By Tom Iselin
Whether or not you consider yourself a good speaker, you’re probably quite tuned-in to people who speak well and those who don’t. A Zoom meeting host who starts and ends every sentence with “ums” and “ahs” will cause attendees’ eyes to roll.
A boring keynote speaker is the bane of conference goers and provides an excuse to walk out early to check emails. A rambling, monotone podcaster will send listeners searching for another show in seconds.
On the other hand, it’s easy to listen to good speakers and admire them for their talent. They make you smile. They give you goose bumps. They inspire you to join a cause, persuade you to change an opinion, and motivate you to write checks.
Public speaking is part of everyday life at a nonprofit. Program managers teach new staff. Volunteer coordinators train volunteers. Chief executives make fundraising speeches, and board members speak to community service organizations. Everyone answers phones, greets visitors, and talks about a favorite nonprofit around town.
Why is public speaking important?
Public speaking is a cornerstone of successful nonprofits because speaking is the communication vehicle used most often to share information. A nonprofit where staff and board are made up of good speakers has a distinct competitive advantage because so many nonprofit leaders shy away from speaking opportunities — internally and publicly.
Anyone who has attended a major fundraising event knows the success of an event often depends on a keynote speaker’s ability to inspire the audience, an auctioneer’s ability to motivate donors to give, a chief executive’s ability to talk passionately about an organization, and a beneficiaries ability to share their experience.
The ability of a chief executive to give a great speech or compelling interview is essential. More important is the ability of staff and board members to speak well in their given roles. Effective speech at every level of nonprofit operations improves work productivity and efficiency, and we all know a business functions best when communication is plainly spoken and clearly understood.
Effective public speaking can also improve your nonprofit’s image. Your staff and board are front and center in the community. The better they can communicate the great work you’re doing and the impact you’re making, the greater the likelihood they will win the hearts and minds of people with whom they talk, while earning respect and credibility for your nonprofit.
A great speech by a board chair might incite dozens of people to action, and something as simple as a friendly, two-minute phone call between your office manager and a donor might make a profound impression that transforms a minor donor into a major one.
Effective speaking, like effective writing, is another secret of success that flies under the radar of most nonprofits. Smart leaders of high-performance nonprofits know it’s a tool of tremendous power and influence and use it strategically to accomplish their objectives and fulfill their mission. Be wise and do the same. Make effective speaking and public speaking top priorities at your nonprofit and start applying the tactics below today.
Tactics And Tips
- Everyone Is A Spokesperson
Public speaking is not a task reserved for chief executives to raise money at fundraising galas. Staff, board members, and volunteers speak publicly every time they conduct a training session, talk with parents, teach children, call business partners, attend a jazz festival, or shop for groceries.
Everyone is a spokesperson and the better everyone can articulate what you do, the more effective your nonprofit will be at fulfilling its mission.
If you want to build a team of good speakers, people need to know what to say. Look for ways to encourage staff, board members, and volunteers to memorize mission statements, recite core values, read collateral material, and understand program functions. Staff might be busy running programs and managing operations, but it’s important they do not forget the pillars on which the nonprofit stands.
Sharpen the knowledge of your staff, board members, and volunteers by providing time at meetings and training sessions to share information and answer questions. Explain the budgeting process or share the outcomes of the last board meeting. Discuss the latest changes to programming and how it will affect volunteer scheduling.
Role-playing and coaching are two ways to improve speaking skills. At random times, ask staff and volunteers to recite your mission or core values, or ask someone to give an overview of the work they do, program they oversee, or an operational function they perform.
If you have inexperienced fundraising staff, sit in on some of their donor calls so you can listen to the conversation and coach them on phone etiquette, selling techniques, tone, and timing.
It’s every board member’s responsibility to be a spokesperson. You’ll want to make sure they understand the important aspects of programming, operations, and fundraising, so they can share this information with friends and business associates at parties, social outings, and community functions. Question and answer sessions and role-playing are just as useful for board members as they are for staff and volunteers, even more so in some cases.
