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Last Updated: 2008-05-23
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How to Prepare a Dharma Talk

Christopher Titmuss

I remember listening to a Dharma talk by a Buddhist monk. He spoke for about an hour. His talk seemed disjointed and lacked focus. I told him later he should consider preparing his talk by writing some notes. He said his tradition did not use notes.

I asked him: ‘What is more important – clinging to your tradition or effective communication of the Dharma?’ The Buddha placed immense emphasis on listening (Pali: savana) to the teachings. He regarded the Dharma teachings, including questions and answers, dialogue and inquiry, as a primary vehicle for transformation. Clear teachings wake people up. Your talks deserve serious reflection and solid preparation.

At a meeting of 50 experienced Insight Meditation teachers, 49 teachers said they often still feel nervous before or during a talk. A sociological survey showed that public speaking is most people’s biggest fear. The second biggest fear is fear of death. In other words, most people regard public speaking as a fate worse than death!

Some teachers (like myself) do not prepare talks but largely draw upon the contact with dharma practitioners during the day, or draw upon recent reflections and then endeavour to point to deeper insights through the talk. Ideally, I will find 10 or 15 minutes to walk slowly up and down in my room or outdoors to let the theme unfold within. I used extensive notes for the first 100 talks that I gave in the 1970’s. If I may say, I regard public speaking as exciting as brushing my teeth; the great joy is to share the dharma, the greatest teachings available on Earth.

The primary intention with a Dharma talk is to provide inspiration, subsequent reflection, insight, opening of the heart, and point the way to a liberating wisdom. Remember to check that your talk meets some or all of these intentions.

Never be afraid to speak with the full sense of authority. In the Dharma hall, you are the voice of the Buddha. But you should also endeavour to make clear precisely the Buddha’s word’s on daily life issues and what is your understanding of them.

Decide on the theme

If the talk is for 40 minutes then divide it up into three sections, and even subsections.

Perhaps have a couple of blank pages for each section.
with a general topic for each section.

Or you may wish to use a ‘mind-map.’ In other words take a piece of blank paper and write down the central topic in the middle of it with arrows pointing to themes connected with it.

Try to write down as many reflections and insights as you have. Try to write a lot more than you need and then edit to retain the important insights.

If there are particular sentences or points you want to make, put them in capital letters. When you speak the sentence in the hall, say the sentence more slowly to the listeners and pause afterwards.

Make sure that your talk keeps close to the title.

Does your talk address the primary questions, what, how, why, where, when, who?

Make sure your stories fit into the topic.

Start your talk on a strong note and finish on a strong note, preferably ultimate truth.

If your story is too long about yourself, or you tell more than a couple of stories about yourself, you will probably sound self-indulgent, or even narcissistic. Remember you primarily offer non-self teachings, not given license to the self.

It is important to find the balance between the number of stories you tell, the number of quotes (making sure they are very accurate) and your direct dharma teachings.

Too many quotes will reduce your authority.

If a story is too long or you tell too many stories, it tends to water down the body of the talk.

Remember that stories about one’s personal experiences can be helpful but probably you, the teacher, will get more enjoyment out of telling them than anybody else.

Personal stories can provide inspiration and insight but also can lead to even more transference onto teachers. If you tell of your insights from your past or present experiences, you will be regarded as wonderful. If you tell of your failings, you will be praised for being so open.

If the talk becomes a long personal confession then those who listen will wonder why you are teaching. And so should you!

Many Buddhist teachers steer away from critical analysis in their talks. They seem afraid of appearing dualistic or arrogant. Some teachers never say anything that is challenging. They always sound painfully agreeable! They make sure that everything they say is non-challenging. Teachers then can sound predictably comfortable (in other words, castrated).

Don ‘t be afraid to speak your truth but be prepared for the backlash.

If you can’t take the heat, then don’t go near the fire.

Write short, clear sentences. Write in the active sense, not the passive. (‘The dog barked at the man’ rather than ‘the man was barked at by the dog.’

There is a value to humour, and the funny story since it helps to keep everybody’s heart open. If you offer too much humour, then stop serving dharma and become a comedian in a nightclub.

Be watchful of the desire to want to use the talk to be liked or loved.

Don’t be afraid to speak with the quiet determination to explain at length and in depth dharma teachings.

Make sure there is a flow to the talk as you explore different aspects of the theme. If you are making a decisive switch from one topic to another, then remember to pause. A pause of a few seconds serves like a new chapter in a book.

Be experimental with your style of talks.

Try giving a 40-minute talk without a personal story
Try giving a 40-minute talk without a story at all
Try giving a talk without any humour
Try giving a talk without an anecdote.

Talks have a certain power, especially if delivered with pregnant pauses and you sit still with an upright body.

Try giving a 20-minute talk and offer 20 minutes for questions. Keep your response to questions short and speak eyeball to eyeball to the question as much as possible.

One type of teacher (including myself) keeps rather strictly to Buddha-Dharma teachings, clearly rooted in the tradition and language. Another type of teacher adopts an eclectic approach, as if all religions and spirituality teaches the same. Teachers of the first approach can give rise to the ego of the narrow view. Teachers of the second view can give rise to the broadminded ego coming across as new-agey, without any backbone to the message.

Remember the Dharma examines all life issues – ethics, consumerism, non-violence, sexuality, relationships, good and evil, global issues, politics, religion etc. Dharma teachings bring wisdom to bear to every area.

Read your prepared talk out at least once out loud beforehand to yourself before giving it in public. If you are offering a retreat, you may need to prepare the talk before you arrive, and then adapt parts of the talk to meet the needs of the retreatants.

If you are going to read all of your talk out to the dharma students make sure you have enough light to read from, make sure your handwriting or typeface is readable, and you are not talking into the floor. After you have given several talks, you may need less preparation and fewer pages of notes for the talk. In time, you may come down to the use of a small piece of paper or the confidence to speak straightforwardly without notes.

If you know your talk well, then you won’t need to look at your notes the whole time. You will then be able to glance at them as a reminder of what is next.

Remember you are a Dharma teacher. You words can touch the listener so deeply that it has a beneficial effect on him or her for the rest of their life.

You have exactly the same job as the Buddha. Never undermine the Dharma by giving a chatty talk or using the time for giving teachings in a superficial way. Truth has power to it. Truth transforms consciousness.

If your teachings touch a deep place in your listeners, then all credit to your wisdom and communication skills. If you know you are not touching a deep spot among listeners, then explore afresh your style and content. Teaching is a practice as well.

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