Confessions of a Public Speaker: Masjid Edition


Originally posted at I recently finished a great book, Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun, and thought it would be interesting to contrast some of what is in the book with masjid 'speaking' experiences. Berkun's book offers interesting discussion on public speaking itself, observations, and then a few tips and tricks.

What follows here are my random notations and thoughts from when I read through the book. The focus is heavily on the main public speaking activities in the masjid (i.e. khutbahs).

Lesson: Four Versions of Each Talk

He quotes Dale Carnegie as saying,

Good speakers usually find when they finish that there have been four versions of the speech: the one they delivered, the one they prepared, the one the newspapers say was delivered, and the one on the way home they wish they had delivered.

This is perhaps one of the most important lessons for any public speaker. Everyone has something they wish to communicate, a formulation of it in their head, and then there's what actually comes out. Often though, the speaker ends up obsessing about points that do not matter - in fact, as Berkun notes, they're often the opposite of what the audience even cares about.

It's kind of like that khateeb who quotes some esoteric 'point of benefit' that he feels is truly amazing, but no one else gets. Then after the khutbah, you see him going around asking everyone what they thought about that one point, and no one cares. Then he cannot figure out why people didn't like his talk. The book gives a poignant advice that everyone should keep in mind,

It's the mistakes you make before you even say a word that matter more. These include the mistakes of not having an interesting opinion, of not thinking clearly about your points, and of not planning ways to make those points relevant to your audience.

I cannot emphasize enough how much this describes the vast majority of khutbahs and halaqahs I have listened to at the masjid. What I find is not necessarily a lack of knowledge from our speakers, but rather a lack of the simple skill of planning your talk. The more that it is planned and mapped out, the less likely that the audience will walk away with something you weren't expecting.

The Conundrum of Finding a Good Khateeb

They must find speakers who are:

  1. Famous or credible for a relevant topic
  2. Good at speaking
  3. Available

Two out of three is often the best they can do.

This is true for most general organizations. Most masjids can only meet one of the three criteria, and it is usually the last one. While there is a vicious cycle of too many spots to fill without enough qualified people, there are some steps we can take to mitigate this.The primary one is an attitude shift in our communities. Congregations need to raise the bar for what they expect out of the khutbah and communicate it to the administration. This is the only spiritual nourishment many people get for the entire week, and if the person giving the khutbah is just a warm body with an audible voice, then we have failed the community. The second thing that needs to happen is for the masjid administration to put more emphasis on having a good khutbah.

Too many masjids just worry about filling the spot without looking at the quality. If your regular khateeb isn't a good speaker - send him to Toastmasters. Do SOMETHING. But administration has to take this responsibility seriously. Once they fully grasp the importance of the khutbah, then khateebs will also step it up and stop mailing it in every Friday. There has to be an effort to find the best khateebs and do whatever you can to bring them in to your community.

The Sunnah Helps the Speaker

We all know that we should sit as close to the speaker as possible to show that we are paying attention, and so on. Keep in mind that this benefits the listener as much as it benefits the speaker. When someone is talking and the crowd looks empty, it can negatively affect them. This is true even if 500 people are in the room, but it's a room that holds 3,000.

For an hour I sucked - an endless hour of misery, speaking into the Grand Canyon of rooms, with each and every word traveling slowly across a sea of empty chairs. I heard every word twice, once when I said it, and two seconds later when it echoed against the back wall, unimpeded by the sound-absorbing powers of an actual crowd. ... The solution to this ... rests on the density theory of public speaking ... I realized that the crowd size is irrelevant - what matters is having a dense crowd.

So next time you are at the masjid, move in closer to the speaker. It will make the speech itself better too.

Simple Keys to a Good Speech

Great speakers are connection-makers, sharing an authentic part of themselves to create a singular, positive experience for the audience.

If anyone has ever looked for a guideline on how to do a halaqah or khutbah, this is an indispensable piece of wisdom.

The difference between you and JFK or Martin Luther King has less to do with your ability to speak - a skill all of us use hundreds of times every day - than it does the ability to think and refine rough ideas into clear ones. Making a point, teaching a lesson, or conveying a feeling to others first requires thinking, lots and lots of thinking, before the speaking ever happens. But we don't see the thinking; after all, it's not very interesting to watch. We only see the speaking...

