Top Ten Lessons on Effective Public Speaking for Nonprofit Leaders

The recent blog post about my top lessons related to building a great board reminded me that I have a combination of some very traditional views about nonprofit governance (which is not to say that those ideas are widely practiced) and also some very nontraditional views.  One of the out of the mainstream ideas – that term limits for board members are usually not necessary and are potentially harmful – is explored in my new book, Changing the World Without Losing Your Mind.  A nontraditional view that I left out of the book is this: I don’t believe minimum donation levels for board members make sense for most organizations.  I will be exploring that in a future post. 

Today, I am going to share ten of my top twenty-six lessons* related to another critical skill for nonprofit leaders: public speaking.  In this area as well, I have some widely held views and some that are less popular, appreciated or practiced. 

Let me take a step back.  Early in my career, I was a self-conscious public speaker, though occasionally had moments where I was very effective.  It took time to understand why my speeches worked so well on occasion but were mediocre or worse the rest of the time.  This led me to reflect on what things were in my control as the speaker and what was not. 

I tended to mimic the styles of my mentors, whom I had the ability to see speak on multiple occasions and observe how they varied their speeches from how they spoke in normal conversations.  Being a clone of a good speaker can work reasonably well, but it can sometimes be grating on an audience and come off as inauthentic or contrived.  Gradually, I developed my own speaking style, incorporating and making habitual some generic good public speaking practices supplemented by my own preferences and quirks. 

Perhaps most important, I learned that as a speaker, there are many things that you don’t control that can make a given speech or presentation a real or apparent hit or flop, which was another reason not to get too self-satisfied or depressed from any single speaking opportunity.  Anyway, here are my top ten lessons learned on this important topic:       

1.      Speak from an outline, not from a script, unless you absolutely have to get the wording exactly right.  Jot notes in the margins of your outline if good ideas pop into your head, even minutes before you begin speaking.  Those who read speeches (unless they are very skilled at doing so) often sound scripted and formal (i.e., boring).  In general, when an audience notices a speaker is reading from a script, they tune out.

 2.      In many types of public speaking, it works better if you start with your conclusion (i.e., your bottom line message), rather than slowly build up to it over the course of your presentation.  It puts the audience, probably populated by not a few “attention deficit disorder” types, at ease since they know where you are going.

 3.      Understand and appreciate that the effectiveness of a speech or speaking opportunity has as much to do with the quality of the audience – that is, their interest in the topic and affinity for the speaker and his or her points – as it does with the quality of the speech itself.  Don’t take too much credit if it goes well, and don’t feel too bad if it does not.

 4.      Rehearse your speech in private and then revise your outline during the 24 hours before you go on stage.  This allows you to catch and rework awkward or unclear formulations as you listen to yourself and to experiment with word choices that are clearer, more poignant, funnier, and flow better.  Calibrate your level of preparation and rehearsal with the magnitude of the opportunity for impact on your goals and public profile.  Speaking opportunities where the stakes are not high are great opportunities to try out new stories, arguments, and techniques.

 5.      Once you start speaking, vary from your outline and from what you rehearsed based on how the audience is reacting.  Linger on a point, take a tangent, or cut out entire sections on the fly based on the needs of the moment as you see them on stage.  In other words, go in with a plan but be ready to modify it, which is easier to do when you are speaking from an outline than from a prepared text.  A speaker’s ability to improvise increases over time and with experience – indulge this approach more as your confidence grows.

 6.      Dramatic pauses can be powerful, so don’t rush through your remarks.  Try to look some members of the audience in the eye while you pause and let your point sink in or the anticipation build for what you will say when you resume.

 7.      Making an audience laugh can relax them and make them more receptive, but don’t force a joke if you can’t think of one or if it does not fit the mood of the event.  Sometimes, in the course of giving a speech or presentation, if a funny thought pops into your head, go with it.  It may work well; and in any case, it will likely add a sense of spontaneity.

 8.      Stay within the time limit you are given, plus or minus 10%.  (Meaning, if you are allocated 10 minutes to speak, do not exceed 11 minutes.)  Since most people don’t do that, it distinguishes you as someone who is disciplined and respectful of your audience, which magnifies your influence.  Experienced speakers can usually gauge the extent they are keeping to their allotted time without a time-keeper or stop-watch, but these can be helpful tools for those with less experience.

 9.      Avoid throw-away lines about how you will be brief, especially if you are not sure that the length of your remarks will be considered brief by your audience.  Generally, any remarks that last for more than 3-4 minutes are not considered brief.

10.  If you are being interviewed on camera or in front of an audience (e.g., a “fireside chat” with a moderator), don’t over-prepare by spending a lot of time predicting what you will be asked and then overly rehearsing your responses.  If you do, you may be caught flat-footed if unexpected questions are asked, and you may seem robotic or unsure of yourself.  Think through your main messages but remain open to different ways the conversation will unfold so you can go with the flow.

*If you would like all 26 lessons, send me proof that you bought my book and I will send them to you. If you send me proof that you bought at least three books, I will send you all 403 lessons learned on all topic areas. My email is