Ten ways to build your nonprofit’s public speaking capacity

We pay a lot of attention to our nonprofits’ online voices these days, but are we neglecting an older and more essential form of communication?

Public speaking skills are overlooked as a core capacity in many organizations. All nonprofits need good in-person communicators, whether they present at national conferences, provide community talks, call on funders, or meet with partners and clients. Unfortunately we tend to think good public speakers are born that way, and hope we get lucky enough to hire or work with them.

Many books and classes teach the principles of effective public speaking, but there’s little guidance for nonprofit leaders who want to build it as a competency across their organization. Most of us are left on our own when we “have to speak” in public. And most of us wait until the last minute, whip out a quick Powerpoint, and suffer through.

But what if nonprofit leaders matched their nonprofits’ important work and impressive outcomes with a commitment to continuous learning and building of presentation skills? Below we suggest some ways to do this:

1. View public speaking as teamwork, even if it’s a solo job.
Assemble a group to brainstorm about stories and concepts that will interest people and presentation content and themes. Make sure that less-experienced staff works with senior staff as a learning experience. Likewise, senior staff can benefit by rehearsing in front of those who are newer to the topic and issues and may be more like a general audience.

2. Develop scripts.
Create scripts that describe your organization, its impact, key programs, and related issues. These can serve as templates and be adapted for specific audiences and events.  Develop boilerplate presentation aids, like Powerpoint slideshows, to accompany your scripts.

3. Rehearse.
Rehearse early and often. Set specific times for staff to present in front of colleagues, or bring in peers, Board members, or others to serve as mock audiences. Rehearsals should be “dress rehearsals” that simulate the event conditions, such as time, equipment, question and answer sessions, etc.

4. Use video.
Use a video recorder to tape and review presentations. Hearing and seeing yourself speak is a tremendous eye opener.  You’ll have a different perspective on what you sound like to others and your unique body language.

5. Learn PowerPoint.
There are rare people who can give a compelling presentation with no slideshow, but most of us need at least a few slides and most audiences expect them. Make sure everyone in your organization is comfortable with Powerpoint (including navigating forward and backward and clicking on hyperlinks.) There are many other software tools you can use as well, but Powerpoint is “spoken” across almost all venues and audiences. Invest the time to develop a slideshow that enhances, rather than overwhelms or distracts from, a presentation.

6. Buy good equipment and train people to use it smoothly.
How many presentations have you been to where the speaker spends five minutes or more trying to get the equipment working properly? You can’t always use your own remote or electronic pointer, but whenever possible use trusted equipment and make sure speakers are trained to use it.

7. Invest in training.
Look for public speaking workshops and courses. Skills like eye contact and body language, voice control, storytelling, and the “power close” can all be taught and practiced. They can be especially helpful for those who have been giving presentations for a long time and may have developed bad habits.

8. Hire a coach.
A coach can be well worth the investment to help staff become confident and effective public speakers. The one-on-one feedback can be immeasurably helpful at both the psychological level (e.g., confidence) and the physical (e.g., voice control.)

9. Join Toastmasters.
There are many Toastmasters clubs in the Mid-South. Members meet on a regular basis to present, listen, and evaluate each other’s presentations. These learn-by-doing workshops are a popular way for participants to hone their speaking and leadership skills in an encouraging atmosphere.  Nonprofit leaders can help their employees find a good fit and pay the membership dues.

10. Create opportunities to speak.
So many of us dread public speaking and only give presentations when asked. But if we invest in collaboration, training, coaching, and technology to build capacity, we’ll improve our skills and find it more enjoyable. The only way to get better is to practice. Look around your community for volunteer, business, religious, senior, and other types of groups that host or sponsor presenters or panels.  You never know what else they could lead to.

Are presentation skills a core capacity in your organization? Leave a comment–we’d love to know how you practice public speaking or help employees improve their skills. We’re interested in great books and videos or local classes and coaching resources for public speaking too.


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