How to Give a Great Sacrament Meeting Talk – Part 3 of 5: Style

Part 2 here. Part 1.5 here. Part 1 here. Part 0 here.

I feel like Douglas Adams, trying to squeeze five books into a trilogy. This one will be split into two (or maybe three) parts.

Style can be taught several ways. One way is to list various tropes and figures (of which there are hundreds) and then talk about how to use them in writing. Since many Mormons are familiar with at least one particular figure of speech (chiasmus) and several tropes (like allegories, metaphors, and similes, especially through the use of parables) this could be a productive approach. The other is to discuss things like high, middle, and low styles and give examples and discuss which is appropriate for given situations and audiences.

Style, however, is a very individual thing, and often changing it requires dedicated practice. For example, I’ve spent the last few years attempting to reduce the amount of “be” verbs from my writing style. Overall, I have reduced them significantly, but I am still not satisfied. I don’t expect any of my readers to attempt to change their personal style drastically. If you feel the need to, there are several great books on style out there. (I particularly recommend anything by Richard Lanham).

So, for this series, I won’t suggest you attempt to change your style or adopt any specific style. Instead, I have two simple suggestions that will help improve whatever style you have already developed (and don’t say you don’t have any style. In this case, style is a neutral term – all writing, even indecipherable scribbles, has some sort of style). After those suggestions, I will begin a more in-depth discussion of style that will hopefully help the curious reader expand their toolbox of stylistic devices.

*First, two simple suggestions for style:

1. Double check your spelling, punctuation and grammar. Don’t rely on the grammar checker on your computer (anytime I see really bizarre grammar in my student’s papers, it’s because the grammar checker told them to change something), but have a spouse or friend read it through to help catch the problems you have overlooked.

Make sure you read it through several times, looking for errors. It’s best if you don’t try to read it through looking for every possible error each time. Instead, read it through once looking at commas, then read it through checking for subject/verb agreement, and then read it through checking for pronouns and their referents (and if you don’t know the rules, either get a good grammar book, or do a web search. There are several excellent websites that deal with grammar and punctuation).

2. Read your talk out loud, as though you were giving it. This helps with delivery (which will be part five of this series), but it also helps you catch stray or missing commas, sentences that don’t end (or end too soon), and out of place clauses or other artifacts of revision and writing.

I cannot stress this enough: Read your talk out loud at least once (preferably twice) before giving it. If you ignore everything else I tell you, follow this piece of advice. In fact, this works for any writing, even if you aren’t going to orally deliver it. Reading out loud (not under your breath or in a quiet voice – but as if you were addressing an audience) always improves the style, flow, and grammar of any piece of writing.

*Next, here are some examples of intensely styled writing in the Mormon vein: Oliver Cowdrey, Joseph Smith, and Neal A. Maxwell. By these examples, I hope to show that style is not just for those engaged in rhetorical trickery or obfuscation. Style is more than decoration – a well styled phrase often carries more impact than it would if told in other, less stylish words. On the other hand, a “plain” style makes the talk easier to understand. However, as Neal A. Maxwell (and others) show us, a little extra style will not only not interfere with the message, it can make a concept more meaningful. As always, follow the Spirit and your best judgments about your particular audience. However, never choose to “style up” your talk in order to impress the congregation.

Anyway, by using these examples, I don’t expect you to write a talk in these styles. At the same time, I hope that by showing their writing, and then analyzing the style they use, I can give you some ideas you could integrate into your own talks (especially since these are classic Mormon styles that will resonate with most LDS audiences). Basically, I don’t want you to sound like an imitation of Maxwell, but hopefully you might find a few things you could use when initially composing, revising, or polishing your talk.

1. Oliver Cowdrey: “I shall not attempt to paint to you the feelings of this heart, nor the majestic beauty and glory which surrounded us on this occasion; but you will believe me when I say, that earth, nor men, with the eloquence of time, cannot begin to clothe language in as interesting and sublime a manner as this holy personage. No; nor has this earth power to give the joy, to bestow the peace, or comprehend the wisdom which was contained in each sentence as they were delivered by the power of the Holy Spirit! Man may deceive his fellow-men, deception may follow deception, and the children of the wicked one may have power to seduce the foolish and untaught, till naught but fiction feeds the many, and the fruit of falsehood carries in its current the giddy to the grave; but one touch with the finger of his love, yes, one ray of glory from the upper world, or one word from the mouth of the Savior, from the bosom of eternity, strikes it all into insignificance, and blots it forever from the mind.”

