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Things We Ought to Bring Back: Speech Training

By: Ardis E. Parshall - November 24, 2008

Steve’s recent Big List of things we used to do differently has had me thinking about why some of us are nostalgic for the way things used to be. Some of it is just because we’re old and doddering; some of it is simply because things worked better the way we used to do them. Hence the inauguration of an occasional series of posts about the way we used to do things – not from rosy memory, but from the actual handbooks and lesson manuals we used to use.

In those paradisiacal days – No, wait, that’s rosy memory. Let’s try again –


In the days when the Young Men/Young Women organizations were known as Mutual Improvement Associations (MIA), every fully functioning ward had a speech director who helped the youth learn how to give effective talks. As one manual from 1969 says:

No Latter-day Saint boy or girl – no Latter-day Saint man or woman – can escape sometime being invited to

Offer a prayer
Bear his testimony
Introduce someone to a class or group
Make an announcement or report
Tell a class of his experience
Defend his beliefs, his principles, his point of view
Express his own conviction, his personal feelings, for or against a question
Make a short talk in some auxiliary class, a priesthood quorum, some opening exercise
Speak in Sacrament meeting, in a ward or stake conference, or at a youth conference or a fireside

We did not take it for granted that everyone would magically know how to do such things without training, any more than we assume most children will learn to read without being taught or will be good basketball players without coaching. One of the responsibilities of MIA was to teach Latter-day Saints to be effective speakers.

The Mutual Manual for 1966-67 suggests how that teaching was done, with its three formal lessons on public speaking:

Techniques of Organizing a Short Talk, with the stated objective “to provide an evening of MIA activity which will be a pleasant social experience and give some practical helps in the techniques of organizing a short talk.” Class members learned that short talks consisted of the Introduction, the Body of the Talk, and the Conclusion. Each part was defined and discussed. As an activity, sample short talks were cut into a dozen small sections and “scrambled”; class members put them back into proper order and discussed why such an organization was effective.

Presenting the Short Talk, with the stated objective “To develop a better understanding of some of the basic techniques of presenting short talks and to provide a simple, practical classroom experience in speech delivery.” Class members discussed the effect of attitude, gesture and voice on public speaking, learning how a relaxed attitude, body movement, and a natural speaking voice add to the effectiveness of a talk. Having been asked to learn the text of one of the “scrambled” talks discussed the previous week, each class member had a turn in front of the class to do these things: Stand silently before the group for one minute, trying out different ways of standing and holding his arms, and getting over natural stage fright; another two or three minutes silently rehearsing his talk to himself while he experimented with gestures, and again calming his stage fright; and finally, speaking his talk out loud, using a natural voice and the attitude and gestures he had just experimented with. Since everyone was giving one or the other of the same two talks, and would have his own turn before the group, presumably there was group support and an emphasis on the techniques of delivering the talks, with little concentration on the content of the talks.

Oh Yes You Are a Good Speaker! Class Speech Clinic. The speech director prepared pages with magazine illustrations and a short introductory statement, distributed to class members who then gave three-minute impromptu speeches with those illustrations as a launching point.

In addition to these three class lessons, the MIA had a small booklet (“The Best Red Book in MIA”), with 24 pages of tips on organizing a talk, making an outline, and controlling anxiety. My favorite paragraphs:

What is the Church striving for in providing opportunities for its youth to speak? Is it flowery language? Sophisticated reasoning? A repetition by rote of the words and writings of others? No, it is the honest, personal self-expression of the individual.

The reading of talks and reading of printed articles; the preparation by well-meaning parents and teachers of talks for youth, forces unfamiliar words upon them and confuses their reasoning. The experience of giving an “adult-prepared” talk accomplishes next to nothing in their development.

For those of us without the advantage of a ward speech director and the opportunity to practice speaking before small groups, I recommend a series of posts written a few months ago by Ivan Wolfe at Millennial Star. Here is Part 5, which has links to all the earlier parts. He covers both preparing talks and delivering them – so far as I can tell, Ivan falls short as a speech director only in that he doesn’t offer to come to your ward and critique a dry run of your next Sacrament meeting talk. :)



32 Comments »

  1. Couldn’t agree more!

    Comment by Steve Evans — November 24, 2008 @ 11:31 am

  2. We could add a fourth hour to the block.

    Comment by queuno — November 24, 2008 @ 11:36 am

  3. In all seriousness, I know of wards who have specifically *banned* use of the Church magazines for use in youth talks. They are to use the scriptures only.

