How to not choke when speaking at your nonprofit's gala - Generocity Philly


Jul. 13, 2017 10:41 am

How to not choke when speaking at your nonprofit’s gala

Public speaking is hard. Columnist Lansie Sylvia explains the musts of onstage storytelling.

Lansie Sylvia.

(Illustration by Hannah Agosta Illustration, based on a photo by Jessie Fox)

How to Give” is a monthly column by local philanthropy wizard Lansie Sylvia. In it, Lansie answers readers’ questions about millennials, philanthropy and engaging the next generation of givers. To ask her a question, tweet @FancyLansie.


I’ve been volunteering with a nonprofit for about five years now. They’ve asked me to be one of the speakers at their annual fundraising dinner this fall and I’m absolutely terrified. I hate public speaking, but feel morally obligated to share my experience as a volunteer so that hopefully I can inspire others to give of their time as well. How do I give a good speech and not choke?

Look at you go! Congratulations! ???

I applaud your nonprofit for selecting a volunteer to speak at their dinner. It’s important, and smart, to include a variety of voices at these types of events. All too often it’s only the board chair or executive director who speaks, and audiences can have a difficult time relating to their experience.

Let’s reframe this presentation. Instead of “giving a speech,” can you think of it as “telling a story”? Speeches can feel like remote things, feats of strength and talent that only presidents and CEOs engage in regularly. How are we mere mortals to compete?

But we’ve all told stories. I’m willing to bet we’ve all even told good stories, stories that made our audience giggle, gasp, weep, shiver and yelp with delight, fear or sympathy.

Storytelling for nonprofits is crucial for creating connection, and there’s even research correlating the amount people give to charity with the type of story they hear immediately beforehand.

Stories create higher recall in listeners, and specifically character-driven stories create oxytocin. The more oxytocin that’s whipped up, the more listeners display “helping” behavior. Plus, if your story has good tension, you’ll get more attention from your audience. Tension is linked to levels of cortisol. Pair this with oxytocin and you have the perfect cycle of creating tension, gaining attention, resolving the tension, producing oxytocin, and then money, money, money! Basically, it’s your trusty Freytag’s Pyramid that you learned in high school.

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Let’s get started!

1. Put yourself at the center of the story.

Remember, we need a character-driven story to hook the audience. In my experience, in-person stories at nonprofit functions work best when the central message of the story reveals a new aspect of either the leadership, the organization, or the community it serves. Perhaps your story will show the grit and resilience of your community, or the compassion and intelligence of a fellow volunteer.

2. Know your story — write it down then pare it down.

In my experience, for first-time storytellers it helps to write the story down in one long stream of consciousness and then edit it down later. Ideally, you want a five-minute story. This lends itself nicely to Freytag’s pyramid — use one minute for each section of your story, and time yourself so you know you’ll complete the story in time, like so:

  • First minute: Set the scene. Who is involved, why are they important, where and when are you, and why does that matter?
  • Second minute: What’s the problem? Something happens to kick off the story. This is the inciting incident. Very exciting!
  • Third minute: Things get weird! You’re creating tension. There could be complication or trouble. At the end of this minute you get to the climax!
  • Fourth minute: What just happened? How will you get out of this scrape?
  • Fifth minute: You did it. Phew! Wrap things up.
  • Sixth minute: You exit the story to talk about what this nonprofit means to you and why it’s so important to support it. I’d spend only another minute on this part and then take your bow!

3. Know your audience.

Every audience has its own culture. Since you’ve been volunteering with this group for five years, you’re likely to understand its particular flavor and norms.

Make sure to connect with the dinner organization and know what is expected of you and what your role is. Are you the only one representing the volunteer experience? Are you expected to weave a donation request into your story?

What are the customs of this audience? What language do they use? Is there specific vocabulary, short-hand, or words that help you make a point? All of this is key to understanding your audience.

4. Just breathe.

When you’re up there, use your breath as a centering device. You can either acknowledge the breath by saying something like, “Phew, I’m sorry, I’m a bit nervous tonight because this organization is so important to me and I want to do a good job by them.” This will help get the audience on your side. Or you can hide the breath within a dramatic pause.

Remember, at the end of the day, the organization choose you to speak. They know that there’s something special about your experience, and they have confidence that you’re the right person to connect with their audience. Remembering that goes a long way. Your only job is to tell a good story. And we’re all storytellers by our very nature. Break a leg, kiddo!


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