"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
October 5, 2012
Alert At Conference
by Orson Scott Card

No, General Conference is not a twice-a-year vacation from all your Sunday callings.

Wait. What I meant to say is that it's not just a twice-a-year Sunday holiday.

I grew up in a conference-watching family. Long before the Internet, we saw only the sessions of conference that local television stations chose to broadcast. That meant that in Santa Clara, California, in the 1950s and early '60s, we saw only the Sunday sessions.

But every year or so, my parents would decide to make the drive through the Central Valley, over the Sierra Nevada, through the wasteland of Nevada and the Bonneville Salt Flats, and into Salt Lake City, where we'd camp out in Grandpa's and Nana Lu's house and either watch General Conference on KSL or go to the actual sessions in the Tabernacle.

Conference, then, was definitely family time. If it was available, our TV was tuned to it and we were in the room listening. And whenever we could, we drove to where all the sessions were available.

Then, for a year and a half in the late 1970s, I worked as an assistant editor at the Ensign. For the Ensign staff, General Conference was a twice-a-year work-all-weekend marathon.

Our job had three parts. First, we would pre-edit the talks. This consisted of searching through the advance manuscript of each talk, usually in vain, for any lapse on the part of the secretary to the General Authority.

Any "corrections" we editors made were mere suggestions, of course. It's a tricky thing to edit the words of apostles and prophets. Yet all language is thick with possible ambiguities, and some of the "rules" we learn aren't rules at all.

General Authorities must choose what level of language to use -- for instance, colloquial, to sound more like they're "just folks," or formal, to suggest a scriptural (i.e., King Jamesian) level of dignity. Most go for something in between.

Then, during Conference, we listened to the actual talks and marked down any changes that were made during delivery.

Such changes were very few, and often had to do with misreading (why they use sans-serif fonts in teleprompters is beyond me; the human eye easily loses the line without those serifs to guide it).

There were two potential nightmares. One was Elder LeGrand Richards. Everyone loved his talks, because they didn't sound like he was reading.

That's because he wasn't. He simply refused to write them down. That wasn't how he learned how to speak in Conference, and he had no intention of learning a different way.

We all remember the time when he commented on the blinking red light. "They want me to stop talking," he said -- after all, there were television deadlines to meet! -- and we all laughed.

The reason this wasn't a nightmare for the Ensign staff, as we prepared to turn out the General Conference issue less than a month after Conference, was that Elder Richards's secretary transcribed the talk for us and provided us with a transcript afterward.

The other speaker who might have caused us fits was Elder Thomas S. Monson, then a relatively junior Apostle. He did write down his talk in advance -- but the one he gave was almost completely different.

Point by point, he followed the outline of the written talk. But everything was paraphrased. His talk was planned, but it was still delivered with natural, extemporaneous language.

The first Conference I worked on, I saw just how marked-up Elder Monson's manuscript was by the time he was through speaking. But when the marked-up manuscript was sent to him for his approval, the reply came to us: Print it the way I wrote it.

Finally, realizing just how much intense work the editors were going through on his talks, he gave the staff a preemptive gift: Stop "correcting" it and plan, going in, that you will print the talk I wrote.

That was in 1976 and 1977 -- I have no idea whether President Monson still paraphrases the way he used to. Thirty-five years later, I rather imagine he does not.

But it was thoughtful of him to realize that the requirements of our job did not fit well with the way he chose to do his. He didn't change his speaking style -- he valued, as did the whole Church, his candid, natural way of speaking. He simply changed our job requirement.

The habit I picked up during my time at the Ensign remains with me. I still listen intensely, not looking for changes from a manuscript (oddly enough, they don't run their talks past me in advance), but rather listening for nuance, for structure, for the main points.

You see, after more than fifty years of listening to Conference talks, I know when someone is giving an unusual talk, or when they're making important new points that may not show up in the title or index.

Over time, we can see various General Authorities extend their range or deepen their approach to gospel teaching. For many decades, we could count on President Boyd K. Packer, for instance, to take on subjects, or approach them from angles, that no one else had tried before.

