Something Funny Happened on the Way to Being a Presenter

Okay, picture this. You made it to the big Apra conference, and you’re about to learn all there is to know about fundraising research. You enter the ballroom in which you, along with about 150 other researchers, will hear the first presentation of your precious days in Atlanta or Minneapolis or Pittsburgh or this year's conference city, Anaheim, California. You peer across the expanse for a good seat and, with relief, spot one near the front. As you make your way through researchers chatting in the aisle and others settling into their seats, you see someone who must be the presenter (a confident-looking person rocking an Apra lanyard with the ribbon "Presenter") at the front of the room, locked in deep conversation with someone holding a walkie-talkie. It must almost be time to start. You are so excited!

It starts with the presenter

Every session you attend has a presenter who has poured the time their internal trainer dictates into getting ready. Don't forget that the bones and nerves of a researcher are up there — someone who has spent plenty of time checking and double-checking their work. Those same skills go into preparing for a conference session. Over these many years of Apra's life, there have been large and small changes in what that job entails, but much of the experience is timeless. Many of the largest changes have been electronic. Some presenters expected — a few years too early, I confess — to have a reliable internet hookup. Or even a reliable projector. Some altered the content of their presentations based on the likelihood of access to the ether-world. Some probably avoided topics that were too web-intense.

Nearly all of those presenters, almost without exception, have come to you with a small or big bundle of nerves, very much determined to do a good job by you, and to have you leave the presentation inspired and more knowledgeable about our work. Let's talk about how that went for a few of them.

The speaker experience

Lori Hood Lawson and David Lawson

Lori Hood Lawson, co-founder of, was presenting with David Lawson (hmmm ... I think they might be related) on one of their go-to topics: founders and funders. The presentation was Lori's first at the Mid-Atlantic Researchers Conference (MARC), the predecessor to what you now know as ARC. The Lawson game plan was for David to present the first half of their material and Lori to present the second. MARC had directed those speaking to bring their presentations on a jump drive and use the computer and projector equipment installed for them. One hour into this joint presentation, the speaker's monitor went into hibernation. Nothing Lori did would wake that baby. She wiggled the mouse and tapped the keys, but the baby slept on. Lori was hemmed into a spot with her back to the big screen with very little room to move around to actually see it. But, because the napping baby would not wake, that's exactly what Lori had to do — move her attention (and the audience's) between her position facing the attendees and the big screen behind her. 

Later that day, one of the session reviews reported, "The one presenter [Lori] did not know the material and had to keep looking at the screen." 

Lori would never go to a presentation underprepared, of course. "I learned my lesson," she reports. "If there is a technical glitch, share with the audience so they know why you are exhibiting odd behavior! Those in attendance really are on your side. An additional lesson? Always print your slides to have ready should something like this happen; and, whenever possible, check the monitor's hibernation settings and adjust accordingly."

One more tip from Lori: "Make David go second."

Sometimes the nerves aren't related to electronics. It is a very big deal to presenters to stand in front of you: a well-educated audience with a great depth of experience. After all, most of us want to get an "A," right? But there is something more profound going on here. The people who volunteer to speak to their peers are deeply attached to the well-being of our profession. They are committed educators who know that spreading this highly complex knowledge is a good thing for researchers, their nonprofits and their philanthropic causes. One of those "the-world-is-a-better-place" things, you see. 

Helen Brown

Helen Brown, president of the Helen Brown Group, spent about 15 years as a researcher for higher education before founding her own consultancy. She recalls the first time she was involved in a presentation at an Apra conference.

Brown was the moderator for a panel of experts she had recruited; she diligently worked with them about the questions she would ask them and reminded them — more than once — of the day, time and location. "I was super prepared, but super nervous," Brown recalls. She even mentioned to Holly Kasper, the researcher with whom she worked, that she was afraid that during the introduction, she would get up in front of the roomful of attendees and forget her own name.

The big day arrived. Brown walked to the podium and all of her panelists were there. She glanced out into the audience, and who was sitting in the front row? Research legend Ann Castle, that's who. And Kasper was sitting right next to Castle.

Brown took a deep breath. She smiled and looked out at the roomful of researchers. At that moment, Kasper held up a small sign that read, "Good morning, everyone! My name is Helen Brown!"


Michael Quevli

Have you ever been to a presentation by Michael Quevli? Quevli has been with Blackbaud for more than 12 years. He was in research at the University of Southern California's Keck School of Medicine before that.

Quevli once arrived at an Association for Healthcare Philanthropy (AHP) presentation "back in the old days," he says, to discover the equipment that was to project his PowerPoint talk was malfunctioning. Quevli had printed copies of his presentation, but, as is usually the case with a popular speaker, there were more attendees than handouts.

Luckily, Quevli had experience in the realm of acting. True to improv form, Quevli took off his jacket and tie, rolled up his sleeves, and jumped up on the speaker table at the front of the room. Instead of delivering a PowerPoint presentation, he sat on the edge of that table and had a conversation with those present. While Quevli concedes that this might not have been what the attendees expected, I would put money down that it was better than they even imagined. From then on, Quevli reports, he has always prepared for the plan to change so that he could be ready to change with it.

Jennifer MacCormack

Quevli’s years of training enabled him to navigate the stage well. Apra past-president Jennifer MacCormack didn't have that sort of background to help her with a graduate school presentation in Seattle many years ago. "The day of my presentation, I was such a mess of nerves that I acquired a very peculiar tick — my eyebrows started involuntarily twitching up and down. I remember trying to stop this while having a coffee (author’s note: that would be a Seattleite's idea of a tick cure!) about one hour before my session, and I wondered if anyone would notice." Next, MacCormack went to the hotel restroom to assess the tick. She decided it wasn't that noticeable and she put her faith in her slides.

