How to Plan a Successful Community Presentation

Date Published: 
February, 2004
Original Author: 
Todd Van Beck
A S Turner and Sons, Decatur, Georgia
Original Publication: 
ICFM Magazine, February 2004

Talking to groups about funeral service, whether at your facility or at the meetings of community and civic organizations, generates a following and builds relationships, yet few funeral service practitioners make full use of its benefits. One of the profession's best speakers offers a how-to guide for starting—or polishing—your public speaking career.

As funeral service practitioners, we are selling a valuable service, but we should realize that nothing positive happens until a relationship is established. We all strive to build, in our work, a large community network of relationships, old and new. Like any business, we need to constantly find new and innovative ways to generate positive public relations. This goes beyond a simple advertisement, a leaf through the phone book or a referral, all of which could result in contacts. To succeed, human relationships must be established and nurtured with great care.

In the community presentation, we have discovered an invaluable tool that helps build relationships and, at the same time, is cost effective. It provides an information exchange for people and a place where they can ask questions that they would not otherwise have the chance to ask. The group setting is less threatening, and lets people confront topics related to funerals and death in an atmosphere of mutual support. Those who automatically plan ahead in life immediately recognize the community presentation as a not-to-be-missed educational opportunity. They will plan to attend without fail!

This article will provide you with:
• the how-tos of the community presentations,
• tips on developing the talent of public speaking and
• help in understanding the positive impact a presentation can have on our business.

As you read more about this powerful marketing idea, I hope you will decide to embrace it—to put it in Latin terms, carpe diem—seize the day!

The Power of Presentation
The community presentation can be an extremely valuable part of your cemetery or funeral home's overall outreach plan. While selling is described as a marketing task, marketing is a long-range plan with strategies. A long-range strategy for funeral practitioners is to generate a following and build relationships.

More than any other medium, a well-planned community presentation will bring you into direct contact with the people in your community who are receptive to you—they either have invited you as their guest speaker or been invited by you and chosen to attend. All of these are people with questions about your profession, people who, in many ways, want to establish some kind of relationship with you.

Few businesses fully make use of the potential of the community presentation. Perhaps they don't understand its value, or they don't know what to do or don't think they have the personnel or the time to implement it. Up until now, they, and perhaps you, have overlooked a truly effective strategy.

Will Rogers defined speaking as "organized verbal communication that gives a person greater personal power." As with anything else you become good at, public speaking takes practice. It's up to you to view it as an opportunity—it will take extra commitment, especially if you've never done it before and never imagined you would. Rogers would convince you that the personal power you gain is well worth the effort. Can you lose anything by trying?

As you explore the ideas put forth in this article, you will see that speaking before a group is a skill that can be mastered. If you feel ill at first, realize that you are not alone—public speaking is regarded as the No. 1 fear. But there are many, many people who have overcome this fear.

Think about this: If you had the choice of making 50 cold calls or giving a brief talk to a group of 50 people, which would you prefer?

Talking About Death
In reality, funeral directors handle the dead and take care of the living. Perhaps the most sensitive part of your presentation will be explaining to the group how you perceive and deal with death and grief. You may want to start off your presentation with a brief, professional video on the subject to help your audience relax.

Tell the truth about funeral service. People can see the truth behind emotions, whether it's fright, anger, happiness or sadness. Therefore, it is important to be truthful when addressing a group. People tend to listen more when truth is being communicated and the message hits its mark. As a speaker, you will learn to rely on, and fully use, the truth force! By tapping into it, you will find the strength you need to overcome your fears and begin to feel the personal power.

Tell the truth about funeral service, and people will listen.

Communication Tips
You may feel that you're able to prepare your presentation on your own without assistance, but don't be afraid to seek help. The library has excellent guides on writing speeches. If time permits, you might even sign up for a university class on how to make an effective presentation. Often, the classroom experience will offer a chance for a personal videotape and critique. Also, consider the Dale Carnegie course or Toastmasters group (available in many communities) for additional training and support.

