Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Speech Training: “How to Interest Our Audience”

Speech Training: “How to Interest Our Audience”

By: Ardis E. Parshall - December 15, 2008

The interest in – or at least recognition of – our church-wide need for training in public speaking, together with Kevin Barney’s post today on Reading at Church prompts me to offer this additional lesson from the 1966 “Lessons and Activities” book for small MIAs (MIAs with so few members that it made little sense to offer the full program of Beehives, Scouts, etc.). This activity was intended as a presentation to youth and adults of all ages, meeting together, and could easily be adapted to a youth or adult activity today – a bishop could use it as a 5th Sunday lesson in the joint Priesthood/Relief Society meeting, or it could be a combined YM/YW evening. It is illustrated with examples from general public speaking, but would work just as well for typical Sacrament meeting subjects as long as you substituted topical stories that were as unusual, uncertain, familiar, antagonistic, animate, and concrete as those in the original lesson.

Objective: The purpose of this lesson is to point up the important factor of using the unusual, uncertain, familiar, antagonistic, animate and concrete in a speech.


Six Hecklers (each of whom is assigned one of the factors of “interestingness”)


The leader briefly but glowingly introduces the speaker.

The speaker, without animation, begins a talk on a highly technical subject (perhaps atomic energy).

After he has talked for about two minutes in terms unfamiliar to the lay person, the six hecklers who have been planted in various places in the audience begin to make comments, such as “What is he talking about?” “Who said this was going to be interesting!” etc. The comments should be made loud enough to be disturbing.

The leader, acting embarrassed and upset, steps to the side of the speaker, stops him and says to the audience: “It appears that some of us are not interested in what our speaker is saying.”

Then calling the heckler by name who has been assigned “the unusual” says: “You seem not to be interested in what Brother _____ is telling us.”

1st Heckler: I suppose I don’t know enough about the subject to be interested. They say one of the ways to get attention is to tell something unusual, but the audience should be able to understand what is said.

Leader: Perhaps this is a timely interruption. We need to know what factors make an interesting talk. We need to be able to hold our audience without a rope. Let us write this on the chalkboard, “How to Hold Your Audience without a Rope.” No. 1 – The Unusual. Maybe you would like to give us an example of what you mean by “the unusual.”

1st Heckler: During the last world war, Brother Oscar A. Kirkham was sent to speak to a group of servicemen. When introduced he stood before the pulpit and began to sing a simple little song. He paused, smiled and started to sing again. By the time he was partly through the second time, a few of the boys had joined in. He said nothing, smiled and started to sing the song a third time, and this time the whole congregation joined in. Then he proceeded to talk about the glory of serving one’s country.

2nd Heckler: I like a speaker to introduce something that arouses my curiosity, such as the story of “The Black Door”: “An Arab Chief tells the story of a spy who had been captured and sentenced to death by a general of the Persian army. The general had fallen upon a strange and weird custom. He permitted the condemned person to make a choice. He could either face the firing squad or pass through the Black Door.

“As the moment of execution drew near, the general ordered the spy to be brought before him for a short, final interview, the primary purpose of which was to receive the answer of the doomed man to the query: ‘Which shall it be – the firing squad or the Black Door?’

“That was not an easy question, and the prisoner hesitated, but soon made it known that he much preferred the firing squad. Not long thereafter a volley of shots in the courtyard announced that the grim sentence had been fulfilled.

“The general, staring at his boots, turned to his aide and said, ‘You see how it is with men; they will always prefer the known way to the unknown. It is characteristic of people to be afraid of the undefined. And yet I gave him his choice.’

“‘What lies beyond the Black Door?’ asked the aide.

“‘Freedom,’ replied the general, ‘and I’ve known only a few men brave enough to take it.’” (From You Can Learn to Speak, pp. 9-10.)

So I would like to add “the uncertain” to the list.

3rd Heckler: I like a speaker to bring in something with which I am familiar. It makes me feel like we have something in common. For example, the president of the alumni of the local high school was asked to give a short talk at the dedication ceremonies of the school’s new gymnasium. His first impulse was to write a pretentious address and commit it to memory, but upon reflection decided to recall familiar happenings. this is what he said: “I can remember when I played basketball for this high school. Some of you old team mates in the audience played with me in the opera house. On cold nights like this one tonight, we had no heat in our dressing room … As we dressed and undressed before and after the games, we shivered and shook. But we were perfect gentlemen – that is, after the games were over. We always permitted the visiting team to shower first in the hot water that came from a monkey stove of limited capacity. When our turn came, only cold water remained. Most of us survived the games, but the memory of those showers still gives me a chilly feeling. This new and beautiful gymnasium changes all of this. And are we oldsters thrilled! We know our boys and girls now have the advantages required to achieve new heights of athletic glory.” (You Can Learn to Speak, pages 51-52.)

