How to Prepare a Church Talk or Lesson

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I’ve had a couple people ask me lately about how to get ready for a big speaking assignment at church– a sacrament meeting talk, fireside, full lesson, etc.  I can only assume they are asking me since I always have too much to say about everything.

Anyway, in response to a recent email, I typed up my own personal preparation routine, and then I thought, “I wonder if this would be helpful to anyone else?”  So then I decided I might as well just stick it up on my blog because maybe someday a random person will Google “How to Prepare a Talk” and voila, it can be an answer to prayer.

I’m nothing if not magnanimous.

My only disclaimer is this:  It might be a really cruddy list for someone else, but it works for me.

This is how I prepare for a large speaking assignment.  Sort of.  It always changes from occasion to occasion depending on how I’m feeling about it, but this is a good general overview:

  1. Get my topic and ask the person who assigned the topic if there’s anything in particular they’d like me to focus on.  (Sometimes they have a wish-list agenda they didn’t communicate originally.)
  2. Read everything I can get my hands on about that topic.  And by everything, I mostly mean an exhaustive search on lds.org.  I print out talks and articles and mark up favorite quotes and ideas that help me begin to decide on the parts I want to focus on.  (Don’t go overboard, especially if the assignment is for 10-15 minutes or less.  Choose a tight focus and don’t even try to cover it all.)
  3. Keep the topic in mind when I do my personal scripture study and any additional reading of the Ensign, church manuals, etc.  Look for stuff that applies.
  4. Pray about it and think about it a lot.
  5. Write an outline, very skeletal, that identifies my main points and puts them in a semi-logical flow/order.
  6. Take all those highlighted quotes and scriptures and examples I’ve thought of and plug them into the outline where they best belong.
  7. Keep a notepad by my bed so that when I think of random phrases or experiences or thoughts that apply, I can jot them down.  Plug those things into the outline too.
  8. Sometimes, that’s all I do, and I take all my quotes and notes in a labeled easy-to-find way and just teach using my outline and hop from one point to the next.  If I’m feeling extra nervous, or I’m really worried about time-management, I write out more word-for-word what I want to say for each point on the outline.
  9. I pray a lot more after this point for the Spirit to help me edit appropriately.  I usually have more material than I can possibly use, so I rely a lot on promptings of what to include and what to leave out.  If I’m struggling with the outline/order, I pray about that too, and I’ve gotten promptings or “visions” about how to organize everything.
  10. Trust the Spirit even when you’re nervous as heck.  He knows how to do it right.  :)

The hardest part (for me) is keeping it within the time limit you’ve been given.  Watch the clock carefully, pace yourself the best you can, and don’t be afraid to let stuff go.  In real life, you’ll never have enough time to do all the things your heart wants to do, and when it comes to giving a talk or lesson, you’ll never have enough time to say all your heart wants to say.  Focus on teaching meaningfully what you do have time to say, and don’t rush and cram to get in more material than is realistic.  And don’t assume that no one will mind if you just take a little extra time.  It’s tempting, but not polite.  You’re welcome.

Feel free to add your own tips (or questions) in the comments below, just in case the random Googler is severely disappointed by my advice.

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13 thoughts on “How to Prepare a Church Talk or Lesson

  1. Those steps are pretty much the route I follow also…….BUT I have been given FIVE MINUTES to speak in Sacrament meeting on how to prepare for conference……only 5 min!!!
    ~Shari R.

  2. Sounds like a good list and it is pretty similar to what I do…Until it comes time to give the talk and for some reason the day I have to Heavenly Father gives me a hint on what I really should be talking about and I have to scrape the whole thing! Have you ever had that happen? I have and I don’t like it! It is too scary and requires too much faith. :) Just kidding…kind of. Next post can you talk about how not to blubber and cry your way through a talk that you really needed to give so that you could be a better person? I can’t seem to give a talk without blubbering at some point…

    Also your post on mom shame was my favorite of the week…I hope you don’t mind that I linked to it from my blog…I know you won’t mind because you are awesome like that. :)

  3. That looks similar to the kinds of things I do (especially the exhaustive research on lds.org – I figure the prophets have probably talked about it before and probably had some good things to say about it.

    When I give a talk I have to write it out word for word. I am a horrible public speaker (even though I love to give talks…. How ironic is that) – but don’t feel bad about yourself if you are like me – 99% of the general authorities use the teleprompter at general conference. Just be sure that if you are reading your talk to read it 100 times before you actually give it, and that you look up at the congregation while you read (which can be tricky – but do it, it helps make it look like you aren’t actually reading your talk – maybe some day teleprompters will be standard in all chapels ha ha) By the time I actually stand up to give my talk I have usually scribbled all over, changing words, adding phrases, cutting out large chunks (especially when I am the last speaker and everyone has been going over). I listen to the Spirit all the way up to the pulpit, and then try to keep listening when I am delivering the talk.

    I never write a lesson outline word for word, but that’s because lessons should be discussion. When you are going to teach a lesson, do not prepare for it like a talk. Lessons are NOT sermons and if you teach like it is a sermon you’ll have a lot of bored classmates (3 hours of sermons is not what the brethren had in mind for the 3 hour block) I look at “teaching” a lesson as “leading a discussion” about the material. In Relief Society I read through the manual/lesson material (after praying) and leave myself open to the Spirit telling me what questions to ask in the class. If you came and sat in relief society when I “teach” you might be surprised to find that I am only talking for about 10 min collectively. It’s my job to keep us more or less on topic, and to have read and studied the material enough that if someone makes a … less than doctrinally correct statement I can refer back to manual to clear things up (without telling them they are wrong) :)

    I think Elder Richardson’s talk that we have been studying this week has lots to say about this. Prepare by the Spirit, and then teach by the Spirit.