Also, never forget why people are there to listen to you speak. They might want to learn, or be inspired. Whatever the case may be, make sure to service that purpose. A speech given without the audience on your side is doomed to failure. The key to keeping them on your side is the preparation.

Audiences are very forgiving. They want the speaker to do well, so they will overlook many superficial problems. But if the speaker is not going to think carefully about his points, willfully disregards his own material, and gets lost as a result, how forgiving can the audience be?

In other words, most people don't care to hear random rants and raves, and people definitely notice when a speaker is mailing it in. If you have the responsibility to speak to a crowd of people, take it seriously and prepare.

How I Feel About a Lot of Islamic Speeches

All talks and presentations have a point of view, and you need to know what yours is. If you don't know enough about the topic to have an opinion, solve that problem before you make your presentation. Even saying, "Here are five things I like" is a strong position, in that there are an infinite number of things you did not choose. With a weak position, your talk may become, "Here is everything I know I could cram into the time I have...."

I also call this "quotation knowledge." You all know the types. It's that one speaker, who every time he speaks, the talk is just full of quotations. It might be ayaat, hadith, quotes from famous scholars - but it's just quotes. No reflection, no communication. Have you ever heard a khutbah on adab, and it sounded like the speaker was just reading the titles of Bukhari's chapter headings? I have. It's not fun to sit through.

What's Your Point?

Points are claims. Arguments are what you do to support your points. Every point should be compressed into a single, tight, interesting sentence. The arguments might be long, but no one should ever be confused as to what your point is while you are arguing it. A mediocre presentation makes the points clear but muddles or bores people with arguments. A truly bad presentation never clarifies what the points are.

This reminds me of pretty much every single fiqh debate/discussion I have ever heard random people in the masjid engaging in.

Make Objective Decisions

Before I continue, I need to put something out there. I detest the fact that people want to kill the sunnah of moonsighting and replace it with an unfounded calculation system. There, I said it.

My biggest problem with regards to this issue is masjid boards who establish policies about which opinion to follow - and it all comes down to communication.

Know the likely counterarguments from an intelligent, expert audience. If you do not know the intelligent counterarguments to each of your points, your points cannot be good. For example, if your presentation is about why people should eat more cheese, you should at a minimum know why the Anti-Cheese Foundation of America says people should eat less cheese.

Let's keep our masajid and communities intellectually honest. If you have a position of responsibility, then the onus is on you to make sure you've investigated all sides of every issue. If you are going to speak to an audience, and advocate something, then know it inside and out. If you are going to establish a moonsighting policy for your local masjid, then make sure you have objectively read all the arguments both against and in favor of it. I'm not advocating that average masjid board members give fatwas, but we need to be realistic. When you are in that position, you have an amaanah. Choosing things based on convenience or because its the latest fad is not acceptable. The more people are educated about their own contentions, the better off we will be. I'm fairly certain the vast majority of fights in Muslim communities are a result of people simply not thinking things through. So there's the answer, properly evaluate things before saying something.

Specific Tips for A Khateeb

Practice, practice, practice.

If you're too lazy to practice, expect your audience to be too lazy to follow.

Have a title for your khutbah (in other words, focus),

If you had only one single point, what would it be?

Make good notes. For what it's worth, I don't buy the theory that the top echelon of giving a khutbah is not having notes. I feel that the key is learning to make effective notes.

Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt all used a short outline of five or six points - often with just a few words per point - to help them recall their hour-long speeches while giving them. If you do enough thinking in advance, all your brain needs is a little list, and most of the speaking will take care of itself.

Public Speaking is Story-Telling

Concern the audience with stories. Communication needs to be a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. Berkun gives a great example,

It's one thing to say, "Here's line 5 of the new tax code." That's just a boring fact ... It's quite another to say, "80% of you in the audience confused line 5 with line 6 on your last tax return, which cost you $500. Here's how not to make that mistake." Even a topic as mind-numbingly dull as tax forms becomes interesting if the speaker cares both about the problem and the people affected by it. When an audience is curious about the story you're telling, they'll follow your lead almost anywhere.

Ever wonder why two speakers can talk about the same topic, use the exact same reference materials, but one is amazing and the other one not so much? This is a big reason why.

