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Giving a Talk

By Joseph Emet

I have just come back from a five-day Dharma Teachers’ retreat at Blue Cliff Monastery. There I heard a lot of talks, and also many pleas for finding ways of helping new members of the Order of Interbeing to be more effective in Sangha building, and in spreading Thay’s practice. In that spirit, I want to share my own experience in giving talks. Giving good talks will help greatly in making a new Sangha successful, and will encourage newcomers to return as they find meetings nourishing and meaningful.

Say It Only Once

I want to start with an experience I have not forgotten over twelve years. After one of our first meetings, I asked my partner for feedback on my talk. Sangha members can be diplomatic sometimes. My partner had no such qualms. “I can’t stand it,” she said, “You say everything three times!”

I had no idea I was doing that. In the excitement of having said something significant, I had been wanting to make sure that everybody got it. Sure enough, I would say it a bit differently each time; but it was true, I was hammering each point to death, and boring my audience to distraction.

There is no way to make sure that everybody gets it. When I hear one of Thay’s Dharma talks a second time, I often discover new things I had not heard the first time. Sometimes the mind wanders, or we mull over a point that was exciting and new for us, and we miss the next sentence. Yet Thay moves right along, opening new vistas, and presenting new experiences. He respects the people who heard it the first time, and they keep coming back for more.

Answer the Needs of Your Audience

I also noticed early on that I tended to blow off steam a lot. I had pet peeves. Something would set me off, and there I went rambling on and on, off on a tangent. I cured that habit by writing what I wanted to say out on the computer first. Then I would read it aloud and ask myself, “Does anyone need to hear this?” In most cases, the answer was no. Sure, I had a need to say those things, and it felt good to get them off my chest. But it now felt just as good to hit the delete button and send my therapeutic ramblings down the cyber-drain.

Our talking answers a need. The more we talk to ourselves, the more people will tune off. We can instead answer the needs of the people we are talking to. Their needs may not be the same as ours. As we keep the needs of our audience foremost in mind, we also keep their attention and gain their respect.

Prepare and Improvise

Those two words are not opposites. They complement each other. A jazz musician may be improvising, but he knows how to play his scales! Thay urges us to speak without a prepared text, but not without preparation. He himself has an immense amount of preparation for what he wants to say.

Keep It Simple and Direct

Some of us speak one way and write another. Thay seems to have only one way, and a gift for writing that sounds direct and conversational. Once I was preparing a talk for a group of teachers. I had written it all down, and showed my dense text to a friend who was an English teacher. He looked it over, scratched his head in puzzlement, and asked me, “Joseph, what are you trying to say?” I told him in a couple of simple sentences. He asked, “Well, why don’t you just say it, then?”

I think that this is the negative meaning of the word “prepare” and the one Thay wishes us to avoid. We can destroy a simple experience by thinking about it too much and writing it down in a bookish way until there is no juice left in it.

We get to the Order of Interbeing through our desire to learn the practice, and then through our wish to share it. But once we are there, we find that there are other skills we need to master in order to share effectively. Giving a good talk is foremost among them.

Joseph Emet, Dwelling in Peaceful Concentration, is a musician and Dharma teacher living in Montreal, Canada. He has written many songs inspired by Thich Nhat Hanh’s poetry, published by Parallax Press.

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Thich Nhat Hanh January 15, 2020

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