9 Speaking Tips for Your Next Recognition Event & 2 Things Never to Do

When addressing a group of supporters who have gathered at a donor-recognition event, it is important to effectively manage both the message and how you deliver that message.

A colleague contacted me recently for some advice about his upcoming appreciation event:

I will be emceeing and addressing the members of our legacy society. The President and the Chair of our current capital campaign are both speaking as well, but it falls to me to open the gathering and set the tone, then close the gathering and send them on their way. Given an opportunity like this, what would you make sure you said? Do you have any words of wisdom?”

The answers to the above questions will vary somewhat based on the unique culture of the group. Determining the correct message and how to appropriately deliver it will require sensitivity to the organization’s traditions, regional culture, and national mores. With that in mind, here are nine ideas what he might consider doing followed by two things he should definitely never do:

1. Be lively. I have found that many legacy society events can be dull, even funereal. If that’s what your folks are expecting and want, then give it to them. However, if the situation allows, I encourage you to try to be a bit light and jovial. Megaphone Man by The Infatuated via FlickrSometimes, we can take ourselves a bit too seriously, particularly when it comes to planned giving. Giving should be a joyful, positive, uplifting experience, even for a very serious cause. Keep that in mind when addressing your supporters.

2. Show appreciation. Just because it’s a donor-recognition event, do not assume that your supporters will feel appreciated simply by being there. Make sure you tell donors that you appreciate not just their gifts but also their involvement and caring.

3. Tell stories. People also like a good story, especially if it’s amusing, has a twist, or is heart-warming. Think of what you want to say. Then, think if there’s a story you can tell that will make the same point. Stories engage people by allowing them to put themselves into the situation. Hearing a good story activates many of the same parts of the brain that would be activated if the listener were actually living the situation. For maximum impact, make sure to use real stories.

4. Tell donors how gifts have been used. It is important for donors to understand that the organization wisely uses donations to achieve its mission efficiently. Very often, we focus on how gifts will be used. That’s certainly important. In fact, that’s my next point. However, we must also show folks the impact of past support. That gives us an opportunity to provide evidence of our organization’s effectiveness.

So, if a realized bequest contribution allows a social service agency to provide 50 meals to the homeless each week, then share that story. Remember that bequest commitments are revocable. And, if treated well, your planned gift donors will be among your best prospects for another gift. Therefore, you’ll want to keep reassuring the people that made those commitments that they made the correct decision.

Sharing a story about a previous donor whose gift has been realized will do a number of important things:

  • Tells people that donors continue to be remembered and appreciated even long after they’re gone.
  • Reminds folks that others have made a planned gift. People like to know that they’re part of group.
  • Underscores that planned gifts have a real impact.
  • Implies that all donors will likely be similarly appreciated and have their gifts wisely used to achieve the organization’s mission.

5. Tell donors how gifts will be used. For planned gift commitments that might not be realized for years to come, it can be difficult to demonstrate how the realized donation will be used. However, while difficult, it is still something you have to do. It is important for you to let donors know that their gifts will work to wisely benefit those the organization serves. And, if appropriate, tell them how the broader community or society will benefit as well.

6. Involve the audience. You can involve the audience in a variety of ways. For example, if you work at a university, you can ask attendees to take a moment to imagine what life was like for a student before she found out she had received a scholarship. “Imagine” is a great word to use to pull people in.

Another way to engage attendees is to give them a tour of your operation. A hospital in the Pacific Northwest gave donors a tour prior to a recognition luncheon event. At lunch, an elderly man was so moved by the tour that he stood up to make an announcement. He and his wife were new members of the legacy recognition group. They had agreed to make a bequest commitment. Initially, they thought the commitment would be relatively modest. However, following the tour, they were moved to do something far more substantial. The man told the group that he and his wife had decided to leave their entire estate, including a large farm, to the hospital.

7. Outline future involvement opportunities. In addition to involving people at the event, outline opportunities for their continued engagement. Invite your supporters to be the organization’s ambassadors in the community. Tell them how they can volunteer. Share with them estate planning tips that could lead to another gift. Your goal is to have them leave the event more inspired, more committed, and ready to further engage.

8. Pre-announce the opportunity to ask questions. Speakers frequently close their remarks by saying something like, “Ok, now I’ll take any questions or comments anyone might have.” After a long period of silence, someone might awkwardly ask a question or the speaker will simply wrap up his presentation to bring the uncomfortable moment to a close.

If you intend to open the floor to questions or comments from the audience, you’ll want to tell them at some point something like this, “In a moment I’ll open the floor to questions or comments, but first I want to just mention…”

The idea is to let them know a bit in advance about the opportunity to ask a question or make a comment. This will give them a chance to collect their thoughts and increase the odds that someone will speak up once you finally do open the floor. You might also want to consider “planting” a question to help get the ball rolling since most people don’t want to be the first to speak.