Elder Oaks hit the ground running with the same kind of freshness, and it has been exciting to watch Elder Scott and Elder Holland over the decades as they sharpened their plows and turned over new ground.

President Eyring has made almost the opposite shift, moving from a more theoretical approach in early talks to a very personal, tangible way of speaking today that makes him one of my favorite speakers.

Even those who stick to the simplicity of tried-and-true themes bring their own lives and other people's examples into their talks, making old subjects burn more brightly.

If we learn anything, it's this:

1. General Authorities are not all the same person. Who they are affects how they speak and what they say. It matters who is speaking.

2. The Spirit of God works through all of them, touching the prepared heart -- and a good many that are completely unprepared, too.

I know why I pay such close attention at Conference. After all, language and rhetoric are at the heart of my career -- by habit alone I notice not just the content but also the manner of presentation. There's no reason that I shouldn't pay attention to both; but there's also no reason that other people should.

But it does matter that all of us not just attend every session of Conference, but that we attend to it as well.

How can we train ourselves to be alert? When does it start?

For me, it started with my family's habit of actually listening to Conference -- even when we "attended" in the living room of our house, wearing pajamas and doing needlework or drawing or otherwise keeping our hands busy while we listened.

Here's another place where it can start:

My wife has taught early-morning seminary in our home for ten of the past nineteen years. Almost from the start, she has used General Conference as a way to allow kids with imperfect attendance to make up for lost days.

Each hour of Conference counts as an hour of seminary -- but only if the student takes notes on each talk.

By watching October Conference, taking careful notes, and turning them in, our seminary students "bank" make-up days in case of flu, family vacations, or missed alarm clocks in the future. By April Conference, the students who really need to make up missed days know who they are!

Attendance requirements may be the goad, but the real value comes from the way the whole seminary class prepares for Conference and then talks it over afterward.

The preparation consists of (a) talking about it and (b) memorizing or rememorizing the list of the currently-serving Apostles in the order of their seniority.

After all, that's how they're listed, how their pictures are displayed. The order of succession is there before us, so why shouldn't the students be aware of it?

Since all the members of the First Presidency and Quorum of the Twelve speak at least once during each General Conference, the students recognize their names and know how long (relative to the others) they've been in the Quorum.

It's like knowing the names of the players before you come to the ballpark, or knowing the leading actors before you go to the movie or play.

It helps them form a relationship with each of the Twelve and the Presidency, recalling their previous talks and seeing what they choose to talk about and how they choose to approach each subject.

On Monday after Conference, they devote an hour to talking about all the talks. What was their favorite? What stories or ideas stuck out for them?

You'd be surprised how animated they become. There was one year when "What was your favorite talk" resulted in an almost revival-meeting fervor: "Elder Holland!" Together, they practically repeated his whole talk point for point.

Other years, there have been almost as many favorites as there were speakers.

Even the seminary students who don't need make-up days learn to listen intently to Conference. They want to be able to take part in that Monday-after discussion.

They want that personal relationship with the leaders of the Church.

Because of that encouragement, and their open-hearted response to it, we think we have one of the most Conference-influenced groups of young men and young women in the Church.

After all, the Brethren have few other ways of reaching such large numbers of Saints at the same time. But they can't teach us if we're not paying attention.

Not everybody has that lovely captive audience of seminary students to work with. We don't all have children at home -- our last will be attending conference along with other college students, and the older ones have families of their own.

But my wife and I invite friends into our home -- and not just as the righteous purpose that justifies the large-screen TV. Even if we were completely alone, we would watch and listen. Because we love the words of the prophets and teachers the Lord provides for us.

Warming a seat as the sound of their talking washes over us does not have much effect.

But listening alertly, taking notes, preparing to talk about it later with family, with friends, with a teacher or leader -- that focuses the mind. It gives each listener a much better chance of being influenced by the message -- and by the Spirit of God.


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About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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