Notice three things about Cowdrey’s style here (other than I personally think he uses too many words):

a. He uses lists that are generally composed of three elements. Two examples: ‘to give the joy, to bestow the peace, or comprehend the wisdom’ or ‘one touch with the finger of his love, yes, one ray of glory from the upper world, or one word from the mouth of the Savior.’ This is something of a Western culture thing (think of all the fairy tales where the hero must accomplish three tasks, or encounters three villains), so depending on where you are in the world, the number may change. However, in Western culture, lists of three work well. They feel natural, they don’t call attention to themselves, and they provide a sense of completeness. Why this is so, I don’t know – but trust me, it works. (In fact, feel free to read through my series so far and see the number of times I use short lists of three – ‘spelling, punctuation and grammar’ from above provides one example).

b. He uses a lot of alliteration. For example: ‘fruit of falsehood carries in its current the giddy to the grave.’ If overused, this can get annoying rather quickly (don’t say: “The Lord loves little luminous learners leaning like luscious . . .” which just sounds trite), but if used in small doses it can make your talk more memorable. (Think of all the comic book characters with alliterative names – Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Lois Lane, etc. It makes their names easier to remember). Alliteration helps principles stick in the mind of the audience.

c. Notice how his prose introduces a concept and then expands upon it, using it as a framing device. Early on, he says “that earth, nor men . . . cannot begin to clothe language in as interesting and sublime a manner as this holy personage” and then follows that sentence with too long clauses dealing with “earth” and “men” (‘No; nor has this earth power to give the joy . . .’ and ‘Man may deceive his fellow-men . . .’). Cowdrey sets up an expectation, and then follows through.

2. Joseph Smith: “Never did any passage of scripture come with more power to the heart of man than this did at this time to mine. It seemed to enter with great force into every feeling of my heart. I reflected on it again and again, knowing that if any person needed wisdom from God, I did; for how to act I did not know, and unless I could get more wisdom than I then had, I would never know; for the teachers of religion of the different sects understood the same passages of scripture so differently as to destroy all confidence in settling the question by an appeal to the Bible.”

a. What I really like about this passage is the rhythm. Good prose has rhythm, and while it’s not the metrical rhythm of some types of poetry, you can almost tap this out: “than this did at this time to mine” = ba DUM da/ba DUM da/da DUM. This is another reason reading your talk out loud helps – even if you aren’t trained, you will naturally sense when your rhythms are off. Academic and bureaucratic writing often seems so dull and hard to read because it lacks rhythm of any sort.

b. Some people are afraid to repeat words, fearing it will sound like a broken record (in these MP3 times, does anyone understand that simile any more?). However, this passage shows that repeating words can be just fine, if done correctly. As long as each time you use the word (say, “wisdom” or “different[ly]”), you introduce new information, then repeating words in close succession can work well. While I would caution against too much repetition, I would advise you not be afraid of it either.

3. Neal A. Maxwell: “Brightness of Hope.” – “A coalition of consequences is emerging. As prophesied, the love of many waxes cold (see Matt. 24:12). Even those affectionally secure themselves can sense the chill in the air. The loss of hope sends selfishness surging, as many turn, even more intensively, to pleasing themselves. The diminished sense of sin diminishes shame, that hot, sharp spur needed for repentance. Shame is often replaced by the arrogance of those morally adrift, including strutting celebrities whose outer boldness camouflages their inner emptiness. Henry David Thoreau correctly observed that “unconscious despair is concealed even under what are called the games and amusement of mankind” (Walden, New York: Harper and Row, 1965, p. 7). No wonder so much hollow laughter emanates from the ‘lonely crowd.’

As societies trivialize traditional values, we witness a flow of immense suffering. We anguish, for instance, over what happens to the unborn, who cannot vote, and to children at risk. We weep over children having children and children shooting children. Often secular remedies to these challenges are not based on spiritual principles. To borrow a metaphor—secular remedies resemble an alarmed passenger traveling on the wrong train who tries to compensate by running up the aisle in the opposite direction!

Only the acceptance of the revelations of God can bring both direction and correction and, in turn, bring a “brightness of hope” (2 Ne. 31:20). Real hope does not automatically ‘spring eternal’ unless it is connected with eternal things!”

a. Alliteration, again. Alliteration pervades the entire passage: “coalition of consequences” and “sends selfishness surging” at the beginning with “trivialize traditional” and “remedies resemble” near the end.

b. Not only does Maxwell not avoid repeating himself, he relishes the repetition of words. “Children having children and children shooting children” would not have as much impact without the repeating of words. He also repeats words by changing their usage: “diminished sense of sin diminishes shame” works because he uses (in close proximity) “diminish” first as an adjective and then as a verb.

c. Maxwell makes great use of antithesis (or contrasting opposites). In the phrase “strutting celebrities whose outer boldness camouflages their inner emptiness,” the phrases “outer boldness” and “inner emptiness” are the antithesis (or opposite) of each other. While one could find other ways to express the same idea, Maxwell’s use of this figure makes his point in the clearest, most memorable way possible.

And so: Onward and Upward! In the next installment (3.5), I will discuss allegory, metaphor, and similes (among a few other things), including how and when to use them (or not use them).

6 thoughts on “How to Give a Great Sacrament Meeting Talk – Part 3 of 5: Style

  1. Ivan, great series. I like the idea of practicing your talk aloud. Probably a good idea. And every time I read some of Elder Maxwell’s prose I appreciate it more.

  2. Once again, a great post! Good advice for any speaker, really.

    I mourn the loss of Elder Maxwell and his prose. Our loss is heaven’s gain!

  3. When practicing my talk aloud, I also practice my gestures. I use gestures to give additional emphasis. The type and style of gestures then needs to be considered.

  4. I’m enjoying your whole series, and I think the best thing I get from this part is to read it out loud, but I’m not sure how many people can follow the advice to improve their style. I personally wouldn’t know where to begin to improve my style; I’m much more worried about saying what should be said and the order it should be said.

    I guess I’m just simple..

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