting?

Some people will tell you that it is inappropriate to talk about yourself in a speech. I respectfully disagree with this up to a point. Some of the most powerful teaching occurs when a person simply and honestly recounts personal experiences that demonstrate what the gospel means to them and/or how the gospel has worked in their own life. A first person account beats a third person account hands down almost every time. But to employ personal anecdotes appropriately, it is vitally important to remember that the purpose of the speech is to glorify and worship God, not to extol oneself.

6. Employ the appropriate scope. Consider the demographics of your audience. Get your point across with the least possible amount of information. It is not necessary or helpful to give extraneous information that is often included simply for shock value. A friend of mine once spoke about his teenage daughter’s rebellion problems. But he included many details that should have been extremely private. 98% of the people in the room had no business knowing this stuff. Some of these details were not appropriate to mention in the presence of children. My friend’s points could have been made quite effectively without this information.

My parents, brothers, and I still laugh about an instance many years ago where a woman in our ward (congregation) said during a speech to the congregation, “I have never knowingly enticed any man.” Noting the physical appearance of this sister, one of my brothers then whispered under his breath, “Never unknowingly either!” An assignment to speak is not a license to be a loose cannon at an open microphone. It is a sacred assignment to help people live the gospel, and the information we employ should work toward that end.

7. Be grateful for the calling to speak. Even if you hate public speaking, if you accept the concept that you have received a calling from the Lord’s representative as if it had come from the Lord himself, you can be grateful for the opportunity. When people get up and either jokingly or unhumorously chasten the leader responsible for the assignment, they drive away the Spirit and they invite listeners to treat their speech lightly. Likewise, using self depreciation, ridiculing one’s own speaking abilities, or deriding one’s preparation place a negative light on whatever might be said. If you minimize the value of what you have to say, the audience will do so as well. You don’t need to tell the congregation what a poor speaker you are or how scared you are. Those things are readily apparent. When we are appropriately grateful to the Lord for a calling to speak, we will avoid these pitfalls. We will do our best and then some (with help from the other side).

One more element is needed to make a church speech valuable: the listener. Since all church members will listen to far more speeches than they will give, it is important that we develop habits that will help us get the most out of each speech. Members of the church have various levels of speaking abilities and various levels of spirituality. The blunt truth is that some that are called to speak are ill equipped to be organized, speak well, or provide enlightenment. But each listener can strive to appeal to the Spirit as they listen. Each of us can be diligent in our assignment to listen to both audible and spiritual messages. We can pray in our hearts for the speakers. Not all speeches will be good speeches. Some will be downright lousy. (One time I ended up praying that one longwinded rambling speaker would just sit down and shut up. That was truly out of a feeling of charity for the congregation.) But with effort, we can get the maximum best possible out of each speech we hear.

Although the LDS Church has a hierarchical structure, it is in many ways a populist organization. Members are expected to work in various assignments throughout their lives to edify one another. Part of this includes delivering public speeches to each other in church meetings. I’ve tried to list a few hints here that can help everyone involved in this process, from the leader giving the assignment, to the speaker, to the listener. I would like to hope that something that is written here will help somebody. At the very least, I hope it helps me.


Anonymous said...


For a lay church, we could do A LOT better in training and practicing public speaking and teaching! It's a great skill that is helpful in EVERY profession. More work should be done with youth to teach them proper and effective public speaking and communication skills.

I could personally be a lot more patient. It's easy for me to judge a talk or a lesson that I feel was poorly prepared or to zone out.

y-intercept said...

"and you have likely given speeches yourself."

The practice of getting everyone to participate is one of the smartest innovations of the LDS Church. After all, life is a participatory sport.