How to Give a Talk at Church

How to Give a Talk at Church

Giving a talk in the Mormon church is tricky business. We’re all asked to share the responsibility to preach to one another, so on any given Sunday there are very few experts speaking in sacrament meeting. In the big picture, we are all amateurs in the kingdom of God though, aren’t we? Since we sit through a lot of sacrament meeting talks we all have opinions about how they should go. Here are my ideas about how to prepare well to give a talk at church:

Pray as you begin reading and studying for your talk.

Assume there will be someone in the audience attending the Mormon church for the very first time.

Talk about Jesus Christ (see above). If your topic makes it impossible to talk about Jesus Christ, change your topic.

Include at least three scriptural references. If your topic makes it impossible to reference the scriptures three times, change your topic.

Start with a personal story. Add another one in the middle if you can. Finish up with a personal story at the end. This is my husband’s biggest pet issue–add more personal stories! I agree with him, but you can think of it as “making your topic personal” if it helps. Sharing how you relate to the topic at hand is almost as meaningful as sharing a personal story (and it’s sometimes the same thing).

DO NOT, under any circumstances, begin your talk with the phrase or the sentiment, “When the bishopric member called me to give me this talk (insert lame joke here).”

DO NOT, under any circumstances, make a joke about the pulpit being raised or lowered for you. Not funny. Boo.

DO NOT, under any circumstances, discuss how much or how little time you spent preparing for your talk (ie, “I agreed to give this talk two week ago, but then I forgot about it until last night,” or “I’ve been studying for this talk for two weeks”). No one cares. It’s boring.

DO NOT start your talk with the Webster’s definition of your topic.

DO DO DO write your talk. You should write it down verbatim, even the jokes. You should practice it out loud, three times, in front of a mirror. We force our kids to do this and it has made them much better speakers. We yell the phrase “Loud and Proud” at them from across the room while they are practicing.

When you print out your talk, make the font slightly bigger than normal and/or add spacing. My husband makes his as big as 18 point font. I like to leave mine around 12, but I double space. This will help you when you are at the podium.

One final note. Some people think you shouldn’t write a talk. That writing it down forces a rigid delivery that discourages the Spirit. They are wrong. There are two people who don’t have to write their talks: President Monson and Jeffrey R. Holland (but I promise, he writes them and that is why they are good).  I believe that when you don’t prepare your talk, you are not just wasting my time, you are wasting the time of everyone else in the room. Say you spend 15 minutes at the pulpit and there are 150 people in the chapel. That means your lack of preparation just cost 37 1/2 man hours, almost TWO DAYS. You should be ashamed of yourself. Prepare yourself and write that darn talk.

Want a great laugh about giving a talk in church? Check out this link at the Mormon Tabernacle Enquirer.

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  • Rachel Davis

    Great comment! Thanks for sharing. I’m serving with a friend in Primary who is so accomplished, organized, thoughtful, sweet AND hates speaking in church. Our church seems to work best for the extrovert 🙂 I’m so sorry! I know those who hear you will benefit from your thoughts.

  • Kay

    So I know it has been three years since anyone has commented but I just want to say that one of my biggest fears is to stand up in front of people and talk to them. I hate having people look at me and I would much rather be helping on the sidelines. I have to speak tomorrow and I have had a couple full-blown breakdowns because of it. I’m still nervous beyond belief for it but just starting to write my talk has helped me calm down because I feel like I at least have something coming together. Don’t procrastinate. It will help you feel so much better so much sooner if you just write something.

  • Pepper

    Several years ago I was given three weeks to prepare the best talk I ever presented. The first week I studied and wrote the talk. The second week I reworked a couple parts and memorized the talk. The third week I threw out the talk and used bullet points to recall my mostly memorized talk. This is not always the timeline we are given, but I think it still applies even if we only have a couple days to prepare. Another thing I have done that was helpful, I highlighted parts of the talk that I could eliminate if time is running short, but still keep the flow and meaning of the talk. It is always frustrating to hear someone say they have so much more they want to share but are out of time or to have them be out of time but still standing up there trying to cram their talk in so they can get to their conclusion.

