Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Making your case in 20 minutes or less

I had lunch recently with a long-time friend whose participation as a Rotarian brought out an impassioned plea.

In case you've never attended, the Rotary meeting format usually affords approximately 20 minutes for a speaker of interest at each weekly meeting. Rotary also requires regular attendance of its members, so much so that they are encouraged to attend other chapter meetings when schedules prevent them from attending their own club's weekly gathering.

I've always admired Rotarians for this level of dedication to the organization. There are few meetings I'll attend weekly without fail outside of worship and faith-related small groups. As a result, many Rotary members can count on one hand the number of meetings they miss each year, putting their attendance close to 50 meetings, which also means 50 or so presentations.

Back to the impassioned plea. My friend, a city bank executive, strongly encouraged me to create a forum for non-profit executives and leaders to help them with their presenting skills. Apparently, such skills are sorely lacking for half or more of those who come through my friend's club.

I'd always heard that such clubs are bombarded mostly with poor presenters or people only there to ask for money and that such occurrences comprise the majority of the meetings. That creates suffering and hardship as members, week after week, sit as hostages through needlessly poor presentations.

There are more options than I can count for resources on improving one's presentation skills. I would also count such skill as near paramount for a non-profit executive these days, especially when the economy tightens and those executives get out and about seeking community support and funding.

Here are several tips:
1. Get the basics on presenting skills - I always recommend the basic Dale Carnegie Course. There's likely one closer to you than you think. It's a great investment and you can usually repeat the course at no charge if you'd like extra practice.
2. Craft your 20-minute presentation for use at any time - It's more than likely that you can have an evergreen presentation that tells a bit about your organization, its value to the community and cites one to three examples of local individuals or organizations which have benefited from your work. Then you can update and customize it to fit special occasions or seasons, such as the homeless shelter providing warm meals over the holidays.
3. Create it so that you can present with or without technology aids - Yes, Murphy shows up at Rotary meetings and you're bound to have a technology/projector/computer failure when there's no time to replace the equipment. Your ability to present a cogent, concise and compelling 20 minutes with little else than your outline in front of you will reflect your professionalism and appreciation of the time you've been given to an often highly influential audience. I also strongly recommend that if the PowerPoint adds nothing but the words you'll already be delivering verbally, try going without it. Reasons to consider this include maintaining attention on you and your presentation and less on the screen. I like the flip chart or white board to illustrate a particular point in a way that forces me to move and add energy to a particular point.
4. Practice your presentation before staff and board - Before you head out for prime time, make sure key people inside your organization have the opportunity to hear and see what you're saying. The practice and repetition is valuable in and of itself and you'll likely get some positive feedback that will help you improve the presentation.
5. Get out the video camera - I've recommended that a surgeon general's warning be placed on any video that requires someone to watch herself/himself in action. "Warning: viewing yourself on video can provoke nausea and drooping self-esteem. Proceed with caution." There's no better feedback, however, than seeing for yourself what others are seeing and hearing.
6.Bring a co-worker or board member to every presentation - Ask that person ahead of time to be ready to provide feedback following the event, good and bad, giving you a resource for continuous improvement.
7. Ask your host for feedback - Even if it's a day or two later and you're communicating by phone or e-mail, get a sense of how your host and the group felt about your presentation. While it's less than ideal to catch a bad review after the fact, it beats going out and stumbling again due to ignorance that the prior presentation was lacking in some easily improved element. It also improves your chances of being invited back next year.

Do yourself and your local civic clubs a favor by taking your presentation skills and quality up one or two levels. It will only strengthen your case later when the time comes to invite community support for your organization and its mission.

John Carroll is an award-winning columnist, author, executive coach, consultant and president of Unlimited Performance, Inc. in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. You can reach him directly at or follow him on Twitter at

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