Are You Really The Storyteller You Think You Are?

FastCompany had an article about Five Ways Non Profits Struggle last month.

Most of the things mentioned aren’t really news to you if you work in non profits: Restrictions on how grants and donations can be used, employee burn out, ineffective use of data collection and lack of access to capital.

The assertion that,

…most organizations don’t engage in fundraising experimentation because they’re worried about the perception that it might create. There’s a tendency adhere to a set formula–the portion of operations supported by grants, individual contributions, or mission-related revenues–without thinking about how impact can change if you get creative.

was somewhat intriguing. Perhaps I will investigate that idea a little more in the future.

It was the fifth point, however, that I hadn’t expected to see on the list.

53% of nonprofit leaders spend less than two hours preparing for a speech

That’s especially scary considering only 10% of people in the sector consider themselves to be well-trained storytellers, according to Janus’s research. At the same time, there’s a huge payoff for those who learn how to talk engagingly about their mission.

Now arguably, this might not make the top 5 problems facing non-profit leaders, but it could certainly constitute a barrier to success.

While I have encountered a number of people who did a poor job making their case or were deadly boring, I never considered that it might be lack of preparation that contributed to that problem. I think we have all encountered teachers/professors who have a reputation for being boring that spans years. Their problem was more attributable to delivery rather than lack of repetition.

On the other hand, if you do consider yourself a good storyteller and feel that process is an important part of garnering investment and interest in your mission, then it does behoove you to invest time in development and preparation.

This article made me recall how I was recently asked to deliver two talks within a couple days of each other. I was keenly aware that I was much more comfortable discussing content I had spoken on before and felt I did a more effective job delivering it. Even still, I probably practiced and tweaked it for 5-7 hours.

Even though I wasn’t as comfortable delivering the second speech, I invested close to 20 hours developing and rehearsing it.  I suspect when I get some more distance from it, I will be able to go back and cut a lot of extraneous content so I can do a better job on the topic the next time out.

It is admittedly not easy to find the time to do justice to a speech with so many immediate demands on your time. The two talks I recently delivered were definitely a nights and weekends endeavor. It is very much like the situation where the you could do something ten times in the time it takes you to teach a new employee to do the job to a half way acceptable level. In the long term, however, that initial investment can become a long term benefit to the organizational mission.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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