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Nonprofit presentations: Tips, tricks, and other things to consider

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Giving effective presentations can contribute greatly to a nonprofit’s success. In fact, presentations serve as an important avenue for organizations to share their stories, build partnerships, garner community support, and acquire new donors or volunteers.

Although most nonprofits recognize the need to take advantage of such opportunities, their presentations can sometimes fall flat.

“I think that in general we end up talking about the wrong things,” explains Sheena Greer, a nonprofit communications consultant and founder of Colludo. “We share too many stats or too much internal jargon and don’t work enough on having basic conversations about the work we do.”

Nonprofit professionals tend to be passionate about their work, and they often have an inspiring message to tell their audience. But they also have some unique communication challenges to overcome and, without the proper preparation, their messages can easily get lost.

One main challenge nonprofits face is that they need to prove their value in a way other industries don’t.

“Unlike businesses who can make a strong financial argument around profit, nonprofits have to prove how their work effectively achieves their mission,” says international public relations consultant Todd Hauptman. “It’s essential that they clearly articulate their stories and why they exist.”

Sharing stories of impact can help nonprofits provide this justification, while at the same time motivating their audiences on an emotional level. As Greer argues, “We don’t share enough stories about the work we do, which is much more compelling than a PowerPoint deck full of pie charts and statistics.”

But the kind of stories you share and the way you tie them in will depend on the purpose and intention of your presentation.

Ditch the cookie-cutter approach

A frequent mistake nonprofits make is using the same presentation again and again for different purposes. After all, there are many reasons they may need to present about their organization: they could be fundraising, promoting their programs, pitching their work to a big corporate sponsor, trying to influence a new governmental policy, or working to raise their profile in a particular community.

Although it can be tempting to recycle a great presentation, each reason for getting up in front of an audience warrants a unique approach and preparation. Naturally, some of the content will overlap from one presentation to the next. But to maximize the time you have with your audience, you should know what your intention is and target your presentation to accomplish that goal.

“The first piece I always have clients work on is identifying what they want their audience members to know, think, or do,” says public speaking coach Janice Tomich, adding that this intention is the thread that should run through your entire presentation.

To know what you want your audience to take away from your presentation, you must first understand just who your audience is.

Dive into the hearts and minds of your audience

Ask anyone involved in public speaking and they will likely tell you the same thing: knowing your audience is key. Your audience will influence the type information you share, the stories you tell, and the kind of energy you bring to your presentation.

“The entire presentation will be different depending upon the audience,” says Hauptman. “For instance, with an audience of potential donors or corporate funders, I would focus on how well the organization manages its resources to impact who they are serving.”

This may sound easy enough, but effectively connecting with different audiences can be challenging for nonprofits. Just as they have many reasons for presenting, they often have a wide range of audiences to present to. A common pitfall is that they focus more on what they want to say rather than what the audience needs to hear.

“I see it in my clients all the time,” says Tomich. “They’re really passionate about their message but they’re not at all considering who their audience is and how they need to hear that message. So audience is paramount to everything.”

A lot of nonprofit audiences are made up of donors, but they can just as easily be volunteers, employees, government or corporate funders, policy makers, board members, or other stakeholders.

No matter who they are, you can’t connect with your audience if you know nothing about them. Do your homework, take your time, and find out as much as you can about the group you’ll be speaking to. Importantly, try to find out what they already know.

“As with any form of communication, it’s important to start exactly where your audience is, not where you’d like them to be,” says Greer. “If you’re speaking to a group that knows nothing about your cause, you will start at a different place than you would with, say, a long-time corporate sponsor.”

One trick that can help you get into the minds of your audience is to use a persona – a fictional person you come up with to represent your target audience. Developing a mock profile of that person can help you better understand your audience and create personalized content.

In a Top Nonprofits article, Dan Quirk introduces three personas he says nonprofit content marketers should target: Corporate Cathy, Donor Dave, and Volunteer Victor. Take Corporate Cathy for example: she’s in her early 40s and married, has an MBA, is constantly in meetings, and values faith, education, and empowering women. She’s passionate about giving her kids a balanced upbringing and wants to grow her company’s community relations department.