    The obvious drawback is that conference talks are out. The obvious benefit is that conference talks are out.

    In wards where I’ve seen that policy, the youth talks improved *drastically*, in that youth were forced to actually come up with their own commentary.

    On my mission, it was commonplace for the local units to call on the missionaries almost every week in Sacrament Meeting, for a testimony or a 20-minute talk (with no notice, because a speaker didn’t show or wasn’t assigned). The missionaries used to give ourselves parameters for these talks ahead of time; one Sunday, you could only speak on Topic X, or you could only use the Nephi books in the BoM, etc. One comp and I even went so far as to assign each other the scriptures we were restricted to using.

    The benefit for me was that I was forced to “work with what I have” and spend more time on explanation of the scriptures and not the scriptures themselves.

    Comment by queuno — November 24, 2008 @ 11:42 am

  4. Thanks, Steve.

    queuno, even without all the restrictions, that sounds like great preparation. We don’t have any youth at all in our ward, but we have a lot of young married couples going to the University, and even some much older speakers, who suffer from the same problem of never having seen a decent Church talk (other than Conference), so all they know how to do is start with a cutesy story about how they met their spouse, followed by a Wikipedia definition of whatever subject they were assigned, followed by reading something they printed off of lds.org, complete to bearing the testimony of the apostle or whoever they’re reading. Week after week it’s the same. I don’t blame them for not knowing better when it’s all they’ve ever seen — I do blame the bishop, though.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 24, 2008 @ 11:49 am

  5. Many wards have a teaching class during Sunday School teaching how to be a good teacher. I halfway think that having a speaking class would be great as well.

    Comment by Clark — November 24, 2008 @ 12:00 pm

  6. #3 & 4: NO TO A FOURTH HOUR!!! Yesterday we had a High Council speaker not show so our BP cut sacrament 25 minutes short, shortened the rest of the meeting schedule and we were there only 2 1/2 hours. I think that is the direction we need to be heading in. (Shorter meeting blocks, not having missionaries fill in when speakers don’t show, etc.) :-)

    Our unit has banned reading a conference talk for a talk. I really would have liked a mutual manual when I was YM president. I did a clinic on talk prep and sure could have used more materials.

    Comment by Steve C. — November 24, 2008 @ 12:05 pm

  7. I’ve always found it interesting that we never call a person to serve in a musical calling unless that person has some musical background, but we feel very little hesitance in extending teaching, speaking, and leadership callings to members without any background in those areas.

    Often it’s justified by claiming that the Spirit will grant them the skills needed for the calling, but my experience is that teaching, speaking, and leading are as much learned skills as music, and require just as much training and practice. I don’t expect the Spirit to fill in the competency gaps that we are capable of filling ourselves through our ward structures, and I’m disappointed when I see church members use the Spirit as a cheap excuse to not provide the necessary resources and training to support our teachers and leaders.

    Perhaps the issue is that we are instructed not to criticize our teachers and leaders, while no such protection is offered to our musicians.

    Comment by Dane — November 24, 2008 @ 12:08 pm

  8. I would love to see this. In fact, I think I will direct some ward and stake people here to brainstorm ways to make it happen even in our current system.

    Comment by Ray — November 24, 2008 @ 1:08 pm

  9. The problem of expecting “the Spirit” to fill in is more than just teachers/leaders etc. It’s just about any calling. Whether or not you’ve had any experience in a particular auxiliary, members of a ward often just expect you to fall into your calling with no explanation or help. If you ask for help, you get the “aren’t you an idiot” look.

    And heaven help you if you’re a convert, because the mortals certainly won’t.

