How to Give a Great Sacrament Meeting Talk – Part 1.5 of 5: Invention to Arrangement

Part One here. Part Zero here.

This section became longer than I expected. So, I’m breaking it in half. Instead of discussing arrangement this time, I will bridge the gap between invention and arrangement by discussing what sources could and should be used when creating your talk.

So, now you have a topic for your talk. Now, you need to fill up 10 – 20 minutes. The standard practice is to find appropriate scriptures, General Authority quotes, and a few personal (or otherwise) anecdotes. As far as it goes, that’s not a bad place to start.

There are other things, depending on the topic, the talk, and the audience that you could include, but these are the standard operating procedures for most talks, and it’s possible to give a great talk with just those few items. As I wish to make this as broadly applicable as possible, I’m going to leave it there. As for other sources to include in your talk – follow the spirit, have a spirit of humility, and you’ll do fine.

However, when considering sources for your talk, keep your audience in mind. I discussed ethos in the last part. Ethos applies to your sources as well. Keep in mind that some sources will have more authority with your audience than others. Here are a few good rules to follow when determining which sources will have the most impact in your talk:

- The scriptures are the number one source. Use as many as possible. One warning: It’s best to use “non-controversial” scriptures that have a generally accepted interpretation in LDS circles. It will only detract from your talk if you have to spend time defending the radical new reading you got from the latest Jesus Seminar announcement or Bart Ehrman book (besides, Ehrman is wildly overrated and the Jesus Seminar is just plain wrong most of the time). We should, when using scriptures, recognize that others may have different readings or interpretations – however, you don’t want to appear to be teaching new doctrine or telling the audience that they’ve been reading the scriptures wrong all this time.

If you must (as directed by the spirit) read some scriptures in a new way (i.e. – new to the vast majority of your audience, even if its old news to the educated types you pal around with), offer it as another possible way of reading the scripture, and not one that invalidates the “accepted” way of reading. Instead of replacing, try expanding. (“Another way of looking at this scripture . . .” is much better than “the usual way of reading this scripture is incomplete/wrong/misguided.”)

- General Authority quotes are nearly always good, but some are “more good” than others. Quotes from Joseph Smith (just be sure of the provenance – see the notes on sources in the current JS manual) and, to a lesser extent, Brigham Young (as long as they’re not “weird”, i.e. – Adam/God) carry particular weight. The current prophet and his immediate predecessor will carry a lot of weight, as will any prophet within living memory of the congregation.

Also, keep in mind the general age of your congregation. Just as the best pop culture was produced when you were 12 – 21 years of age (and all else before or after just can’t quite measure up), most people have a favored prophet: It’s usually the one they went through their teens and twenties with. It won’t hurt at all to skew some of your quotes to a prophet many in the congregation will have a specific fondness for.

Quotes from Apostles carry a lot of weight. Quotes from Seventies and others will not carry as much weight, though a lot depends on the talk: Quotes from the General Primary President will be considered more authoritative if given in a talk about teaching children, for example.

If a GA quote makes sense and fits nicely into your talk, use it. However, when confronted with equivalent quotes from a Seventy and a Prophet, go for the Prophet. Also, make sure to attribute each quote. Never say “according to one General Authority” – instead, clearly state “According to Bishop H. David Burton.”

- However, stick to GA quotes from General Conference and other strictly official sources. Some semi-canonical sources such as Talmage’s Jesus the Christ and The Articles of Faith or Spencer W. Kimball’s The Miracle of Forgiveness are okay if used judiciously, but Bruce R. McConkie’s Mormon Doctrine or any book authored by a GA for commercial consumption should be avoided. Those sources just don’t have as much ethos as a General Conference address. Usually, the precept you’re interested in covering can be found in another, more official source (if not, you may be trying to teach a personal hobby horse rather than a broadly applicable gospel principle – be wary).

Of course, this is a murky line and some may question why I put Kimball’s book on one side and McConkie’s on another. It would take another blog post to explain that, but even then, if given a choice between The Miracle of Forgiveness and a Sunday Morning Session talk by Kimball, I would go for the Conference talk.

- Personal anecdotes are generally a necessity. This is the one part of the talk where you get to add yourself and be truly original. Anyone can string together a few GA quotes and a few scriptures – it’s your own life that creates that unique (and hopefully great) talk. Learn from our current Prophet: Monson’s life stories make every one of his talks a treasure to hear. Let the spirit guide you to the best stories.