    Thanks for your tips, too. They were great.

    • You make a good point about discussion. It’s important to consider the setting while you prepare. If it’s a lesson or an informal fireside where discussion is encouraged, I always try to think up good questions to ask about the topic that can fuel a good conversation. Your questions should be pointed so that they don’t give way to easy tangents. (This is my pet peeve as a lesson participant. Please don’t ask: What do you think about visiting teaching? Ask: How has your life has been blessed by visiting teaching? Or: In what ways do you think we can better fulfill our charge to be visiting teachers? Then the answers will be constructive and contribute to the purpose of the lesson.) It’s important to think of these questions in advance so that they help your lesson to move in the right direction. I even like to print up my questions and hand them out to people so they can have some good answers ready and there’s not a long pause when no one has anything to say.

      • I am so bad at asking good questions. When I ask a question and all I get is crickets I know it was a dumb one, usually because it is too specific or too vague and unclear. Thank you for showing how to form those better.

  4. I love the steps you outlined.
    My least favorite RS lesson is always the one in March where they do the mandatory history of Relief Society lesson. I always inwardly groan and roll my eyes when they sing “As Sisters in Zion” then pull out the exact same three quotes about Emma Smith and Eliza Snow and the turning key, pass around the treats and the blue ribboned bookmarks with the RS seal sticker, and then give a horribly boring lesson on how thigns were done years ago and how somehow that should make us all love RS a little more and go visiting teaching. I hate it so much, that the Lord has decided to enlighten me by prompting the RS president to ask me to teach it next week. So in addition to all the steps above, I am really trying to read as much current material as I can to find a slightly different way to look at and apply the same old subject. I am falling in love with the new blue book and will not have to use those same old quotes after all!
    So I guess thats my advice- try to find a new way to present the familiar so we all have an easier time staying awake.

  5. Great advice, the only things I would add would be if time allows to go to the temple. Its amazing on how clear things can become while in the Lord’s House. Also take a day to fast while thinking about your topic.

  6. I had to speak in stake conference a few weeks ago, but it was definitely a speaking assignment where I felt the need to write things out instead of going with my usual outline method. I like the suggestion of a previous commenter about going to the temple- that’s always a great help to me, especially for a speaking assignment that feels stressful.
    Instead of printing out things from my exhaustive search, I start a new word document with all my talk sources and quotes copied and pasted along with links so I can find things again. It makes it easier when I’m typing things up to open another new file for my talk and just copy the quotes/scriptures I’ve decided to use straight from my “sources” document. (Not sure if that helps anyone else or just seems confusing).

  7. Yes! According to this, I am actually doing something right! Okay, so you may have left out the part about staying up until 2 o’clock in the morning the night before writing it, but for me that’s a given. It’s called I work better under pressure (aka procrastination). Of course, I did the thinking part all week, or all month beforehand, so that’s progress right?
    I’ll never forget the time my internet stopped working the day before I had to give a talk. Ack! What did they do before LDS.org? I was so grateful for all the Teachings of the Living Prophets books that I had, as well as the huge box of Ensigns I could never bring myself to throw away (oh yeah, and the scriptures too). I stayed up so late, I decided to write my talk word for word because with only four hours of sleep I didn’t trust myself to give a coherent talk. I was too tired to type up my quotes, so I just brought a huge pile of books with sticky notes in them and such to quote from, but alas! I left my written talk at home! I realized this as I was sitting on the stand, and luckily I had my scriptures and quotes with me, so I quickly wrote down my outline and put the quotes in order, and then got up and gave my talk pretty much extempore.
    Not to brag, but that was probably the BEST delivery I’ve ever given. Having written it out word for word before, and with the outline and quotes, it was all there in my head, and I actually looked up at the audience pretty much the whole time! After that, I decided that that was how I was going to do it from then on. (And if I’m just not feeling it, I still have a backup, as well as something to share with family and friends).
    One other suggestion, you mentioned examples, and maybe this is what you meant, but I always make it a habit of including one brief* personal experience because I feel I wakes people up and get them interested (especially young people), whereas scripture after scripture can put them to sleep. Plus it makes the topic more relevant to me in the process, and I gain insight about my own life that hopefully can benefit others in their situations. That’s just me though.
    Okay, that was long. Sorry.
    Thanks for your post!

    *This is important. I see it happen way too often that personal stories get way off track and it ends up being uncomfortable and weird –not to mention often leads to going overtime. Keep it short and to the point only including details that are imperative to your main point.

  8. I just want to say that this feels like a confirmation for me. I have been asked to do a 20 min thought and I realize God works with my quirks, like ADD, cause He will randomly give Me Nuggets and i wonder, how in the World is this gonna come together!! and I have this make shift out line and scattered notes, and in my last conference with the HS youth God just helped me flow through the 3, (yes 3 topics) topics i was assigned to in a timly manner… thank you for this post and may God continue to bless and use you!

  9. All of your steps are very sensible and I use them too. One difference though; I do all of the preparation as far in advance as possible especially when preparing a Gospel Doctrine lesson. Then I put it all aside until a day or so before I speak or teach. I then go over it with fresh awareness and often times see new approaches not seen before. Perhaps it gives the Spirit time to prompt me, I don’t know. But it always seems to help.

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