How to Prepare a Zen Dharma Talk: Thirteen Points

I just spent a weekend at Empty Nest Zendo in North Fork, California, doing a couple of sessions on aspects of ministry for the Shogaku Institute’s Zen priest training program. I gave one session on basic preaching skills. But, I noticed they had a sheet among other handouts from a session that Peter Schireson had written. I thought it was wonderful. I asked Sensei Shireson’s permission to reprint the basic points, and he graciously consented. For the class session from which these points were derived, write the Shogaku Institute.

How to prepare for a Dharma talk

Peter Schireson

Three main points

1) Keep the purpose of a Dharma talk in mind: to encourage practice. So if you’re going to talk about something dark or something you’re struggling with, find a way to show how you’re practicing with it and how practicing with it matters. Don’t use your Dharma talk to vent and complain.

2) Talk about something that’s really alive for you in practice – even if it seems mundane. There are two good reasons for this. You won’t get anything wrong if you’re talking about your own experience. The talk will be more alive than if you’re talking abstractly.

3) Know in advance what you want your listeners to take away, to remember. This should not be a long list of takeaways. It should be one or two, or maybe three things.

Presentation tips and techniques:

You should try to relax and be yourself. There’s no such thing as a “best” presentation style. But there are some techniques that might help you be more effective. Here are 13 tips and techniques. You might pick one or two to experiment with:

1) Don’t apologize for your talk. Don’t start by saying something like “I didn’t really have much time to prepare for this but…” This is slippery and disprespects the audience.

2) Nail the first few one or two minutes. This is the time of the talk when you as a speaker are most nervous and the audience is asking “who is this person and should I pay attention?” Best practice: memorize your first minute or two.

3) Tell listeners what you’re going to tell them and why it’s important, why you care about it. You should have some stake in your subject and it’s good to let people know what it is so they can have a stake in it with you.

4) Go deeper, not wider. Talks that explore one thing deeply are more interesting and instructive than talks that skip around and try to include bunches of ideas.

5) If you’re not sure, ask if you’re being heard. This is not only an expression of respect for your listeners, it bonds you to them.

6) Establish and maintain eye contact. See if you can let your eyes rest for four or five seconds at a time on faces or groups of faces in your audience. It will connect you. If you only look down or just let your eyes dart around, it will undermine your talk and communicate discomfort.

7) Pause occasionally. Don’t worry about silence. People appreciate pauses as moments to absorb and reflect on what you’re saying.

8) Don’t let your notes separate you from your audience. If you’re talking from notes or reading, don’t let the written material lock up your eyes, especially when you’re making important points. Look at the material to remind yourself of what you want to say, then look up at the audience when you say it (not down at your notes). If people feel like they’re being read to, their connection to what you’re saying fades out. If you need notes, make sure you put them aside at least some of the time.

9) Use the tradition. Use something – a quote, a koan, a story – from the Zen tradition to anchor and enrich your talk, but don’t overdo it. Stick with one or at most two relatively short quotes from an ancestor, and make sure they’re really connected to your subject.

10) Bring a little drama. Don’t be afraid of a little drama to enliven your talk. There are lots of ways to do this without being a show off or trivializing your talk. It could be the subject matter. It could be a story of something dramatic that happened. It could be a vivid metaphor. Or it can just be speaking specifically, rather than generally, like the difference between saying “I was angry” and “I was so angry I yelled out ‘Damn!’” These are the moments in a talk that people remember.

11) Humor is fine, but in small doses. Humor is natural, but be careful about overdoing it (if that’s your tendency) and hiding behind humor.

12) During Q&A, make sure everyone knows what question you’re answering. This is especially important if your talk is being recorded because you’ll probably be the only one with a microphone. So during q&a restate the questions before you answer them. Three benefits: you get a few seconds to think about your answer, you can frame the question in a way that enables a good answer, and everyone else hears what the question is.

13) Get back to the main point of your talk at the end. Remind your listeners what you set out to say.

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