Sometimes, of course, you may not have personal stories that directly relate. It’s okay to use stories from your parent’s or children’s lives, or even close relatives. If you start relating stories from friends’ lives, you may want to get some permission or change names to protect the innocent. If you start telling stories you heard somewhere, don’t. Personal stories will have the most impact. Stories you heard from someone about some other person will often seem forced, and it might even leave your audience with the impression that the story may not have happened.

If you absolutely cannot think of any stories from your life or your families lives, than pray for inspiration. If you still come up with nothing, stories from the Ensign or New Era can serve as an emergency back-up. But there, you run the risk of making the talk seem less personal and more like a Frankenstein monster: it may hold together pretty well, but no part of it is original.

Now that you have all of your sources, it’s time to arrange them in some order. You need an introduction, something to say, and a way to conclude your talk. Part 2 will cover when jokes are appropriate (not often, but sometimes), how to arrange your sources for maximum impact, how to introduce the topic well, and how to conclude so it seems like you have finished (rather than having it seem like you just stopped).

This entry was posted in General, Sacrament meeting, Scripture Discussion by Ivan W.. Bookmark the permalink.

About Ivan W.

Ivan Wolfe teaches rhetoric at Arizona State University. He has a PhD in English from the University of Texas - Austin, and a BA and MA in English (with minors in Classical Greek, Music, and Philosophy) from BYU. He has several credits on various Christmas albums aimed at the LDS market, several essays in Open Court's Popular Culture and Philosophy series, and various book reviews in academic and popular venues. He also competes in Scottish Highland Games and mud run/obstacle course races, and he can deadlit over double his bodyweight (his last PR was just shy of 500 pounds). He is currently married to Lisa Renee Wolfe. He has five kids and four stepkids.

14 thoughts on “How to Give a Great Sacrament Meeting Talk – Part 1.5 of 5: Invention to Arrangement

  1. Another great lesson, Ivan, thank you. I especially like the suggestion for drawing from a church president from the youth/young adulthood of my class — since class members are generally age 70 and older, it’s been a long time since they have heard some favorite names. Heber J. Grant through David O. McKay should be just about right!

  2. Ardis,

    I mentioned Heber J. Grant in Elders’ Quorum last week, and instantly regretted it. I’m not sure there were more than two or three who recognized the name, other than that guy whose book we read out of a couple of years ago.

    In contrast, I remember my dad say that growing up, two things he always knew were that FDR was President of the US, and Heber J. Grant was President of the Church.

  3. Ivan, this is turning out to be a great series.

    You may be very surprised to learn that my older kids (ages 13 and 10) agree that the best music was produced when I was a kid. They LOVE oldies stations.

    Just goes to show you that we old geezers still have something going for us.

  4. Excellent, Ivan. Just a note of caution or advice:

    We believe in continuing revelation, even that new understanding can make former understanding irrelevant for our time. If you have the option of choosing a quote from the same level of authority (two Prophets or two apostles) – or even, in some cases, a long past Prophet and a current apostle – that appear to contradict each other (or not agree completely), generally it is a good idea to quote the most recent source. That avoids issues of perpetuating former teachings or interpretations that might have been valid for their time but are not appropriate for ours.

  5. An excellent resource is the search engine on the Church’s website. It will bring up results from many sources (manuals, talks, articles) for many years back. Once the results come up, one can filter them based on origin (scriptures, lessons, manuals, magazines, etc.).

  6. Ray -

    excellent point. There are a lot of things to keep in mind when selecting a quote, and I was hardly exhaustive.

  7. I have a sacrament talk to give this Sunday (and a Gospel Doctrine lesson), and I have been thinking about your post all week. Excellent stuff!

  8. Good point, Ray. The youth relate to the more recent Presidents. It rings with more authenticity with them. I also like to use seminary scripture mastery scriptures when possible, because it gets their attention and adds some gravitas to what the seminary teacher has been teaching.

    I like to keep an eye on the youth during my talk. If I see them drifting, then I know I’m probably loosing others too. In my book a great talk is one where (at the minimum) one testifies (of Jesus Christ and possibly another doctrine), the Spirit confirms that tesitmony, and the teenagers give their rapt attention. (I don’t resort to jokes to keep attention. If I want to do stand-up I’ll go to open mike night at a comedy club.)

  9. A name like “Floyd the Wonderdog” has got to buy you at least five minutes of attention from the teenagers.

  10. “Quotes from the General Primary President will be considered more authoritative if given in a talk about teaching children, for example.”

    Grrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!!! Because of course a woman couldn’t be regarded as a source of more general doctrinal or spiritual expertise!

    (This isn’t a criticism of your post–you are, alas, exactly right as a practical matter. I’m just lamenting the cultural situation.)

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