With this kind of information, you get a better sense of how to best present and communicate your story to Cathy. Keeping her persona in mind can help you put together a more relevant presentation and connect with your audience on an emotional level.

This is another common challenge charities face when presenting, since so much rides on getting the crowd invested emotionally in their cause. Knowing your audience members and what they care about can go a long way in helping presenters make that connection.

“For me this piece is really crucial,” says Tomich. “They need to understand what the emotional trigger is and get into the hearts and minds of those they want to tap into.”

To this end, investing in finding out your donor profiles is a smart and responsible use of funds, according to Hauptman. “Data is a vital part of effective fundraising campaigns,” he says, “because it allows organizations to understand exactly who they are targeting.”

Avoid death by PowerPoint

Another pitfall in nonprofit presentations is overcomplicated content and distracting visuals.

Too often, nonprofit professionals cram bullet point after bullet point onto slides in order to guide their presentations. But when you put a lot of words in front of your audience, they’re going to read. And when they read, they’re no longer listening.

The most obvious way to avoid this is not to use slides at all. “If you don’t need a slide deck, don’t use one,” says Tomich. “It can be a distraction where the presenter would be much better served by having all eyes and ears on them.”

When slides are necessary, limit the number of words and make sure your slides are predominantly visual. This will help your audience stay focused on you rather than the words on the screen. “Your message will come across more powerfully visually and in-person if the presentation isn’t packed with words,” says Hauptman.

While visual aids can be very helpful, it’s important to keep them simple. “Often when we’re creating a slide deck, we feel a lot of pressure to “jazz it up” and can get carried away with using images and aids that don’t make a lot of sense,” says Greer.

Keep in mind there are other ways to deliver interactive and media-rich presentations aside from PowerPoint. Some people prefer to use Prezi – an online presentation platform that allows you to make engaging and flexible presentations without strictly ordered slides. By letting you adapt your delivery as you go, Prezi helps you turn your presentation into more of a dialogue.

This piece – keeping your presentation conversational – is crucial, according to Greer. It not only helps keep your audience engaged, but also helps with nerves. “We tend not to be nervous about having a deep conversation with a group of friends around something we’re really interested in,” she explains.

Get those nerves under control

Managing nerves is a major challenge for presenters across all sectors, including nonprofits. In fact, the fear of public speaking, or Glossophobia, is one of the most commonly cited fears. So if you hate getting up in front of others, you’re not alone.

Fortunately, there are many things you can try in order to limit the jitters.

For starters, one of the best ways to overcome nerves is to make sure you really prepare. “Preparation is absolutely essential to ensuring that you are confident when you speak to your audience,” says Hauptman. Take the time to create and practice your presentation. Get feedback from others. And don’t try to memorize a script.

You should also pay attention to your breathing. “As adults, we tend to do a lot of chest breathing,” Tomich explains. “We’re not doing really deep belly breaths, as we should. It’s interesting what just a few deep belly breaths can do to really calm down your nerves.”

Another way to boost your confidence is by “power-posing.” As researcher Amy Cuddy discusses in her famous TED Talk, holding a pose where you’re taking up a lot of space can actually make you feel more confident. Try standing with your feet apart for two minutes with your arms reaching up like you just won a race – preferably somewhere private!

If all else fails and you’re still feeling the pre-presentation jitters, try to convince yourself you’re excited rather than nervous. Recent research by Harvard Business School psychologist Alison Wood Brooks found that reframing nervous feelings as excitement can improve public speaking performance.

In the end, just try to trust yourself and what you know about your charity’s work. As Hauptman suggests, “Let your passion and knowledge of the issues and your organization shine through your speaking.”

Rachel is a freelance journalist living in Ottawa, Ontario. She is a graduate of the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs and Carleton University’s journalism program. She has been a contributor to Charity Village since 2012.

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