  • Dave

    I serve on our Stake High Council (and before that in a bishopric), so I have a little experience speaking in meetings. Here’s how I go about preparing my talks and lessons (I start this process 2-3 weeks in advance, more if I have it):
    1. I start with a prayer
    2. I quickly sketch a basic outline of what I think might be interesting in about the topic. No details, or major editing, just general brainstorming topics.
    3. I save my document, close it, and don’t look at it again for a week.
    4. After my one week, I start again with a prayer.
    5. I open my outline and start filling in a little detail with whatever thoughts and impressions I had over the last week. I usually skip around in the topics and put down whatever comes to mind.
    6. I then go on a sources hunt on scriptures, talks, quotes, etc. for items related to my outline. This is the step when my outline starts to evolve and change into a coherent talk.
    7. Once I have about the appropriate number of pages done – because I know about how fast I go through a talk: 1 page is 4-5 minutes – I read through it to see if it makes logical sense.
    8. My final step is to fill in the “good stuff”. I always include a list of 3-4 items, usually toward the end, that prompt to change and invite to positive action.
    9. Last thing is to write the “pep talk”. My conclusions always end with something related to the topic that is specifically designed to inspire and motivate the audience.
    10. I reread my talk, seeing if there’s anything I really need to change because it just seems out of place.
    11. I save and close my talk and don’t look at it again.
    12. 3-4 days before I speak, I open my talk again and reread it, making any really important changes (usually very minimal).
    13. I also identify any sections that I could cut for time and not really miss anything important. I can usually cut about 1/3 of my talks without an issue. I sometimes identify which sections I feel MUST be said, so if I’m really short on time, I’ll at least make my point.
    14. Finally, the day before I speak and the day of, I reread my talk. Just to make sure I’m comfortable with it.

    This process takes as long as it takes. Usually it’s a few hours.

    Once at the pulpit, I don’t simply read my talk. I will read parts of it, including the references. I get nervous, so I never try quote scripture or authorities off the top of my head. Because I’m now so familiar with my talk, I can just glance at a paragraph and say something pretty close to what I have written. I can also skip paragraphs to adjust my time as necessary.

    You also have to remember to look up. Otherwise everyone is listening to the top of your head, not you. I also try not to look anyone directly in the eye, but it causes brain cramping and I lose track of what I was talking about. I will take turns looking at handles on the back curtain (or stage, or whatever is in the back middle of the room), and also looking at the back doors. I don’t do this when I teach lessons, just when I’m at the pulpit.

    To reiterate what was said, I never apologize for what I’m about to say, or give ANY impression that I am ANYTHING other than glad to visiting and speaking. Even if I only had one hour to prepare for a 20 minute talk, which has happened to me, I never even HINT that I’m unprepared to speak. If I do, most of the audience will likely immediately dismiss anything I have to say.

    When possible, I like to throw out an appreciative or complimentary comment about the unit and the people I visit, or the speakers or music that went before me. I also like to use words like, “wonderful”, “awesome”, and “great” in my talk. Also, don’t forget voice inflection. High Council speakers are known for their droning tone. I refuse to fall into that pool. I try to remember what John Bytheway calls “the scripture voice.” It’s our tendency to mumble when we read stumble through reading scriptures. Instead, take a breath, and read and speak the way it is intended to be heard. Good example: go read the title of liberty speech. Do you think Captain Moroni mumbled his way through that one?

    I also NEVER open with a “real” joke. While I like use humor in my talks, I try really hard not to do anything that might offend the Spirit: no sarcasm, no inside jokes, no poking fun or embarrassing anyone at their expense (it’s different if they’re embarrassed because of the attention). I also stick only to what I can find on People come to sacrament meeting to take the sacrament, and then be edified with the doctrines of Christ and taught by the spirit. They do (or at least should) not come to be entertained and I do my best to not enable that kind of behavior in such a sacred meeting.

    Just my 2c. Your mileage may vary.

  • Kadie

    Ironically, I read this as I am reading over my written talk I am going to give in about an hour. I am a believer in writing your talk ahead of time. I have taught my kids this as well. They get so many compliments on their thought out talks….. but even more it creates great study opportunities. I pray for the spirit to guide me as I am writing. I have literally been typing something when the Spirit has guided me a different direction. So I do believe you can still be open to the promptings. It just happens before you are staring blankly in front of a congregation.

  • Tammy

    Thank you both for your thoughts they have been very helpful. have to say I agree with you on members of the church should be trained on how to speak in church, I think it is awesome that you can give a talk without ever needing it written down. I do think for some of us especially myself as a convert I didn’t have the guidance of my family teaching me how to give talks nor did I grow up giving them. I need it written down. I see what you are saying as we need to be more engaging with our audience, which I think comes with time not a matter of having it written down or not. I think with having that training could help us be more engaging and not be so afraid of giving the talk in the first place. I think fear is why people begin with the jokes they do and why they don’t prepare. That fear could be broken if we could just have some training and in time we can be more engaged and not so dependent on our written talk.

  • Cheri Furgason

    Thank you for the great paper. I have always had trouble giving talks. But following your advice will help a lot!

  • Virgel Morales

    This is really awesome. I am from rural area in Philippines and I am grateful for this advice since most of the people in my area are having a hard time delivering a talk during Sunday Meetings. I’m going to suggest the youth to visit your page. There are a lot of things they can learn from here. Thank you so much Sister Rachel!

