How to Give a Great Sacrement Meeting Talk – Part 2 of 5: Arrangement

Part 1.5 here. Part 1 here. Part 0 here.

Now that you have all of your sources in order, it’s time to arrange them. The standard idea of having an introduction, a body, and a conclusion works well for sacrament meeting talks. Introductions and conclusions are often overlooked, even though they can make an otherwise good talk seem great.

Introduction first:

Too many people start their talks with one of two things: A joke – or a remark about their reaction to being told they were assigned a talk. While I would never say “never start off with a joke,” I do think it should be discouraged. I will say “never (unless you have a strong impression from the spirit to do so) start off by talking about your reaction to being assigned a talk.”

The problem with both of these approaches is that they are usually selfish. I can see why they are done, as public speaking makes many people nervous. These types of introductions are intended to break the ice, relive tension, and give the speaker time to collect his/her wits. However, the audience is there to be enlightened, and they aren’t nervous or in need of tension relief. By telling an inconsequential joke or discussing your reaction to the call from the bishopric, you make the talk all about you.

Now, if you really, really need a joke to help relieve your own tension, then make sure the joke actually introduces the topic and relates to the theme/topic. For example, here’s a joke (stolen shamelessly from Ardis’s blog):

A Mormon bishop [is] invited to a Gentile household. He is offered Irish coffee after dinner and asks what that is. “Oh, just coffee with whisky added and whipped cream on top.” “Well, perhaps just this once, but could you make it with Postum?”

Now, if this joke were done at the beginning of a talk on tithing, it would be out of place. However, placed at the beginning of a talk about straining at gnats and swallowing camels (ignoring the weightier matters of the law by focusing on trifles), it would be perfectly appropriate. If the joke was immediately followed with something like “while this may seem funny, at times many of us act like this bishop,” and followed by some examples from scriptures, etc. – then a joke at the beginning would be perfectly appropriate as it would fulfill the function of a good introduction: it introduced the topic and created a way for the audience to immediately “get” what the talk is about.

Historically, rhetorical handbooks on sermon writing advise that the speaker start off the speech with a striking image that will gain the audience’s attention. An on-topic joke can do that. So can a famous quote, a dramatic story, or a powerful scripture. (Note: If you’re from Hawaii or the Pacific Islands, you can begin with a loud “Aloha” that the congregation repeats – but if you’re not, then you’ll merely make yourself look foolish).

However, avoid the temptation to do something wacky or bizarre to get the audience’s attention – even if it is on topic. Playing the opening to Rhapsody in Blue on your clarinet, doing interpretative dance, or building part of a model airplane are all examples of very bad ideas (I might, if given the right context, see these as okay in certain Sunday School settings, but not sacrament meeting). Why? They focus all the attention on the speaker (you) rather than the actual subject. The spirit leaves because you’ve decided to become the star of the show, and the Spirit does not share top billing.

My favorite way to open a sacrament meeting talk? Outline the controversy. First, go back and read part one of this series, and refresh your memory on stasis theory (I’ll wait).

Done? Okay. At this point, let’s say you’ve decided that you’re focusing on the stasis of evaluation. Your talk will be about how to evaluate or judge something. The introduction can give some basic information about the topic, but before the talk begins in earnest, you should outline the actual point at stake.

Here’s an example from my father: He once gave a talk on Joseph Smith. He immediately started out with several quotes from respected non-LDS scholars on Mormons and why they were good, upstanding citizens. Then he immediately went into several quotes from those same scholars on what a scoundrel Joseph Smith was. This got the audience’s attention, what with the disjunction between the initial feeling of “look how respected we are” and the final twist of “look how much these people we felt good about a few seconds ago have turned on us.” Then he went into a talk (framed around the idea of “by their fruits ye shall know them”) about the character of Joseph Smith.

Body next:

This is your main presentation, the bulk of your talk. Depending on the nature of the talk, the audience and the speaker, there are an almost infinite number of ways that you could structure this. Rather than cover all those, I’ll give one practical piece of advice and let you and the spirit come up with the rest:

Start with your strongest point first.

