How to Give a Great Sacrament Meeting Talk – Part 1 of 5: Invention.

(Apologies for this being a day late. My Internet connection was down for a large chunk of time yesterday).

Invention, in the simplest definition, is coming up with the material to discuss – your topic, your thesis, etc. This is easy, right? After all, the bishop (or stake president, or whoever) assigns you a topic, and there you go. Invention is done for you. Now, all you have to do is find a few General Authority quotes, add a few personal anecdotes, and you have talk. Right?

Wrong. In many ways, invention is the hardest part of writing a talk, and it’s often where the talk goes wrong.

So, you’ve been given a topic – temple attendance, the law of chastity, tithing, whatever. Merely having a topic does not guarantee you actually have a topic worthy of a great sacrament meeting talk. Too often sacrament meeting talks lack focus because the speaker merely talks randomly about various topics related to the overall subject, with no real rhyme or reason. So, here’s how you should go about finding an actual topic beyond the often vague one assigned to you. (Augustine’s manual on Christian rhetoric spends more time on invention than any other part of rhetoric. Keep that in mind when considering how much time you should spend on invention).

First – pray. If you want the Spirit with you when you speak, then have the Spirit with you when you prepare. Say a prayer as soon as you get the assignment. Pray for help in your personal prayers. Pray always. This is the best advice, and it should be considered a given throughout this whole series.

However, do not expect the spirit to tell you exactly what to say. It can, but don’t count on it. Instead, consider this the “studying it out in your mind” part. You put in your effort, and the Spirit will do his part as well.

Second – break the topic down into various areas. “Tithing” is more than just paying ten percent of your income to the church. It covers such areas as sacrifice, obedience to the Lord, consecration, and building up the kingdom.

A good way to break your topic up is to follow the lead of Hermogenes. He invented (or at least popularized) the idea of stasis theory in rhetoric (don’t let that scare you away – this isn’t as erudite as it sounds, and it’s very useful even for the non-academic). Basically, he says that disagreements or misunderstandings occur at various levels, and once we figure out where that level is, then we can engage in productive discussion or argumentation. The levels are:

a. fact (disagreement about what the reality is)

b. definition (how do we define the key terms, or what labels do we use?)

c. evaluation (is this good, bad, indifferent? How do we interpret it?)

d. proposal (what course of action should we take, or what belief should we adopt?)

e. causal (what is the effect of doing or believing this? What has caused this thing to happen?)

To explain these levels, a murder trial usually serves as a good example:

Fact: Who killed who? Did someone in fact die?

Definition: What do we call it? Is it murder? Or self-defense?

Evaluation: Was this justifiable homicide? Are there extenuation circumstances?

Proposal: What sentence or punishment do we impose?

Causal: What happens if we jail this person or set them free? What was their motive for the crime?

Now, let’s apply this to the topic of tithing. Here’s one way you could divide that topic:

Fact: What is tithing? What do the scriptures and prophets actually say about it?

Definition: How do we define tithing? Is it “merely” ten percent of our income? What is “increase”?

Evaluation: What do we make of the commandment to tithe? How do we deal with people’s concerns over this commandment?

Proposal: How can we better keep this law?

Causal: Why do we have this commandment? What happens if we keep this commandment? What happens if we fail to keep this commandment?

Clearly, there are more questions that could be asked, but each on of those levels is a talk all by itself. Too many sacrament meeting talks wander through each one of these levels, apparently at random, without ever making a solid point for the congregation to take home. Focusing on (or maybe two) of these levels will allow you to go more in-depth and to really explore that particular aspect of your topic.

Of course, how do you know which levels to focus on? Read on.

Third – Know yourself and know your audience. Aristotle said that one of the most important aspects of rhetoric was the character of the speaker – otherwise known as ethos. Ethos encompasses how your audience views you: Will they consider you trustworthy on a topic? Do you have some specific connection to the topic that might boost your credibility (i.e. a medical doctor assigned to speak on the Word of Wisdom)? Are you the Bishop or Stake President? Are you a “dry” council speaker? Do people have any reason to tune you out or listen more intently when you speak?

However, at the same time, don’t ruin your ethos in the talk. Here’s a bad example: I once heard a talk by a graduate student who was assigned to discuss “freedom” on the sacrament meeting nearest the Fourth of July. His first words went something like this: “Since I study the Revolutionary War era, I suppose the Bishop wanted me to discuss Freedom and the founding of America. But since I’m one of those revisionist historians who argue that the so-called founding fathers were racist and sexist, I’ll talk about modern day freedom.” This was followed by a 35 minute tirade about why everyone in his family left the church because other members took their freedom away by being judgmental.
Perhaps he had a legitimate gripe, but overall his approach was the wrong one to take. You are not the focus of the talk, and you are not there to air your grievances.

A better example comes from the time I heard a cop give a talk that started out something like this: “In my line of work, we usually see the worst of humanity. Often this makes it hard to see someone the way Christ would, especially when that person has just threatened you and your family while high on several types of drugs. Today, I’m going to talk about seeing others as Christ sees them, and while I will be using personal stories, I only use them because they’re the stories I know best.”
This is a much better introduction because it establishes the speaker’s character while keeping the focus on the gospel principle.

While you must consider your ethos, the character of the ward you will address can be even more important. Now, you may not know everyone in the ward, but hopefully you have some idea of the overall character (if not, ask the Bishop for some help in this area).