The Broken Feedback Loop

Feedback is critical, and it's especially difficult to get good feedback in the Muslim community. Most people, even when asked, will simply give curt responses like "It was fine."

As a result, there are thousands of bad public speakers running around under the impression that they're doing OK. The feedback loop for speakers is broken, and they have simple never been told they did not perform well, much less how they can improve. Like singers in the early rounds of American Idol who sincerely can't believe they're not the next Whitney Houston or Frank Sinatra, many people live inside a bubble of denial. They've heard enough polite compliments to safely ignore any painful truths that slip through. They may even jab back, decreasing the odds that people will offer any future critiques.

I'm 100% positive that every single Muslim (at least in America) has met that guy. Please, don't be that guy.

Always get feedback from people. Berkun gives a great set of quick questions you can use,

  • How did my presentation compare to others?
  • What one change would have most improved my presentation?
  • What questions did you expect me to answer that went unanswered?
  • What annoyances did I let get in the way of giving you what you needed?

Even when someone compliments you, take it to the next level. Ask them what specifically they learned, and what you could do to make it better. Ask them to email you a critique of your speech.

If we all encourage one another, and humble ourselves just a bit, we can raise the bar for the entire community.

Inside the Mind of a First Time 'Eid Khateeb


Originally posted at Somehow, this year I found myself in the position of leading Eid prayer for the first time in my life. Actually, 'somehow' is a vague description. A more accurate description would be,

Due to the inability of even having city-wide unity on Eid, and losing our backup Imam to the 'other day' with the 'other half' of the city, I was forced at the last minute to prepare myself to lead one of the Eid prayers in our masjid.

The good news is, since our masjid was doing it on Wednesday, I at least had the 30th of Ramadan to prepare. Also, alhamdulillah, since we do not follow calculations, I had taken 2 days off work, so that also worked to my advantage (and some people call that a hardship?).

Imagine, preparing yourself for a nice Eid with the family. Relaxing on the last couple of nights, catching up on random things at the end of Ramadan. Then imagine, being told you have to not only attend Eid prayer at a different time you had made plans for, but that you had to now lead it.  It is unbelievable how many questions and concerns started swirling in my head at that moment.

Me?? Seriously? Can't we find someone else to do it?

How do you even pray Salatul-Eid again?? How many takbeers? How do you keep count?

What should the khutbah be on?

Will this create fitnah in the community, especially for our desi uncles who don't like to see "kids" involved in regular affairs, much less leading Eid prayer of all prayers?

I even remembered a story of one shaykh (I think I heard it at Texas Dawah) telling us the story of how the first time he gave khutbah, he lost his wudu. For anyone that didn't understand that, think of a common involuntary bodily reaction that occurs when someone suddenly gets super-nervous. As if I didn't have enough to worry about already, this story all of a sudden comes to me?

Once I settled down though, I reassessed the situation. I took quick stock of my friends and realized outside of "imam" types, I don't know anyone who has ever led Eid prayer. I realized that Allah (swt) has presented me with this opportunity for some specific reason.  Even though it was a smaller salah, at a local masjid, it was still a significant opportunity, and an important experience that could insha'Allah really help me in my Islamic development. What follows below is some of the thought process that went into the preparation, and how it turned out.

The Fiqh of Eid

This subject wasn't completely new to me. I have read small booklets here and there on the Fiqh of Eid and Muslim holidays. But the one who reads for information is not like the one who reads to immediately implement. How many people know details of the fiqh of Hajj until they're actually about to go on Hajj? Exactly.

I did what any enterprising student of knowledge would do in my situation. I googled it. I'm not gonna lie and say I embarked on some kind of academic research of the issue, or that I even went to my bookshelf to revisit those books I read many years ago. I simply Googled it and checked I should add a note here, that I did not do this to actually teach myself how to do the salah, but rather to familiarize myself with the common issues that arise in relation to the Fiqh of Eid Salah, and perhaps find what (if any) 'controversial' points there are. I found a few, but I realized they were 'controversial' only because the sources I studied from some years ago actually represented only a small minority view on some issues, although they painted as if that was the only opinion and everyone else was wrong (but that's a different story).