    Comment by SilverRain — November 24, 2008 @ 1:10 pm

  10. Awesome idea for a series, Ardis. I’ll look forward to this.

    Comment by J. Stapley — November 24, 2008 @ 1:35 pm

  11. Norbert posted this guide to talk preparation at BCC:

    http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2008/01/sacrament-meeting-talks-form-and-structure/

    Jana Reiss posted this humorous guide on how NOT to give a talk, targeted at new members:

    http://www.bycommonconsent.com/2006/10/how-to-give-a-sacrament-meeting-talk-an-open-letter-to-converts/

    Comment by queuno — November 24, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

  12. Thanks for the fun walk down memory lane.

    By far the best youth talk I’ve ever heard was given by my own son. This isn’t just bias on my part. He was given the assignment to speak, and I told him I only asked one thing: don’t read anything over the pulpit. He prepared the talk himself, and I heard it for the first time over the pulpit.

    It was about religious values in The Simpsons. And it was fantastic. He was well organized, passionate, articulate, every word reflected his own ideas, he didn’t read anything and he maintained eye contact with the audience throughout.

    I’ve never seen another youth talk come off so well. Even up to two years later there were members of the ward who still remembered and talked about that particular talk.

    Comment by Kevin Barney — November 24, 2008 @ 1:44 pm

  13. We sometimes extended the “give a talk in 5 minutes” thing on my mission into a game. During the times when I was a branch presidency counselor and presiding over the meeting (owing to the president not being present) or when I was the branch president, either my companion or I would plan to speak.

    We would hand the other a slip of paper with a scriptural reference on it on our way to the podium. You had to then open your scriptures, greet the congregation, announce that you were taking your remarks from So-and-So, read the verse out loud, and then continue for 10 minutes.

    I really liked that exercise (you couldn’t do that with a new missionary who didn’t speak the language yet), because you had to focus on the scriptures and their application, not ancillary crap.

    When I was a BP, we had the mission assistants visit on the Mother’s Day. I had managed to get one speaker from the branch, but no one else would commit to coming. So, 5 minutes before the meeting, I told the APs that they each had 5 minutes to prepare a Mother’s Day talk, but couldn’t use the Sons of Helaman. I really wish I’d written down which scriptures they cited, because faced with the last-minute challenge, they could some very inspiring verses on motherhood that I hadn’t considered in that way. Even our member speaker had learned by this time that the missionaries were fans of focusing on scriptural references, not stories.

    Mother’s Day is dicey at best, but it was one of the better meetings I’ve been part of, focused entirely on the scriptures and personal application, not trite stories of dubious authenticity.

    For my children’s talks in primary, we refuse to let them read Friend stories. (We also encourage them to memorize key points and deliver the talk without notes.)

    Comment by queuno — November 24, 2008 @ 1:45 pm

  14. This is getting more attention than I expected — thanks — I’m glad it’s hitting the spot.

    queuno, I remembered Jana’s once you pointed toward it but don’t think I even saw Norbert’s. Thanks. They’re good resources to tie into this.

    On inspiration: “The Best Red Book” has this, right after warning that good talks take preparation:

    You hope to be inspired? We hope so, too, but impulse is neither inspiration nor knowledge. Someone has said, “Inspiration is the final revelation of a process of thought, and we add “provided the well is not dry.”

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 24, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

  15. (I was kidding about the fourth hour. In a lot of parts of the Kingdom, we don’t have enough buildings for a three-hour block without resorting to crazy schedules…)

    Comment by queuno — November 24, 2008 @ 1:50 pm

  16. Ardis: Yes, it would be nice to re-institute training for talks. But while we’re at it, can we also re-institute musical training? Time was that the Church sent out professionals from the Tabernacle and the Music Department. Hmm…let’s see: if the talks improved, and the music improved, I might actually put my book down during Sacrament Meeting!

    Kevin Barney: I want a copy of that talk (“The Religious Values of The Simpsons”). Must…have…that…talk!

    Comment by Hunter — November 24, 2008 @ 1:55 pm

  17. One additional thought — there is a habit now of asking (or allowing) speakers to “introduce their family” when they get up. In situations where the wife speaks first, she’ll tell how many kids they have, where they moved from, and an amusing anecdote about her husband, etc. Then the husband will get up and respond to the amusing anecdote about his wife.