If you wish to give a great sacrament meeting talk, you need to know what issues the ward needs to hear most. Is this a poorer ward? A largely student ward? A muti-ethnic ward? A blue-collar ward? A ward made up of mostly recent converts?

You need to know these things because each one of these wards will need to hear something different about the principle of tithing (or whatever your topic is). Talks that wander randomly over every area possible will wind up being something for everybody and therefore nothing for anybody. Yes, you cannot always give a talk that applies to everyone in the room, but if you aim for a topic that applies to the majority of the room, I guarantee that (as long as you do it with prayer and the correct attitude) the Spirit will make sure that even those not directly addressed by your topic will get something out of the talk.

Fourth – Be original, but also realize that originality is overrated. By focusing in on a specific aspect of your subject matter, you will already be more original than 90% of the sacrament meeting talks out there. So, resist the urge to give that wildly original talk that covers ground no one else has covered before.

In my time, I’ve heard the following original topics:

a. Why God will punish you if you kill roaches, because all of God’s creatures are sacred.

b. How to save the Constitution by stockpiling weapons in your basement.

c. Why helping the poor means investing in the stock market rather than giving to charity.

d. How the Lord of the Rings really is scripture.

e. Let’s talk about how rich your Bishop is since it’s a sign he’s extremely righteous.

All of these are quite original, but they don’t bring in the spirit and they reveal more about the speaker’s personal hobby horses than they do about whatever gospel ideal was supposed to be discussed.

A speech that spends 20 minutes exploring in-depth how to keep the law of tithing is more valuable than a talk on your personal views about gross vs. net payment of tithing and why the IRS is evil because the 16th amendment was illegally ratified.

Be original, but not too original. Like I said above – by narrowing your focus down, you will already be more original and interesting than the usual talk most of us encounter.

Now that you have your topic, it’s on to arrangement – or, how to fill up that 20 or so minutes. To have a great talk, it will take more than a dozen GA quotes and a few personal stories, though that isn’t a bad place to start. More on that in Part 2.

Discussion below, of course. If you have any questions or disagreements, let me know. I often think the discussion that these post s invite can be more valuable than the initial post.

7 thoughts on “How to Give a Great Sacrament Meeting Talk – Part 1 of 5: Invention.

  1. Congratulations on making public speaking an interesting topic. I find it quite ineresting. I hope you don’t mind if I share this with my Stake President. Your “dry” council speaker remark is exactly why my Stake President instituted public speaking classes for the High Council. He is a strong believer in training a person for their calling. He has prepared training materials for Bishops and Quorum leaders. He also expects the Stake auxilary leaders to train their charges. But I digress.

    I recommend that one also include a couple of scriptures on the subject. I like to include at least one scripture mastery scripture. I was speaking in one ward and when I quoted a scripture several of the youth turned around and looked at a sister. It happened again later in my talk. I asked afterwards what was up. The seminary teacher had promised the youth a candy bar if I quoted a scripture mastery scripture.

    I’ve always dreaded those speakers that avoid the assigned topic. “I was asked to talk on the Atonement, but I’d rather talk on why we need to avoid white flour.” When I was bishop, the bishopric would prayerfully consider the topics to be assigned. Then someone would feel that they knew what the ward needed more than the bishop and go off on a personal tirade.

    Your comment on targeting a portion of the demographic is exactly why prayer is an essential. The Lord knows who in the congregation needs to hear the message. He will help you prepare a talk that will address their needs.

    I eagerly await the next installation.

  2. After I left the classroom as a teacher, I took a job in educational publishing sales. I was used to talking with people of high academic achievement, and I liked to challenge my students, so I was inclined to speak the same way in my new sales position. After all, I was selling to educators, philanthropic executive directors and political leaders.

    My first Regional Manager (a friend and fellow member) told me something that changed the way I interacted with my contacts – and has influenced how I approach talks in church. He said, “Quit talking at a level that threatens your audience. Very few people like to have to concentrate to know what you are saying.”

    The same is true in church. If the congregation has to focus energy simply on understanding what you are saying, they will not have energy left to contemplate it – or to hear the Spirit whisper something directly to them. If you can’t explain a concept to a 12-year-old, you probably don’t understand it fully – and your talk will have no impact on those who hear the words but not the message.

  3. Snap, Ivan. I’m starving for the next installment. This is the best series I’ve seen in the bloggernacle.

  4. It’s coming. However, I just flew into Alaska a few days ago, and have spent the last few days settling in for the summer and working. But part two will come in a few days.

  5. I missed this somehow, until seeing the link in Part 1.5.

    Thanks for breaking down the possibilities for finding a focus, and by making it so clear by use of examples from topics we are so familiar with (at least, familiar with through TV in the first case!)

    I teach the 4th Sunday lesson in Relief Society, and this principle — which I’ve been sorta following by instinct, but not in the systematic way you have outlined it — will be equally valid in choosing a direction for turning a conference talk into a lesson.

  6. I enjoyed this article as the thing I fear the most is to be called on for a talk. I am trying for the life of me to think of what I might talk about, although I suspect that the Bishop will chooe a topic. I wonder where the other 4 parts to this article are located as I was only able to read Part 1 of 5. Where can I fiind all the parts of this topic?

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