  • Pam

    I totally agree with you on this Rachel!! My husband and I always write every word of our talk and practice, practice, practice – even in front of the mirror. Once you have practiced it enough, then you aren’t reading every word and can look up quite a bit. Each speaker has an allotted time to speak and if anyone goes over a minute or two or more… then the last speaker may have to shorten their talk because of others not preparing properly. This is such a pet peeve of mine. In our ward we even had a handout that the bishopric wanted each person giving a talk to have. I forget where it came from, but part of it was a list of what to do and not to do with your talk. It was great information from the most seasoned speakers to the newest convert. BUT, even though they received the handout most did not read it and take it to heart because the same issues continued to occur. Anyway, I just wanted to share with you and thank you for this information.

  • Rachel Davis

    I would pay good money to see your talk tomorrow! I miss HMB. I saw that Stacy is having another boy! I’m so happy for you guys. I hope Primary is going well. Hugs!

  • Katie Pemberton

    Hey, friend ! I was asked to give a talk for tomorrow on WEDNESDAY ! And I will NOT whine about it at the pulpit! Stacy is talking with me ! It is on the A of F. I emailed the bishopric and asked for a mid-morning song. And a movie with a snack ! Hope he has a sense of humor! Stacy asked me if I read your post. I had a but a long time ago. Helping lots !!! But it has to be 15 minutes and I am stuck at 7 !!!!! Wish your smiling face was in the crowd !!! And Stacy is pregnant ! #4 and it’s a boy !!! Hope you are well ! Love you and miss you !!

  • Kaylee

    I don’t know if this is a topic you’ll be addressing again, but in case you do, I have an easy format that can be adapted to any length of talk. I’m teaching my seminary students to present their devotionals in this format. Like any format, it is a place to start as a support. The format is for the talk, not the talk for the format 😉
    State the doctrine
    Reference a supporting scripture
    What do general authorities have to say about this doctrine?
    Share a personal experience with the doctrine.
    Bear testimony of the specific doctrine.

  • Michelle

    This is a year old conversation but I just found it because I’m giving a talk and need some pointers. I think you should write your talk out beforehand but when you get up to the podium be open to the spirit. You may end up only using your talk as an outline. But, if you don’t you’re still prepared.

  • Dezi A

    Haha. Love this list. And I always must write down my talk, so I agree with you on that, and just about every other one. Although this list also just has some of your personal pet peeves on it. 🙂 Just yesterday at our Stake’s Great to Be 8, one of the bishops made a comment about that being one of the first times the pulpit had to be raised for him (he was speaking after an 8 year old) and I legitimately thought it was funny. 🙂
    Anyways, I just discovered your blog now through Pinterest and am very excited to start following. So far what I’ve seen looks amazing!

  • Rachel Davis

    April–I totally appreciate and respect that point of view, but I still think that writing your talk means you’ll give a much better talk. Even if you write it all out and then just take your bullet points with you to the stand, writing a talk means you’ve carefully thought through your subject and it’s not just a 5 quotes from conference and 5 scriptures (I can look up quotes and scriptures on my own, thanks, tell me what *you* think). But I’m super opinionated about this in theory: in practice I almost always enjoy what ever people bring and deliver on Sunday.

    Thanks for your thoughts on this!

  • April

    I love these ideas! I think members of the church should be trained on how to speak in church. I agree with all of it except one thing. My mother always taught us to never ever read a talk at the pulpit- and because of this, our family is great at speaking. We jot down ideas, examples, bullet points, an outline- and it forces you to look up at the audience and be more engaging. Plus talks at the pulpit that are read are almost always boring- sorry. Reading also tends to lead to a monotone voice which puts the Bishopric to sleep and everyone else! Reading also shuts the door for the chance to share something the spirit might want you to share at that very moment. I do believe that your talk should be organized, well thought out, have printed out quotes and scriptures on hand- but I feel the most effective talks are personable. We love conference talks by the general authorities but their talks have to be written because they are being recorded and translated into 100’s of languages and spoken to 100’s of different cultures. If you ever attend a smaller fireside or a more personable environment with the brethren of the church, you will notice they are more personable with the congregation and they never read their talks. That is one reason why they did away with teaching the discussions word for word on the mission and went to the Preach My Gospel outline. We used to sound like robots. Giving a good talk without reading it is a skill we should all learn- and it’s a skill! Without going off on a travelogue, without getting off subject, or saying something inappropriate but to deliver your message with analogies, personal stories, favorite scriptures while engaging the congregation- it’s a skill that’s necessary. Especially to the Youth- they must feel they can relate or they won’t listen.

  • Debby

    Jeff and I just spoke yesterday in church for Father’s Day. I wish I would have had all of your great advice. I will use it next time!

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