Reader Voices: How to open a church talk

By Bill Hill

For the Deseret News

Published: Sunday, Jan. 1 2012 5:00 a.m. MST

I have given church talks for more than 57 years (this is a monumental feat since I am only 50 years old), and I have yet to come up with the perfect opener for a talk.

Most of my talks start out with, "When Brother Cannon asked me to speak ...," and the congregation automatically tunes out, way out. I can tell because suddenly the hymn numbers on that little plaque behind me suddenly become the most interesting feature on the planet. This used to be an OK way to start, I think, but I get a vague sense that the congregation has heard this act before, like a church talk mantra or something that must be said for good luck or else the curses of all ages will descend upon us like a specialized plague of blue death upon our children and children’s children.

The general membership must know this because we all keep saying it. Not that I’m superstitious or anything, but with today’s economy, you can’t be too sure what will bring down bad luck. We all want good luck to keep on going, so please, let’s continue with "when the bishop called me last week …" as an opener.

I like opening with a joke. I have heard so many forms of St. Peter jokes that reference to pearly gates and St. Peter have become somewhat doctrine to me. I now know that I must go through an interrogation with Peter, after I climb a ladder, if I want to go inside a pearly gate somewhere to get to heaven. I just can’t find the chapter and verse.

I can’t tell jokes. It's something about inflection, tone of voice and timing.

Not me.

I like a quaint story. Maybe about the boy who keeps tripping during a track event as his dad in the crowd silently urges him to keep going with no words exchanged, only meaningful glances. I like stories that are tone setters like "the Book of Mormon and the TV Guide" and the story about the old violin, all scratched and battered. They are up there on my ear-grabbin’ stories list. Or how about a contemplative feature from Reader’s Digest? The Reader’s Digest has rendered many a Latter-day Saint talk qualified to begin.

Here’s a good opener — a reference to Webster’s dictionary. Webster was a smart fellow, so smart that he compiled many words for us to understand and use … and I want to be smart and sound smart up there when my knees are knocking. The association of Bill Hill and Webster? Not bad.

“Webster’s dictionary defines faith as …”

“Obedience, as defined by Webster’s, is …”

“The first thing I did while preparing this talk is to look up Webster’s dictionary to define Satan.”

There ya go.

One time, I decided to depart from the pack and use Funk and Wagnall’s dictionary. I half expected the bishop to tug on my coat and whisper, "That’s Webster’s, Brother Hill," equating Webster to King James somehow.

I like talking about preparing the talk in the talk. That’s good for about five minutes.

Thanking people is nice. Sometimes I feel like I am a real thanking machine, thanking the organist, the chorister, the youth speaker, the youth speaker’s fine parents, those that were reverent thus far, the bishop, the stake president, the babies and children, the reverence of the deacons, etc., etc. Being gracious for everyone gives that homey touch that the ward will appreciate, but let’s face it and call a spade a spade, it’s just a time filler because the previous speaker only went three minutes.

I can make comments about the previous speaker, which is a good opener, talk about what the other guy talked about. Recap on the basics. Verbally mull over the words of a fellow sufferer and piggy-back on his opener, that is if he had a great opener. If his opener wasn’t so great, well, stand back and let the poor sap sink into the lousy talk abyss — get some distance from him, make sure that his stink doesn’t roll over into my stink. How about that?

I like it.

My father would tell me to just get on with it and quit worrying about how to start the talk — simply start the dang talk already. Stand up. Speak up. Sit down. And shut up. Worry about church talk opener?

Forget about it.

Bill Hill lives in Idaho Falls, Idaho, with his wife and three daughters. He provides psycho-social rehabilitation to children.

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