MacCormack says, "I was in agony right up to the very start of the presentation, and then all of it — the tick and nerves — went away once I started talking. I gave a polished and well-received presentation, and I discovered right there my love of public speaking.

“I still get nervous to this day, after over 15 years of public speaking, and I love the feeling."

That’s one of the mysteries of being a speaker. The nerves create a sort of adrenaline rush that winds up generating a feel-good sensation. Think roller coasters or skydiving. When it ends, you are happy — really happy. I remember reading years ago, that "adventure" is different for different people. For some, climbing a mountain is an adventure. For others, sharing deeply is. Often, those groups do not overlap. Those who scale physical heights are not the same people who are willing to be emotionally vulnerable. Nonetheless, both are forms of adventure.

Jennifer Filla

Jennifer Filla founded the Prospect Research Institute in 2014 and was involved in research for more than a decade before that. She, too, recalls a technological failure. For Filla, the faulty projector always acts as if it isn't going to work and then, poof: It comes through right before she is set to present. As Filla recounts, "I kept saying to the worried host that it always works out."

This time, no go. Filla walked in front of the projector and its bright light hit her eyes and produced an instant mild migraine. As unlikely as it seems at this point in the story, the gods of fortune were on her side: The room was a computer lab! Ever the nimble presenter, Filla posted the PowerPoint presentation online, and the seminar attendees pulled up the presentation on the computers at their stations.

"The flashing zigzag worked its way across my vision for about 10 minutes, but left only a dull headache in its wake, so I managed," Filla casually reports. There is no stopping an intrepid research presenter, is there?

Jeff Walker

Jeff Walker has been the director of research at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee since 2011, and prior to that he was with Children's Hospital of Wisconsin Foundation in a campaign research and writing role. Walker shares one of his own “oops, I tripped” stories. He was the president of the Apra Wisconsin chapter at the time. A notable national speaker had been secured to present to the area's researchers. The speaker left the room for the business meeting portion of the day's agenda, and several in leadership began a discussion of the expense of having the speaker come. The costs had risen when the speaker waited to book the flight until that too-late-for-a-good price moment.


Walker confesses to making a few strident remarks about the impact on the chapter's treasury. He thinks it might have been the coffee (again! coffee the culprit!). What he didn't realize was the speaker had come back into the room. And had sat down. Next to Walker.

As Walker reports, "Awkward." (Add the long “awwww” as you say that.)

The speaker was, naturally, full of grace. Walker apologized. Peace reigned.

Liz McHugh

One of the best stories I have ever heard was about an audience member. Liz McHugh, then with the Arizona State University Foundation as its director of prospect management and research, was speaking at the big Apra conference in Pittsburgh. The topic was relationship management (this will be funny later in the story). The hotel seminar rooms were odd in Pittsburgh. They were long and narrow, and there were pillars all throughout the rooms. As the ever-gregarious McHugh began, she told the standing-room-only crowd that she loved interaction, so they should feel free to ask questions.

A small voice somewhere in the room called out, "I have a question, but I can’t see you so I’m not sure how to ask it." McHugh, confused, said, "Hello! I am happy to answer your question, but I don’t know where you are!"

The attendee said, "I am behind a pillar!"

That might be a you-had-to-be-there story. But if you keep in mind how infinitely polite researchers tend to be, and if you have spent any time around McHugh, who is always ready to jump into nearly any hot mess with a smile and a laugh, then you’ll understand why this memory sticks with me.

Cecilia Hogan

My own stories are too many to outline, but I'll try. There was the time that I was to present at a CASE conference about one of my favorite topics — web resources for researchers — and I walked into a room equipped with an easel and big pens. Did they think I was going to draw the internet?

I've had organizers change the description of my talk so that what I plan to speak about isn't what people came to hear. I've had presentation partners who did close to nothing to prepare, while I agonized over being underprepared after days and days of, well, preparation. I show up with a raft of papers; they have a Post-it notepad. Oh, to be another sort of person, I always think.

One of my favorite experiences (uh, not really) was the time I showed up for a Seattle fundraising class presentation and was told that I would have a co-presenter. Hmmm. Who? Oh, someone who would be telling the story of what it was like to be cultivated as a donor. Can you see where this is going? The person was one of my organization's affiliates — one of our donors. She would be sitting there to hear how I identify wealthy, philanthropic people for my major gifts team. And then she'd be the living example of that, I guess we could say. Show-and-tell day in research? Gulp.

Fortunately, she was beyond gracious. She went on and on to the attendees about how great my nonprofit is at engaging and cultivating her. Whew.

Does all this sound like more fun than you can stand to be missing? Hey, guess what? Apra needs you to be a speaker! There is nothing on earth better than fresh presenters at conferences. And that might be you! There are several avenues to mine for that perfect topic that would work for the big Apra conference: your unique experiences as a researcher, that special project you designed and executed, or maybe an incredible talk in which you were involved at your chapter meetings. Go ahead! Try it! What's the worst that can happen? Whatever it is, know that you can handle it. We're researchers. We can handle anything, right?


Cecilia Hogan, director of university relations research at the University of Puget Sound, first spoke at a conference in 1995, about two years after she became a researcher. What she learned from attendees made it hard to get her to stop talking after that. She is the author of “Prospect Research: A Primer for Growing Nonprofits” (Jones & Bartlett: 2008, second ed.) and several articles about her favorite thing: wealth and philanthropy research. 


Looking for more great tips on being a speaker? Check out Apra’s speaker coaching page to help you stand up and stand out. 

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