I sat down with our Imam and brought up the issues I had questions on - for example how many takbeerat to say in each rak'ah. Timing did not dictate any allowance for academic research on the issue, or even more than a cursory glance. I personally felt from my minimal (Islam-QA) research that  the stronger opinion was 7 takbeers in the first, and 5 in the second. The community I am in though, has a long-standing precedent of praying Eid according to the Hanafi style (3 takbeers in each rak'ah). Taking into account the history and orientation of our community, in addition to keeping the entire event as "drama-free" as possible [it is EID after all!], I also recalled an advice of Shaykh Salah al-Sawi (and he's not the first to say it obviously): The madhab of the layman is the madhab of his Imam. So in this particular situation, I found myself to very much be a layman in all senses of the word regarding Salatul-'Eid. 3 takbeers it is, though I don't think I ever imagined myself making absoloute taqleed of the Hanafi madhab :)

Settling that stuff was the easy part. The hard part was actually sitting down with the Imam and going through the procedure, and learning how to explain it to the people.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that at Eid time, you're not dealing with a regular crowd, or even a once a week crowd like at Jumu'ah - you are dealing with a lot of the once a year crowd. That changes everything.

I had to remember to tell people that there is no adhan and iqamah. Explain the takbeers. That there is in fact a khutbah, where I will be speaking, following the salah. That they are to be quiet during the khutbah. That there are 2 khutbahs, so don't start hugging everyone as soon as I sit down. My notes for this were actually longer than the notes I made for my actual khutbah (says something about our condition as an ummah). You can't take anything for granted at this point, every minute instruction must be laid out.

The Khutbah

What to talk about? I received many suggestions on what to talk about. I tried to find Eid khutbahs given by others (such as Shaykh Google) for inspiration. I received suggestions to talk about almost everything. Some brothers gave me suggestions that even for a Jumu'ah khutbah would require at least 1-2 weeks worth of research and preparation to do properly. I even found a couple of fire and brimstone type Eid khutbahs. Ok well, thats an exaggeration, but they weren't exactly the "positive" and "uplifting" type of khutbahs you would expect for such an occasion. One brother even told me that one time Siraj Wahaj spoke about the sad state of our ummah that we pray Eid and miss fajr, and that he said if you didn't pray fajr that he was going to turn around and to make your qadha! I couldn't stop laughing at that one. I'm not sure that I know anyone who can pull that off other than him though.

Alhamdulillah though, my wife gave me the topic idea I ended up using (hey, we do listen..somtimes): How to make this the best Eid for your children. This made the khutbah easy, especially since I have given a more formal khutbah on youth a couple of times before.  The keys with the khutbah were for it to be positive, and more importantly, short.

This process though, did make me realize why "imams talk so much" at this time. It is the only opportunity to address a crowd of this magnitude, and a crowd that you would otherwise never reach. A jum'uah crowd is fairly static, but the Eid crowd - you feel not only the desire to inspire and motivate them, but you feel a responsibility to make up for a whole year's worth of dawah in one speech. I think that's why we find so many Eid khutbahs that are trying to make us better Muslims, end hunger, create world peace, abolish Israel, and save the whales all in 30 minutes.

What to Wear?

This is not something I took lightly, and not just because of my unhealthy interest in Men's fashion. Sh. Yaser Birjas dedicated a part of his Ilm Summit session on Jumu'ah to this issue, and even the Imam asked me about it as we were finalizing plans for me to lead. Should I cement my status as the community weirdo and wear a suit? Maybe next time, not at my first salah though. Should I wear a shalwar kamees/kurta like my mom prefers, and alienate the Arab crowd? Should I wear a thobe and just go traditional? If I wear a thobe, should I wear jeans under it (my personal preference), or pants, or the actual white thobe pants which are useless since they have no pockets? Also what color thobe? If I'm the imam, I can't just walk in with a plain old thobe can I?  Do I wear a kufi so that people don't write me off as some kind of openly 'disobedient' imam, even though I can't find a kufi that looks normal on my big head and I never wear one anyways? Should I wear a sportcoat or blazer over my thobe (my wife vetoed that one before I even finished suggesting it)?

