How To Give A First Rate Event Speech

event speechOn the very first day of my nonprofit career, I was already in the top spot. The Executive Director. (I had just left the dark side for-profit sector.)

That very first day, I flew cross-country to Los Angeles. Had never been there before.

And my very first task was to address a cocktail party of about 150 people at a board member’s home.

I had never given a fundraising speech before in my life. But there was no time to ease in.

We had $360 in the bank and 18 staffers to pay.

So I sat on the plane with a few index cards and thought, “What in the world will these 150 people want to hear?”

I created an outline for my speech and prepared the best I could, wishing that somebody… anybody… would clue me in on how to do this. But I had nobody in that moment that could help me.

Nervously, I gave my speech, feeling sure I was going to embarrass myself. Surely the board is going to regret having hired me! What am I doing here?

Have you ever felt like that? Awful feeling.

And yet…

Somehow I hit it out of the park. This was the moment GLAAD started to dig itself out of its financial hole.

After that success, I made sure to save the outline of my speech. I’ve used this outline for every speech I’ve made ever since. I’ve shared with board and staff members who spoke at events.

Now I share it with you. 


What does your audience care about? When you’re representing a nonprofit, the answer’s pretty easy. In my case, it was about gay rights.

My daughter once answered a call from a telemarketer. She answered the phone, listened for a short time, and casually asked, “Which one?”

The caller had asked to speak to her mom. Nothing in the telemarketing script for that!

So I told the audience this story. It got quite a laugh.

I talked about the world I wanted for my kids… that it was my need to advocate for them that led me to advocate for gay rights.

I felt that if I could articulate what motivated me to take a risk and invest that I could open the door for them to do the same.

I asked our guests to envision a different kind of world for themselves.

What did they learn? That I cared deeply. That I had kids. That I was warm and funny. That I wanted to change the world. That I felt that changing the culture was how you change the world.

But I had a clear outline.


An “event” is anything from a house party to the speech given at an annual gala. It can be given by a CEO, a board chair or by any organizational ambassadors.

Just follow these seven steps and make them your own.

1)   Leave the “thank you” list to someone else. Nothing kills a set of short remarks faster. The main speaker should thank ONLY the host or give a general thank you to the group.

2)   How did YOU get involved with the organization? “Ten years ago, I was asked to volunteer in the kitchen early every Tuesday morning. Our Tuesday morning group became life long friends. That would have been plenty of benefit but today, I’m here as the board chair of this incredible organization.”

3)   Tell a story about what the organization DOES. Avoid the mission statement. The only thing worse is the “thank you” list! The next thing that will sink you is the “kitchen sink” approach to program work. Tell me one story that is emblematic. It should be real, weighty, and have an outcome you are proud of.

4)   Tell folks what ‘we’ are up against. Talk briefly about the challenges and why “we” all need to come together. If this can be a SHORT compelling story, even better.

5)   A personal story. Why does this work matter to you? I often spoke about my kids and the world I wanted for them. Sometimes I told a funny story that made the point.

6)   Simple basic info about the organization. I just need a few pieces of info about its size – staff and budget. If you can be a “David” in the “David and Goliath” story, all the better.

7)   Ask. Be clear, be specific. Suggest that we all need to take action. Maybe it’s “join all of us with a gift of X.” Maybe you need volunteers to go to a lobby day. Make a specific ask. If you are going to entice them about your organization and NOT offer them a specific way to join you, why did you bother to have the event at all?

The best speeches leave you wanting more. If people are standing, you get 5-7 minutes. Sit down dinner, 7-9. Ten or more is simply too long. At a regular speaking pace, figure you’ve got about 750 words.

The best speeches, also, are not made on the fly. But they sound like they might have been.

So practice kid, practice.

If you use my formula for your next speech, please tell me how it went! I’d be thrilled to write about your story and give your nonprofit some publicity.

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