May we add “the familiar” to the factors of interestingness.

4th Heckler: I like the challenge of something antagonistic, like struggles, feuds, contest, floods and such. The listener’s ear is always turned to conflict whether in people or things. Physical struggles – fights, feuds, hunts, or contests, floods or devastating winds. Debates or disputes – all glue the listener’s ear to his mental arena. Sometimes a speaker must bring in the negative, the antagonistic, to make a positive point. (Add “the antagonistic” to the list.)

5th Heckler: My favorite speaker is the enthusiastic person. Listeners are attracted to people and things that abound with vitality and activity.

A recent survey indicated that a high I.Q. was not as important to the success of an executive as enthusiasm. A group of leading educators were asked to name the main qualifications for success in teaching. Not one of them mentioned I.Q. All agreed on “enthusiasm and ability to inspire.” It disclosed that even scientists do not have to possess exceptionally high I.Q.’s to be good scientists; they need enthusiasm and a driving interest in their field.

Leader: Enthusiasm and animation always capture our interest. Certainly every speaker or teacher should make use of the “animate” if he expects to win the interest of his listeners. (Add this quality to the list.)

6th Heckler: What the others have said is all true and important, but none of them has mentioned the factor of interestingness that I think is the most important. It is concreteness. To the average listener, the philosopher is more interesting than philosophy. Christ’s life is more interesting than Christian life in the abstract. Solomon’s temple is more fascinating than the theory of architecture.

There is a tale related in one of our MIA speech texts, You Can Learn to speak, which tells about a missionary who preached to the natives of the Fiji Islands. He told them that although their sins were as scarlet, belief in Jesus would make them white as snow. The natives were unmoved. blank, staring expressions remained upon their faces. The missionary was perplexed.

The next day he returned and said, “Although your sins be as red as blood, if you will live as Jesus tells you, they will become as white as the milk of the coconut.” The wide grins and nodding heads told the missionary that this time the natives understood.

Snow was an abstraction to the natives. They had never seen it or felt it, but the “milk of the coconut” was for them life-giving food. Whether a thing is concrete or abstract depends on the experience of each individual.

Every effective speaker is aware of the necessity of making himself understood through the use of “the concrete.”

Leader: I am sure we are all interested in knowing how to hold an audience without a rope. (Pointing to list of factors of interestingness.) These, according to the best authorities on public speaking, are factors of interestingness. It doesn’t mean that a single talk should include all of them, but every talk should include some of them, if you don’t want your audience to stop listening before you have finished speaking.



  1. Thanks Ardis.

    I wondered what was currently in print on speech-making, so I checked the Distribution Center online catalog. A search on “speech” yielded four results, three of which were unrelated to what I was looking for.

    There is something called the “Communications Manual” that claims:

    This manual tells how to prepare and present a talk, communicate using speech and graphics (such as posters, signs, and programs), and prepare a ward newsletter. For speech specialists.

    Anybody ever seen this? Is it worth the $3.95?

    Is there anything else out there? Anything in Spanish?

    (I have my own biases against “communication.” Does D&C 20 say the duty is to “teach, preach, expound, exhort and communicate”? It’s a gut-less, sniveling word, sort of like “sharing”–as in testimonies.)

    Comment by Mark B. — December 15, 2008 @ 2:46 pm

  2. Actually, Sacrament meetings might be improved if we had hecklers. Or wasn’t that the point of the lesson?

    Comment by Mark B. — December 15, 2008 @ 2:47 pm

  3. I haven’t seen the manual, Mark, or even heard that “speech specialist” was a current ward/stake position. It would be hard NOT to be worth $3.95, wouldn’t it?

    You can heckle me anytime. I’ll heckle back. I’d almost guarantee that would be one meeting the ward would remember. :)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 15, 2008 @ 2:49 pm

  4. The “Communications Manual” that I last saw had blue microphones etc on a green background on the cover, and the stuff inside was so antiquated that today’s youth would be scratching their heads at it. “What’s a ‘typewriter’?”

    Comment by Alison — December 15, 2008 @ 5:18 pm

  5. I heart hecklers.

    Comment by Hunter — December 15, 2008 @ 5:26 pm

  6. Tsk-tsk. Today’s youth should know that a “typewriter” is that thing you type stencils on in order to run off ward bulletins on the mimeograph.

