3 min Read
October 11, 2011

Learning from great public speakers

I’m a hardcore Mac user- in fact, I’ve never owned or worked on PC. So Steve Jobs’ death struck a particular chord for me, and I found myself rewatching some of his incredible presentations over the past few years last week.

Those videos got me wondering: Why is it that some people seem to magically transform the dullest content on earth into the most brilliant thing you’ve ever heard, while other meetings and presentations feel like a form of torture? Increasingly, I’m convinced that knowing your content is only a small part of what it takes to give a kick-ass presentation. Sure, presentation skills count too, but in this era where Blackberries and laptops are always just a fingertip’s reach away, you’ve got to be especially dazzling.

Luckily, the nonprofit sector has some terrific speakers too. Ever hear Katya Andresen from Network for Good or Madeline Staniosis from Watershed throw down? They (and many others) could teach us all a thing or two about making our board meetings, donor presentations, or other group discussions more engaging. Here are a few tricks I’ve picked up from them and (painfully) through my own trial and error.

Prepare to have fun. Taking the time to come up with an overarching theme and express it with slides that are image-intensive helps you avoid the tedium of text-only and forces your audiences to actually listen to what you’re saying. Katya weaves everything from the Simpsons to Oprah Winfrey into her talks, making complex information that could be a snore into something memorable. Take a look at these inspirations to get a few ideas.

Say it in pictures. Please, spare us the slides packed with bullets. And don’t even think about reading them to me. Slides should illustrate what you’re saying- that means using photos, illustrations, data visualizations, videos, or even just a key word or two to drive your spoken point home. Steve Jobs and Al Gore are both masters at this. Watch a few minutes of Steve Job’s presentations to see what I mean.

Encourage them to talk back. Ask you audience questions along the way to keep them awake and engaged. For instance, before you share data ask your audience, ask question that sparks a brief discussion, then answer that question with your results. They’ll buy-in to your content more if they feel they’ve been asked their opinion and have given the matter a bit of thought.

Tell me a story. Invite a client or new donor to come and share their personal story for the first 5 minutes of the board meeting. Sprinkle quotes and images from supporters throughout your presentation. Share a video made by an activist who’s passionate about your issues. By telling real stories about real humans sparks passion and commitment; it’s particularly important if some of the content you’re delivering is dry (financials, anyone?).

Prepare for complete technical failure. Some of the best presentations disintegrate when the laptop dies. Be ready for anything by bringing back ups of your content as many ways as you can, but be prepared to go it alone (eg with no PowerPoint or other equipment) in a pinch. Just printing out a few black and white copies can save the day, so don’t let technical failures derail you. Remember that your audience wants to hear you deliver your content with confidence- not complain about the projector.

Control the room. Get there early and make sure everything’s working so you can avoid technical failure- or at least have some time to fix anything that comes up. Think about how you want the chairs and tables arranged, where you’ll stand or sit, if the temperature is comfortable, and other details that can impact how focused you or your audience might be. Think of yourself as Lady Gaga and that board room is Madison Square Garden.

What are your tips?