    I realize that there are some wards where there’s a new family every week and that it’s hard to get to know everyone (our ward, just split, had about 50 new families in an 20-month period).

    But can we refrain from the extended introduction? One of our old counselors would encourage people to limit introductions to 30 seconds or less, and he would even help this process by telling the ward who the family was when he introduced them.

    “Our youth speaker is X-and-Y, who is our teacher’s quorum president. He’ll be followed by Sister X, whose family moved into the ward a month ago from Sinking Ship, California, and who has been called recently to serve in the Primary. We’ll all then stand and sing Dreary Hymn When Not Played in Correct Meter. Our final speaker is Brother X, who is helping in the Nursery.”

    I liked his approach. And it shortened the need for the extended-track introduction by each speaker.

    If you have to rely on sacrament meeting talks to get to know your ward members’ names, there’s a problem.

    Comment by queuno — November 24, 2008 @ 1:58 pm

  18. Members of a ward often just expect you to fall into your calling with no explanation or help.

    That’s why most new bishops look terrified. The old one can’t wait to dump his to-do list.

    The stake called in our ward an entirely new slate of clerks (ward clerk, plus finance and membership) about a year and a half ago. Not a single one of the three brethren had ever been a clerk before and knew what to do. Some of those men spent 15 hours a week for a couple of months trying to learn their calling and then straighten out the mess.

    The best training (only?) I’ve ever received for a calling was when I was working in welfare and employment. The sisters who ran the regional LDS employment center (professional employees) could whip you into shape in a couple of months.

    Perhaps the worst training the Church provides is for people involved in Scouting. There’s an assumption that just because a boy was involved in it, that he’ll remember how it works as an adult.

    Comment by queuno — November 24, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

  19. I was jarred by the “no church magazine articles” rule but, upon reflection, think it is a good idea. Speech training would be great, and I think YM/YW is the perfect time.

    And to echo some coments above, we really, really ought to bring back song practice. Really.

    Comment by Martin Willey — November 24, 2008 @ 3:04 pm

  20. Perhaps the worst training the Church provides is for people involved in Scouting.

    The local council provides plenty of good training for adult Scout leaders. They have to be willing to show up for it, however.

    Comment by Last Lemming — November 24, 2008 @ 3:07 pm

  21. We’ll all then stand and sing Dreary Hymn When Not Played in Correct Meter.

    Song practice please!! On Sunday our Chorister and our organist had a tug of war over the tempo of the each hymn. The chorister kept speeding it up and the organist kept trying to slow it down. At least they weren’t outright ignoring each other.

    Comment by BruceC — November 24, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

  22. Ardis, I need to add my gripes to your comment #4. The first thing speakers say is that they went online “that morning” to find a talk. Most of the time the speakers don’t even understand the talks they pull up, so they take a few sentences out of context. They joke about not knowing how to pronounce a word, or even what it means. I actually saw one youth speaker try several times to say a word, and finally the Bishop got up and told him what it was, a la Primary.

    Comment by Maurine — November 24, 2008 @ 3:28 pm

  23. Dane wrote,
    “we never call a person to serve in a musical calling unless that person has some musical background.” That may be true, but over and over I see people called to music positions where they can only fail miserably. Our ward has called several people to be choir pianist, who are beginning pianists, and who can’t begin to accompany the choir. I have seen these poor sisters break into tears in the middle of choir practice. Years ago, my daughter was called to be the Primary pianist. When she told the bishop that she didn’t play that well (she didn’t!) he told her not to be so modest, of course she could play because her mom taught piano. After a month of total stress, the Primary president asked her if it would be ok to release her. That’s how bad it was. Ardis, maybe you need to do a session on music.

    Comment by Maurine — November 24, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

  24. We were just the opposite yesterday with the music, BruceC; I kept trying to speed things up and the chorister kept trying to slow things down. I don’t know if she realizes she’s doing it, so I tend to ignore her and try my hardest to keep the tempo to the top of the range.

    It’s tough since congregations tend to drag, and so keeping the organ up to tempo is like swimming upstream.

    The number one organist’s trick (that I know) for getting the congregation up to speed is to play several measures staccato, but I don’t like doing that too frequently (and never during the sacrament), and I don’t like to seem like I am fighting with the chorister, either, so I usually compromise, which usually ends with the song a little slower than it should be.