    That’s heckling!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 15, 2008 @ 5:29 pm

  7. From the “Activities” section of the handbook:

    “Speech Specialists: The stake presidency or an assigned high councilor may call a stake speech specialist. The bishopric may call a ward speech specialist.

    “Speech Specialists serve under the direction of the cultural arts director [this person serves under the stake/ward activities committee chair]. They plan and direct stake or ward speech and communication activities, such as speech festivals. They help people prepare talks and newsletters as requested. They also attend stake or ward activities committee meetings.”

    I ordered a “Communications Manual” a few years ago (along with the “Dance Manual” and the “Theatre Manual”). I am now the ward activities committee chair, and I was going to try and dig up the communications manual because we are having a ward poetry recital in a few months, and I wanted to see if there were any good ideas in there that would apply to the recital.

    Comment by Kat — December 15, 2008 @ 5:58 pm

  8. Thanks, Kat. I guess I’m a lot more up-to-date on the organization of the church circa 1940 than 2008! If you are so inclined, how about commenting again after you have dug up the manual and telling us of anything interesting you find there? A ward poetry recital also sounds intriguing — I’d like to know more. (Write to me at keepapitchinin AT, if you’d like — this is something that cries out for a guest post.)

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — December 15, 2008 @ 7:28 pm

  9. Actually, Sacrament meetings might be improved if we had hecklers.

    Shortly after we moved into our current ward, I was called as the Gospel Doctrine teacher (yea!). At that point (fall of 2005), we were still finishing up the D&C. In one of the first classes after I was called, I made reference to my long-standing interest in LDS scripture, doctrine and history, as well as my sizable collection of books on LDS and other religious topics — at which point a voice piped up from the back of the class room saying, “Oh, yeah, just brag about it, why don’t you?” I immediately cracked up and then got on with the lesson.

    The sister who made the comment, Nanette Snoy, came up afterwards to apologize; she explained that she’s just prone to making sarcastic quips out loud and realized after the fact that I had no idea who she was or how she meant it. I told her it was one of the best comments I had ever heard in one of my classes and that she had likely endeared herself forever to me, which she has.

    Speaking of Nanette — a year or so ago, I was conducting music in Sacrament meeting (substituting for the regular conductor, who was out of town). I was looking around at various people while leading the hymn. I happened to look right at Nanette — at which point she made a face at me. I almost lost it right there and had to look away while I struggled to keep from laughing out loud. I’m sure there were a number of people in the congregation who wondered just what was wrong with me. ..bruce..

    Comment by bfwebster — December 15, 2008 @ 9:06 pm

  10. Bruce, I’d love to meet Nanette.

    My quip-mate in HPG is in the hospital, so I have no one right now with whom I can heckle. That means I am the only heckler in class, so I hope he gets back to church soon.

    Comment by Ray — December 16, 2008 @ 8:57 pm

  11. A few years ago, I had that great calling of ward speech specialist. My bishopric asked me to focus on the part about offering help to the people assigned to give talks. Most people turned down my offer to listen to a practice run (several specifically said they didn’t want to have to have their talk ready in time to run through it the day before – while I am the queen of procrastination and understand that urge, there is benefit to having a talk worked out before the bishop thanks the Aaronic priesthood holders for their service). However, most new members and many youth let me work with them. Just having a practice gives so much more confidence. My best tips (although not new or revolutionary): don’t apologize, don’t start with the words, ‘when Bro. so-an-so called me last week…’, don’t quote the dictionary, include personal experience and testimony about the topic, and practice, practice, practice. I like the six factors of ‘interestingness’ as well (and I love the idea of hecklers).

    Comment by Markie — December 17, 2008 @ 10:06 am

  12. I like small friendly wards where everyone knows each others, so when a child is acting up in sacrament meeting, the speaker can call the child by name and tell the child to sit down and be quiet.

    I was visiting a ward in another town during Fast and Testimony meeting, and a 30-something woman read her “exit letter” from the pulpit and walked out. That was probably something that should have been read, and not done extemporaneously. However, it’s probably best not done at all. I think reading exit letters in F&T meeting is gauche.

    Comment by Bookslinger — December 17, 2008 @ 9:55 pm

  13. Bookslinger, Are implying that there are large unfriendly wards? :) I’ve never seen someone address an unruly child from the stand. That would be great to see.

    Comment by BruceC — December 18, 2008 @ 8:32 am

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