How to Give a Great Sacrament Meeting Talk – Part 0 of 5 (Introduction)

How can Aristotle and St. Augustine help you give a better sacrament meeting talk? The answer is rhetoric.

Now rhetoric has various definitions depending on the historical period under discussion and the scholar you are asking. I won’t get into those controversies. For this series of posts, I will focus on rhetoric as the art of speaking and writing well in order to move your audience.

As we live in a world that communicates through writing and visual media, few people have the opportunity to do public speaking, and that aspect of rhetoric has slowly vanished from the field (On campus, the Theater department is more likely than the rhetoric department to teach the public speaking classes). However, Mormons have the occasional (or often, depending on the calling) opportunity to engage in public speaking. In that sense, we resemble the ancients because we still engage in public oratory on a democratic level.

Often rhetoric is considered the art of persuasion, but the aim of a sacrament meeting talk usually is not to persuade the listeners to believe or accept some new thing or idea – unless, of course, you have an audience made mostly of those who are unconverted (whether to the gospel or that particular principle). However, I will discuss the matter of the audience in a future post. The main point here is that a great sacrament meeting talk does not need to persuade – but it does need to effectively communicate with the audience and move them to greater heights of devotion and communion with the spirit.

The series does not intend to teach you to dazzle the audience with your oratorical skills. If the congregation walks out thinking “that guy/gal can certainly speak well,” then you have aggrandized yourself at the expense of the spirit. This series will focus on how to give a great talk that gives the glory to God and not to the speaker.

I will organize the rest of the series around the traditional five canons of rhetoric (parts 1 – 5): invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery. They all cross over in various ways, but in preparing (and preparing for) a sacrament meeting talk, this scheme works very well.

Before I get started though, I figured I would write a “post 0 of 5” in order to see what the larger internet/Bloggernacle community would like to see addressed in this series. Keep in mind that I will focus on “giving a great talk” and not on “not giving a horrible talk” (though some of the latter will inevitably work its way into the discussion).

So, what would y’all like to see included/discussed/avoided in this upcoming series? While I already have the basic ideas ready, like any good rhetorician, I would like to keep my audience in mind as well.

21 thoughts on “How to Give a Great Sacrament Meeting Talk – Part 0 of 5 (Introduction)

  1. Ivan, great idea for a series!

    I’m not sure I have any specific things I would like included, or avoided. Just looking forward to reading the series of posts.

  2. Ivan, count me among those eagerly awaiting your series. I hope you’ll illustrate the principles with multiple examples that might actually be bits from sacrament meeting talks, from both doctrinal talks and special event talks (Mothers’ Day, funeral, whatever). You’re probably already planning on doing that, though. Looking forward to this!

  3. I know this is an extremely problematic area, but I wish more people went into a Sacrament talk promising they would try to do something different than all of the other Sacrament talks on whatever particular subject they have picked. I vote for a discussion on the importance of creativity.

    Anyway, sounds like a great series!

  4. Hooray! I’m giving a talk on June 13, so I am looking forward to reading this series. I agree with Geoff B. on creativity. For me, at least, it seems to be harder to feel the Spirit or be motivated if I have heard the exact same thing presented in the exact same way millions of times. And in the Church we tread a fine line, because it can also be distracting if we do something TOO different.

  5. Our Stake President has made public speaking training a requirement for our High Councilors. And believe it or not, people actually look forward to High Council speakers. I am the High Councilor in my ward. My problem is that now when speakers cancel with short notice, the Bishop calls on me to speak.

    Please stress the role of the Holy Ghost in preparing talks. I was asked three years ago to speak at the last minute. The Spirit told me to (1) use an analogy of canning peaches to making Saints. (2) How scripture study is a part of that transformation process. And (3) a reading the parable of the sheep and goats to see what insights we could obtain that would help us be better Saints. It was a fantastic talk, but how could I go wrong with a talk that the Spirit had written for me?

    Also, testimony brings the Spirit. Bear it early and often.

  6. Floyd, same in our stake.

    “My problem is that now when speakers cancel with short notice, the Bishop calls on me to speak.”

    That’s a problem? *grin*

  7. Ivan, good introduction. But one quibble. I think that to “move them to greater heights of devotion and communion with the spirit” is indeed to persuade. Every good talk has a “call to action.”