    And if the chorister doesn’t know how to start the song or does a big long pause between each verse… aargghhh!!

    (Probably more than you wanted to know!)

    Comment by Researcher — November 24, 2008 @ 3:42 pm

  25. There are quite a few music handbooks and ward music specialist manuals lying around the library — I’ll see what we used to do to teach song leaders, accompanists, and congregations to sing, and maybe that will give us some new ideas, along with the ones you-all can share.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — November 24, 2008 @ 4:01 pm

  26. The local council provides plenty of good training for adult Scout leaders. They have to be willing to show up for it, however.

    I’ll stand by my statement that the Church needs to do a better job of training scouters.

    Local councils and districts assume you’re in it for the long haul. They assume you’ll take Irving’s word as law, not Salt Lake’s. They don’t necessarily understand the peculiarities of LDS Scouting (this is not a place to debate these, although we do need to recognize that they exist).

    The Church needs to augment BSA with Church-specific instruction on how to do Scouting, in the Church. You end up with new leaders who are torn between the helpful BSA people and the not-so-helpful Church people (whose program he has to follow, anyway).

    I’m queuno, and I’m a scarred, yet recovered, ex-Mormon (Cub) Scouter.

    Comment by queuno — November 24, 2008 @ 4:10 pm

  27. There are certain callings that require certain non-gospel skills. Pianist. Technology specialist. Financial clerk. Scouting (I would contend).

    It may be great to develop these skills outside of a calling (I remember my home ward doing extensive organist training for youth with piano skills, to develop future organists). But for those particular callings, you can’t learn on the job.

    Seminary teachers, for example, need to be demonstrably good teachers already. (Because heavens, we know CES doesn’t develop ‘em!)

    Comment by queuno — November 24, 2008 @ 4:14 pm

  28. When DH and I were young married students at BYU we used to drive the 7 hours to Las Vegas to visit his family. En route, we gave each other topics and presented 10 minute impromptu talks to each other. I think all the practice is why I don’t fear giving talks today.

    I’d love to see more training and better-prepared talks in the Church. I really liked Ivan Wolfe’s series, it was quite helpful.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — November 24, 2008 @ 6:37 pm

  29. Queuno, I agree that Seminary teachers need to already be good. But the training really depends on your coordinator. I’ve had some very competent ones, who have improved the quality of teaching demonstrably.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — November 24, 2008 @ 6:39 pm

  30. Speaking of former training that is no longer done — I had the advantage of being called (as a student) into the Teacher Development Class my senior year of HS (1970-71). It was a very rigorous 12-week program that included a few weeks of student teaching. Our teacher was our former bishop — and he accepted no excuses whatsoever for missing any of the 12 lessons. The materials were a thick notebook. It was a great class.

    After graduating from high school and going off to BYU, I was called to be the Teacher Development instructor for my BYU student ward and did that all through my freshman year.

    I credit those two experiences for whatever skill I have as a teacher. Unfortunately, the quarterly “teacher development” meetings that the Church now holds just aren’t enough. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — November 24, 2008 @ 6:40 pm

  31. Wow, just think how much better our essay writing would be if we’d had this training at church.

    Comment by Michelle Glauser — November 25, 2008 @ 4:32 am

  32. Our Stake President instituted training for High Councilors. Not just speaking, but all aspects of the calling. As a result, members actually look forward to HC speakers and we are mor confident in our callings.

    On the downside, our Bishop has instituted use of conference talks as topics for Sacrament Meeting talks. As a result the speaker typically reads us the talk. I’ve already heard conference and read the talks, so I take the topic and write my own talk.

    The High Priest “Teachings for Our Time” lesson is a re-reading of a conference talk. I use my calling as an excuse to attend the Elder’s Quorum that week. They actually prepare a lesson.

    When I was bishop we gave the youth public speaking instruction given by an English Professor. The youth were excited to speak in church. Unfortunately following administrations have assumed that the ability just magically appeared in the youth. Sad.

    Comment by Floyd the Wonderdog — November 25, 2008 @ 6:24 am

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