I finally decided to wear the plain white thobe, with the white thobe pants, and a black/white ghutrah (shimagh) on my shoulders. I should add though, that even socks came into play, and I had to make sure not to wear anything that had too much color or 'untraditional' lest I give someone the 'wrong' impression.

Eid Day

My family was more concerned about me waking up on time then they were about me leading the prayers since I have a reputation for, well, never waking up on time for pretty much anything. True to form, I woke up with barely enough time to pray fajr and then start getting ready, beginning the day in rush mode.  I had no appetite whatsoever, partially due to being used to fasting, and partially due to stress. I had a sip of water for no other reason then the fact that it was sunnah to have something before salah to show you aren't fasting. After salah though, I made up for it with almost a half-dozen Krispy Kreme dounts.

As salah time approached (and I started on the dot on the announced time alhamdulillah, no delays), I emerged from my hiding spot (aka mingling near the shoe-rack and entrance) and went to the front, taking on inquisitive and surprised stares as I grabbed the microphone. Many people had this complete look of devastation on their faces, since the expected Imam was not there, and now some guy who definitely shouldn't be at the microphone at this moment in time is about to take the mic. I'd like to say I took the mic and then confidently lead salah, and we all lived happily ever after. The reality is, the second I took the microphone I started stumbling over my words trying to explain the procedure of Eid salah. I ignored my notes and tried to do it from memory until I got stuck, had to look at my paper to find where I was and continue. Finally, I got everyone lined up, and turned around to start salah when I realized I forgot to turn on my recorder (I record every khutbah or anything I do). I'm used to doing that for Jumu'ah while I'm sitting on the minbar and adhan is being called, but I completely forgot to plan for this small tactical detail. I'm not sure what came over me, but I suddenly said into the mic, "I will wait an extra minute for the women to line up" and quickly turned on my recorder and put it next to me.

With that out of the way, I realized I now had to lead salah. All I could think about was the extra takbeers. Don't forget to do them. No matter what, don't lose count (alhamdulillah for the Hanafi way, I think I would have seriously 'lost my wudu' trying to count 7 and 5). I did the extra takbeers, and started reciting. Normally, you focus on what you're reading and not messing up. Not this time. My recitation was flowing straight out of subconscious memory - kind of like how you drive home without thinking about where you're actually going or paying attention to where to turn.  The only thing on my mind? Praying like it's my last, reflecting on the meanings of what I'm reciting, imagining the akhirah? I wish. All I could think about was "don't forget the extra takbeers in the second rakah" over and over and over again in my head.

I made tasleem, and I realized I was now at a point where I didn't know what to do. Am I supposed to pause for a moment? Do I make adkhaar like after salah? Do I just immediately get up and start the khutbah? It was a minor detail we forgot to cover while preparing.  I just got up and climbed the minbar and started talking. It must be the shortest khutbah I ever gave in my life. I am not even sure if it hit a full 15 minutes total, much closer to 10.

Once I finished the khutbah, I got down, thinking I was prepared for the hugathon. I had even been warned that I would face an onslaught.  I figured though, that I would be immune to it. No one is used to seeing me give the Eid khutbah. I'm not even the one who led taraweeh. What ensued though totally took me off guard. Old men, young guys, and even little kids led by their parents had all formed roughly 3 lines around me in all directions, cornering me at the minbar. I was not moving until I hugged at least a couple of hundred people, and not only that, but when you factor in the triple hugging for each person, you are really stuck. Now normally at 'Eid, you are hugging people you already know, or are familiar with. You do hug a few strangers, sure, but not like this. You can usually figure out some kind of hugging protocol, but not only was I hugging a majority of total strangers, they all had different protocols. Sometimes I was going to shake a hand only to be grabbed and my hand ends up in someone's stomach (but alhamdulillah, with the kind of iftars we eat, the blow was cushioned signifcantly). I'd start looking to one person, only to be grabbed by another. I got so numb to it after a few minutes that I did not even realize when my own dad was hugging me until I was in phase 2 of the triple hug!

All in all, it ended well alhamdulillah. There were no complaints, the khutbah was well received. I wasn't sure what to expect afterwards. Alhamdulillah though, it ended normally. Once it was done, I just relaxed knowing it was done, and I slept a little better that night knowing that I could, in fact, properly count to 3 in pressure situations.