    I think you meant that the sacrament speaker isn’t there to convince them of some new doctrine. But again, talks in church are supposed to teach, if not a new subject, then perhaps a new or unique insight on an old subject, or a way to apply a known subject.

  8. To follow up on Bookslinger’s comment, I try very hard when I speak in Sacrament Meeting to teach someone (and preferably everyone) something – and I try not to assume that will happen strictly through the Spirit bringing insights not included in my talk. I know that happens regularly for me and others as we listen, but I also know it doesn’t happen for everyone.

    I want to make sure nobody walks away misunderstanding doctrine, but I also want to have them walk away thinking about something they had not considered prior to my talk – something that will change the way they act. Yes, there is a “call to action”, but I also try to provide a “call to think”.

  9. Bookslinger –
    quibble noted, and I agree (I hope the series, as it progresses, will answer some of your concerns). Part of this has to do with how “persuasion” is defined – and part 1 will, in part, tackle the problem of defining key terms.

    Ardis –

    well, there will be some examples. Perhaps I’ll add in a few more than I originally planned.

    Geoff B –

    originality is important, but it needs to be tempered (BiV notes this as well). I’ve seen some very “original” sacrament meeting talks that made me wish for a boring, dry speaker who would teach some easily understood principle. On the other hand, there does need to be some creativity in the talk – we should give a talk that no one else could give. The spirit may be speaking through us, but we aren’t all automatons, and if we give speeches that anyone else could have given – well, I’ll discuss that soon enough.

    Floyd –

    Noted. I will stress that. It’s the most important part, after all. Giving a good talk will allow the spirit in, but the spirit is more important than any oratorical power.

    BiV –
    hopefully I’ll have the whole series up before your June 13th deadline.

  10. Ray (just missed you while writing my comment) –

    exactly. I might even quote part of your comment there later in the series.

    To all – I hope I get more feedback like this as the series progresses. Great comments, all.

  11. I say that you should emphasize some of the basic mistakes people make (and how to avoid making them.) I used to think that it was silly to keep saying that, e.g., a testimony is not a “thankimony” or a travel log or a detailed medical history, until I started listening more (and reading novels less) in Sacrament meeting. Similarly, you can’t say, for instance, “don’t start your talk with a humorous anecdote regarding your failure to avoid being given this assignment,” frequently enough.

  12. William Morris –

    that will fit under “style” – so I’ll get to it.

    (interestingly, a large chunk of my dissertation deals with British writer, designer, and communist William Morris).

    Part one should go up tomorrow sometime.

  13. Perhaps you might touch upon how we could employ the gifts of prophecy and tongues in our sermons.

  14. I no longer tell jokes in my talks. I am a naturally funny guy as anyone who has seen me can tell. (rim shot) One ward I was speaking in had an ASL interpreter sitting in front of the speaker to the right. He would interpret for the deaf members. I told a joke and he literally fell off his chair. I had to wait for him to regain his composure before I could continue. But even so, I can’t avoid letting a little laugh in now and then.

  15. Is this the right place to bring up Hugh Nibley’s version of the definition of “rhetoric”?:

    Aristotle defines it as the “art of persuasion,” the technical skill by which one convinces people — convinces, that is, everybody of anything for a fee, according to Clement of Alexandria. It is the training and skill by which one can make unimportant things seem important, according to Plato, or, to quote Clement again, “make false opinions seem true by means of words.”

  16. Mark N. –

    I admire Nibley, and count “Approaching Zion” as one of the most important books I’ve read. But, on this, he’s wrong.

    First off, he’s conflating Aristotle with the Sophists. Nibley seems to be taking an extreme form of Socrates’ disdain for the Sophists and putting it onto every practitioner of rhetoric ever (Even Socrates didn’t have that dismal a view of rhetoric: in the Phaedrus, Socrates argued that rhetoric can be a good thing).

    But Nibley also doesn’t realize that every book he ever wrote used rhetoric. Rhetoric is not some specialized realm of study – it’s one of the few subjects that everyone makes use of pretty much all the time. If Nibley ever tried to persuade (which he did), he engaged in rhetoric.

    Nibley was a smart man, but he clearly never truly studied what rhetoric was – instead he just took Socrates from “Gorgias” and took it to an extreme that even Socrates wouldn’t recognize.

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