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.
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
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.
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.
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.