It’s best to come out with all your guns a blazin’ and all your cards on the table (and whatever other “wholly inappropriate for church” metaphors I can think up). A lot of speakers try to save their strongest point for last, hoping to end on a strong note, but a good strong conclusion will do that for you. If you save your strongest point for last, you’ll basically start off the body of your talk from a position of (relative) weakness. Hopefully, every point in your talk is strong, but some will be better defended than others. All other things being equal, it’s best to start from your strongest position. Then, everything after that point helps strengthen the structure of your talk rather than keeping it from collapsing until the main support arrives.

Conclusion last:

Bear testimony. Testify to the truthfulness of what you have just discussed. If you don’t believe what you’ve just talked about, then you should have changed topics or focused on an aspect of the topic you can testify about. We are all, of course, at various levels in our devotion to and belief in various gospel principles, so keep in mind where you are. While we can discover the truthfulness of something in testifying about it, if you really are struggling with a particular topic and you are assigned to talk on it, then you can pray to gain a testimony, or you should talk with the bishop (or whoever is in charge of sacrament meeting talks) and see if you can’t change topics to something you can testify about. If you bear sincere testimony, the spirit will make sure that the talk ends on a strong note.

If appropriate (depending on several factors, such as your topic and the prompting of the spirit), challenge the audience to greater heights of devotion. In some ways, the conclusion is easy to write down (it is usually the shortest part), but the hardest to say out loud. Bearing testimony leaves us open and vulnerable, but we need to be open and vulnerable if the Spirit is to work within us and those we address.

The next segment will deal with the most reviled part of rhetoric, the part Hugh Nibley and Socrates hated and Augustine only tentatively allowed: style. In some ways they are right. Overly ornate styles will detract from the spirit, whereas the Spirit can speak even through those with poor styles.

However, Neal A. Maxwell was a consummate stylist, and all the General Authorities have excellent styles of their own. I’ll focus on how to develop a good style that will enhance the talk without drawing attention from the topic to the style itself.


This entry was posted in Any, General, In real life, Sacrament meeting 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.

8 thoughts on “How to Give a Great Sacrement Meeting Talk – Part 2 of 5: Arrangement

  1. While attending a university ward, one of the sisters who was to give a talk wore a pant suit to church that Sunday. She received a lot of stares and glares while she sat on the stand, at least until she got into the subject of her talk–judging others.

  2. I’ve often thought that if I’m ever asked to speak on peer pressure, or a similar topic, that I might try the “Aloha” thing just to see if everyone repeats it, and then admit I have no connection whatsoever to the Pacific islands. Well, writing that idea out makes me see what a lousy idea it is, so good!

  3. This has a good parallel to teaching in general.

    If the students don’t know what it is you are going to teach them, they will have no idea what they are supposed to be learning – and the longer they don’t know, the less they will be likely to learn. Therefore, tell them what you are going to teach them, teach them, then tell them what you just taught them.

  4. Thank you. I liked the point that you made that a talk should start strong rather than finish strong. Good point. I intend to follow your advise.

  5. Thanks for the shout-out as well as another great post. I do more teaching than sacrament meeting speaking and I need your cautions against opening a talk with the same attention-grabbers that I might use in a classroom.

  6. On that note, the First Presidency issued a letter saying that visual aids should not be used in sacrament talks. I try to use some sort of visual aid in lessons (especially the blackboard and pictures of the prophets), so sacrament talks take on a whole new element for me. More difficult, really.

    (In my sacrament meeting talk last Sunday, I was planning on using the sign language sign for “l” when speaking about the Telestial Kingdom, and the sign for “r” when speaking about the Terrestrial Kingdom, so people can tell which I am talking about if I don’t make the “l” and “r” clear, but dropped that when just minutes before my talk the letter from the First Presidency was read.)

  7. My missionary companion started his talk or testimony (i cant remember which one) with placing the microphone on his hear, filling the chapel with the sound of a heart beat. As funny as it was, it was not very bright idea. First of all, like I said, I cant even remember if it was a talk or a testimony, and even less what it was about. The “joke” took attention away from the topic.

    7 Years after that, I had an opportunity to visit that ward again with my family. People there still remembered that incident. Few people who just barely remembered me, said to me “You were here with that crazy Elder Smith (name changed for privacy reasons), who did that microphone trick, right?” I wasn´t sure if I wanted to be associated with that trick as well.

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