9. Start and end on time. Respect the time of your supporters. Start on time and end on time. Your audience will appreciate it. Your effort will also demonstrate your efficiency.

Now that I’ve provided nine ideas for things you can do to make a more effective donor-recognition event presentation, I want to share two things you should never do:

1. Do NOT read your remarks. Whatever you do, make sure that you do NOT read your speech. I once heard Jane Fonda read a speech. It was not particularly good. Since she’s an actress, I couldn’t figure out why she didn’t memorize the speech and then perform it. Anyway, she read it nicely, but it lacked heart.

By contrast, I heard Sarah Ferguson (Duchess of York) speak seemingly off-the-cuff. As oratory, it was a bit of a mess. However, every one of the 3,000+ people present thought she was talking just to them. Her style was highly personal, passionate, warm, and genuine.

I encourage you to speak from the heart. Avoid jargon and institutional speak. Try not to just talk to the group as a group. Try to make them think you view them as a collection of individuals rather than as a homogenous gathering.

For example, you could say, “I appreciate the support you all have shown.” (By the way, avoid the royal “we.” Don’t be afraid to use “I.”) However, it might be nicer to single someone out: “I see Sara was able to make it today. Sara is the newest member of our legacy society. Sara, I know why you chose to make your gift commitment because you told me what motivated you. Your passion touched me. I’m inspired by you and everyone who is a member of the legacy society.”

The idea here is to take the individual example and then extrapolate it to the group all the while showing appreciation. Just make sure to get the approval of anyone you would like to single out before you do so; some folks will feel uncomfortable with the special attention.

2. Never tell the audience that you’re not a good speaker. When you begin your presentation, do not tell folks you’re a bad public speaker. First, you’re probably not as bad as you think are. Second, if you are, they’ll figure it out soon enough without you needing to tell them. If you’ve done your homework and you’ve practiced, the chances are things will go pretty well. Assume your talk will go well and your chances of that coming to pass go up. On the other hand, if you assume things will go badly, you’ll probably be proven correct.

My lists are certainly not exhaustive. I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever addressed the audience at a donor-recognition event? If so, what worked well? What did not? What are your tips? I invite you to share your wisdom below.

That’s what Michael Rosen says… What do you say?

9 Responses to “9 Speaking Tips for Your Next Recognition Event & 2 Things Never to Do”

  1. Michael,
    I really enjoyed this post. It is filled with some great advice. While the nine dos and two don’ts are excellent advice, the first seven should be used in all contact with supporters, whether in person, by mail, or by email. Those first seven should be considered “the seven commandments” of donor/supporter communication.

    • Richard, thank you for your kind comment. I’m glad to know that this post resonated with you. You’re right. After reviewing the post, I agree that the first seven tips really do apply to all contacts with supporters. I appreciate you for pointing that out.

  2. Great thoughts, Michael. I just wrapped up our Heritage Society luncheon last week, so I’ve created a PDF of your post, highlighted sections and have placed it in my 2014 luncheon folder so I can incorporate some of these points next year. For the most part, we host a well-received appreciation event but there is always room for improvements.

    As part of our program, we formally induct new members of the Heritage Society by calling them up to the stage, sharing what their specific future gift will do and then we present them with a framed certificate that includes a watercolor of the campus. By sharing the designation/purpose of their gift, it makes it a more personal event for the new donor and serves as an inspiration for others. We also share when an existing Heritage Society member adds an additional gift (typically a CGA) to their estate plan.

    Since this is a university, I also have two to three students seated at each table of ten. The students have been prepped that they should be engaging with our guests, ask questions, share if they are scholarship recipients and talk about their own experiences. A few students also participate in the program by providing testimonials that I title, “In Their Own Words”.

    One thing you didn’t mention in your post is the importance of follow-up. Within days of the luncheon, I send a thank you letter to all who attended. The letter recaps some of the event highlights. This year I included a copy of the speech given by one of the students. It was very touching and several people had already requested copies. I also send a modified version of the thank you letter to those who didn’t attend. It lets them know that we missed them and provides insight to what all occurred, I think this is, in part, why we’ve seen attendance grown annually over the last five years.

    I continue to value and appreciate your posts. They often spur new thoughts and ideas. Thank you, Michael, for your dedication to the profession.

  3. Timing is everything, as all experienced with encouraging planned giving know….Our Founders luncheon is this coming Saturday, and I am glad that I happened upon this when I did. In anticipation of a much better presentation at that event, let me say, “Thank you, Michael!!”

  4. Just want you to know that I returned to your 9 speaking points today as I prepare for our Charles C. Chapman Heritage Society luncheon on Friday, May 2.

    Michael, you continue to be in my thoughts and prayers.


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