An Limit on Interesting: My Approach to Writing a Good Gospel Talk

I’m speaking in Bangor this weekend. Another 20 minute talk, this time on the subject of “Exercising Our Spiritual Muscles.” At this point, this is the thirteenth talk I’ve prepared as a High Councilor. In some ways, it’s getting easier to churn them out month after month. In other ways, it’s getting more difficult, as I’m beginning to feel like I’m repeating myself. Like the good examples I’ve got on tap are running dry, since I try not to repeat myself. Is that is then? Have my 40 years of experience run out after only 4 hours total oration?

I think I still have plenty of talks left in me, but it certainly takes a different approach sometime to get them out.

These days, I write my talks the week before I give them. I know from experience that 20 minutes translates into 4,000 words on the page, so I try to write 1,000 words/day the week I’m going to give a talk. Of course, that’s in addition to the time I spend blogging, and the 1,000 words I write of fiction. I’ll admit my brain gets pretty burned out from writing when I tack on the Sacrament meeting talks like I am this week. But then again, I’ve also found that if I take the time to think things through, 1,000 words goes pretty quickly.

The first step I take is to read over the topic I’ve been assigned. This week’s is a bit on the light side, as it isn’t that long, and what’s there is mostly dominated by a couple of stories. If there’s more “meat” to the subject, there’s more room for me to bring my own experiences to bear. But I’ve written talks based on no more than a single scripture. I can handle talks centered around a general concept like “Spiritual Muscles.”

As I read through the topic, I take notes about thoughts it inspires in me, trying to think of specific stories whenever possible. I think we’re hardwired to think and learn through stories, and I always try to have at least three or four specific stories in each of my talks. They’re more interesting to listen to, they often provide a chance to inject some humor, and they stick with an audience better than a laundry list of doctrinal points. My goal in giving a talk isn’t to wow people with my scriptural kung fu. It’s to help them understand the topic in a relatable way that will hopefully help them in their daily lives. (Easier with some topics than others.)

Honestly, if it were all about making it easy for me, I would revert back to the approach I took on my mission. I’d still look for the specific stories to share and the overarching thoughts the topic inspired, but I’d write those down in a series of bullet points on a notecard. I’d go to the pulpit with that single notecard, and give the talk based off that. I’ve never had trouble telling stories and filling time. And there’s a fair chance my talks would be more engaging if I were to go back to that. There’s a lot to be said for eye contact and spontaneous explanations.

But instead, I keep writing my talks out. Why? For one thing, I feel like I typically have a lot to say, and it matters to me that it’s said in as good a way as possible. I’m a good speaker. I’m a better writer. I also like being able to have a record of what I said, not to mention the ability to give another talk at the drop of a hat. I mean, I now have 13 talks that I can use whenever I need one (though I can’t remember what stories I told where, which is part of the problem).

Anyway. I take those core stories and I intersperse them with quotes from the talk that’s the source material, as well as plenty of commentary of my own to explain why I chose the stories and how they apply. Add in some scriptures and some outside references from other talks and sources, and it’s really not too bad to have the whole 4,000 words taken care of.

Of course, sometimes it’s more stubborn than other times. For that, I need to do some brainstorming about the talk and the subject. In an ideal world, I wish I could have the whole thing memorized, which would let me give it in a much more accessible way, but . . . what can I say. My dedication to the whole process isn’t quite up to memorizing a 20 minute talk each month.

In any case, I’ve got about 3,000 words done for this week’s, and I’m beginning to need to go into brainstorming mode. Too bad I can’t use this post. That would be over 700 words right there. Wish me luck.


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