Skill Development Part III: Clear Verbal Communication

This is part three of a Second Day series on skill development at nonprofits. We believe that skill development often occurs through the 70/20/10 model: 10% formal training/learning, 20% coaching/feedback, and 70% challenging assignments.This article provides some resources to supplement any training that your organization provides and touches on ways to progress the other two pieces.

Clear verbal communication

The most important thing in communication is hearing what isn’t said.
— Peter Drucker

Verbal communication is deeply human. It can change minds and advance progress in a way that written communication rarely can. While verbal communication is essential to all relationships and there are best practices for direct interactions with colleagues, friends, and strangers, this article is focused on the most ubiquitous of communication: meetings. Thousands of professionals make their living coaching people on this and the number of guides online is overwhelming. I’ve attempted here to consolidate best practices that are particularly applicable to a nonprofit setting here.

When presenting or facilitating a meeting

  1. Send or bring an agenda. This is an eat your vegetables type of tip, but you really should be doing it. It will make your meetings far more productive and empower you to cancel unnecessary meetings that waste precious time and money. An effective agenda often has (1) objectives for the meeting and (2) a list of topics including the point person for each topic and whether the goal is to make a decision, seek input on a decision, or update the team on something particularly sensitive or complicated. Here is a great resource for further detail on great meeting agendas.

  2. Know your audience. Similar to part II of this series on written communication, a key to success is knowing your audience. Does one manager need to know a critical piece of data? Does your boss only feel comfortable making a decision if others on your team also support it? Do your best to anticipate potential barriers to decision-making and prepare accordingly by researching key pieces of information and making sure that a meeting doesn’t happen without a critical decision-maker.

  3. Facilitate with precision. Once you know the key decisions to be made and the information needed to get you there, your job is to stay on track. Effective tools for this include:

    • Use a parking lot. If people start taking the meeting off track, validate the topic, but offer that it may be less critical to the decisions listed in your agenda. You’ll capture it for discussion at a later time.
    • Time check. Update people on the status of the meeting to keep things flowing. It is more important to save a few minutes at the end to go through takeaways and next steps than to finish a rich discussion.
    • Stay disciplined yourself. Really try to cover the critical information. Don’t dive into unnecessary detail, let yourself get pulled off track, or start doing other work if you get frustrated. Even complex decisions often only have ~3 points that are the most critical to drive home.
  4. Take notes. Another simple but an essential step for your credibility. Document key decisions, new pieces of information, and next steps. Recapping these at the end of the meeting verbally and via a quick email will make everyone feel like the meeting was more productive and help hold people on your team accountable.

When participating in a meeting

  1. Take notes on decisions and next steps. Even if you aren’t presenting, this will help you to stay engaged in the meeting and add value to the team. Whether you use these notes to recap at the end of the meeting, send to the organizer of the meeting, or just have for your own reference, this best practice is a great way to demonstrate your organization and leadership without ever having to be asked.

  2. Play back what you’ve heard. You can gain a tremendous amount of legitimacy with a simple act when participating in the meeting. At a critical point towards the end of the meeting or when a decision has been dragging for a while, chime in: “What I’ve heard from everyone is x, y, and z. Here’s what I would suggest to drive to a decision.” This will likely impress senior leaders without stepping on their toes and will help the discussion to move forward efficiently.

  3. Look for moments to step up. Meetings are often when tasks are assigned. It is your best opportunity to take on new step-up opportunities and potentially to offload more mundane tasks (more on this in future articles). Know the room and pick your moments carefully, but don’t be afraid to volunteer for projects or tasks that you think will develop your skills or responsibilities, even if it’s not currently “part of your role.”

How to put this to practice


  • Take 2 minutes to reflect. After a meeting, it’s a best practice to write up a summary email with takeaways and notes. However, you can also focus on your own skill-building. Think back to the key moments in the meeting when people coalesced around a decision or when things went off the rails. What could you have done for a different result? Tracking these instances over time will help you to self-correct. It also provides you with an opportunity to walk through it with a coach or mentor to get their advice.

  • Practice. If you have a particularly high-stakes presentation or if you just want to improve your skills, have a peer or boss give you notes during a practice presentation. You can also ask for feedback on your agenda structure, facilitation style, etc.

  • Look externally. If you have a professional development budget or if this is a priority for your development, there are a lot of courses and coaches that make their living helping professionals with this. It’s a lifelong skill that will serve you well.

Challenging assignments

  • Practice during the routine. Even if it’s just a check-in or weekly meeting, there are boundless opportunities to put these best practices to work. Take a minute to highlight opportunities within your current role where you could step up your verbal communication game!

  • Look for new opportunities. Offer to organize a meeting on something or step up into some external-facing role. There are often lots of presentation opportunities within a nonprofit and many senior leaders appreciate when you can take something off of their plate.

Phil Dearing