Everyone connected with your nonprofit should be a spokesperson for the noble work you’re doing. Your job is to teach them what to say and to provide frequent and safe opportunities for them to practice what to say — and what not to say — and how to say it. You also want to encourage everyone to joyfully and actively share what they know as they go about their daily lives in the community.
- Seek Out Speaking Opportunities
One way to differentiate your nonprofit from others is for managers to seek out and embrace speaking opportunities, not avoid them. Community service organizations and local media are constantly looking for good speakers to share compelling stories and information of quality service work being done in the community.
You’ll secure plenty of speaking engagements just by picking up the phone and calling your local Rotary chapter and asking to speak or calling a local radio station or podcast host and making yourself available for an interview. You won’t have to call them for a return visit, they’ll be calling you if the interview goes well.
As staff improves their public speaking skills, provide opportunities for them to speak at larger venues. Encourage different staff members to lead weekly staff meetings. During volunteer training sessions, invite staff members from different departments to talk about the jobs they perform and the primary functions of their departments. Participate in public outreach opportunities such as concerts, benefits, fairs, or fun runs where you can showcase your mission, and staff and board members can talk about what you do and ways to get involved.
You should also encourage selected staff to set up television, radio, and newspaper interviews. Ask managers to attend board meetings to present program and operation updates and require your chief executive and program managers to make a certain number of presentations and public speeches each year.
If you have board members who enjoy public speaking, arrange opportunities for them to speak to community service organizations.
- Slow And Easy
Almost everyone has some level of fear and anxiety when speaking to large groups, important people, or on camera. That’s natural. As you help staff and board members improve their speaking skills, you’ll want to be sensitive to the pace at which you increase their comfort levels, so they learn to welcome more challenging speaking opportunities, not repel them.
Start slowly and easily. Assess everyone’s comfort level and then establish a customized plan to improve each person’s speaking skills based on each person’s desire and motivation to improve skills.
If you’re serious about improving the speaking skills of those connected with your nonprofit, you’ll need to make room in your budget to pay for it. Allocate funds for books, classes, and webinars. If some of your staff want to join the local chapter of Toastmasters, pay their annual membership dues. Let everyone know you’re committed to support quality speaking as much as you expect them to improve their speaking ability.
- Prepare, Prepare, Prepare
Great speakers prepare. They study their topic and audience, make notes, and practice giving their speech dozens of times before they deliver it.
The best advice you can give your staff, volunteers, and board members about public speaking is to let them know how important it is to prepare. The more they prepare for a speaking engagement the more effective and comfortable they will be. This holds true whether they are holding a meeting with three staff or making a fundraising speech to 300 donors.
You can’t hide from speaking. It surrounds everyone, every day, all day. Nonprofits where staff and managers fail to communicate effectively have difficulty raising money, motivating others, and growing. They slip into the background and remain miles short of their potential.
If you want your organization to become a high-performance nonprofit, you need to assemble a team of staff, board members, and volunteers who speak effectively and are willing to seek out public speaking opportunities on a regular basis. If you do, you will build trust and credibility in your community, influence and motivate people, differentiate from the competition, develop remarkable programs, and raise a lot of money.
To build a team of effective speakers, start by making effective speaking a top priority early on. Hire staff and nominate board members with public speaking experience and strong speaking skills and keep everyone’s speaking skills sharp by providing well-funded training and practice opportunities.
Everyone connected with your nonprofit is a potential spokesperson. Once you have a team of confident, effective speakers, seek out public speaking opportunities to get as many of them involved as possible. They’re contributing to the amazing work you’re doing and making a difference, so find ways for them to publicly share the good news!
Don’t kid yourself. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there for nonprofits, and those who bark best get most of the treats and attention.
Tom Iselin is a facilitator of board retreats and executive coaching. He has started or helped to build four nonprofits and four foundations hunger, substance abuse, the environment, people with disabilities, abused and traumatized children. His email is [email protected]