Here are some valuable tips on presentations:
•    Thoroughly know your subject. Research, read and double check your facts so that you feel confident.
•    Outline your speech in writing.
•    Memorize the points to be made in the order you want them to unfold. Memorize certain phrases that paint a word-picture, but never recite a speech from memory. Communicate with your audience as if you were having a one-on-one conversation.
•    Tape yourself both in practice and at the actual presentation.
•    Watch your vocal tone. Change that monotone!
•    Expect to have butterflies. They're normal! If you are feeling nervous, concentrate on the message. You're eager to tell people all about your topic. You can't wait to ask for questions!
•    Prior to preparing your talk, don't be shy about asking for constructive ideas from any people you know who are already dynamic speakers. People love to give advice!
•    Familiarize yourself with the facility, where you'll speak and its management a few days before your program. Check the room to know where things are. Make sure you can operate the basic equipment—-test the lights, the sound system (microphone, video cassette recorder and monitor), and locate exit doors and restrooms.
•    Arrive at the location early on the day of the presentation.
•    As the group arrives, mingle with them and introduce yourself in a friendly manner. (The more friends you make before the presentation, the more people you'll have rooting for you during it!)
•    If you decide to use audio-visual aids during your presentation, remember that a person's attention span is about 6 minutes. Stories need to be told in short vignettes or cameos since there is usually only time for two or three points to be made in this short time.
•    Videotapes, audiotapes, slides or films should be quick and to the point. You may have time to show only a portion of your audio-visual.
•    Plant one or more questions in the audience beforehand. People are generally happy to oblige and that one question will help get the audience going.
•    Provide the program chairman with a glossy photo of yourself and a short biography beforehand for publicity purposes. A separate written introduction will also help the chairman. It should be double-spaced and, if possible, ask that it be read exactly as it is written. This will set up your opening remarks.

Types of Community Presentations
There are two types of presentations, the type where you are invited to speak to a group and all of the basic arrangements are made for you; and the type that you initiate yourself, which may occur at your funeral home or another facility.

A general rule about host organizations: Realize that professional organizations or service clubs are notorious for giving you 20 minutes to talk, particularly at lunch time, and then starting late. People may leave to get back to work on time. For this reason, gauge your speech to end in 15 minutes in order to have time for a few questions and answers. Likewise, when you know you have a long time to speak, wind up the presentation 10 minutes early to allow for questions.

If you are hosting the presentation yourself, you must handle a number of important logistical details to ensure success.

•    First, work with your staff to set a convenient date that does not conflict with any other major event in your business or in the community. Also, select an alternate date in case a funeral home or cemetery need arises.
•    Establish the length of time for the presentation (1 to 1.5 hours) and decide where you will hold it. A tour of the cemetery or funeral home is an option, if you are holding the presentation there.
•    Allow plenty of time for questions and answers following your talk.
•    Assemble a guest list. In preparing it, determine how many people usually attend such meetings, based on similar presentations you've given or attended. Perhaps you'll decide to limit it to the families you already know or to reach out by promoting it to the entire community as a free public event. This will increase the turnout and enhance your company's visibility. As part of the guest list for a larger, community-wide presentation, you will want to include prominent business leaders.
•    Prepare and mail invitations. Compose a professional, dignified invitation on stationery, using your funeral home's logo.
•    Create a promotional news release. A news release gives the who, what, when, where and why of a subject. Take the time to prepare it carefully so that the basic information about your event is crystal clear to the reader. Send the news release to selected media, especially to the newspaper that covers your neighborhood, as well as to interested groups. This is the basic promotional tool you'll need.
•    Give your facility a thorough inspection. If you're planning to hold your presentation at your cemetery office or funeral home, take the extra time to make sure it shines, as you would prepare for a party in your own home. This pertains to any size group you are expecting. Although your facility should always be meticulous, now is the time to scrutinize it completely.

Arrange for any special cleaning required of carpeting, draperies or upholstered furniture. Replace bad light bulbs; make obvious repairs-touch up the paint if it needs it! You want your facility to look its best, and it's the attention to minute details that will payoff.

You may have to temporarily rearrange or even remove furniture.

Examine your outdoor parking situation.

Do you need to rent additional parking spaces?

Make sure your funeral home's cars are washed, waxed and polished. Also, examine the building exterior, landscaping and lighting. Take action to make improvements where needed.

•    Arrange for refreshments. An appetizing food table heightens the social aspect of the event and promotes relaxation. (Be sure your state allows the serving of food in a funeral home/cemetery.) Consider light refreshments such as soft drinks, coffee, tea, cookies or small pastries. You may want to recruit a friend or family member to assist with the preparation and serving.
•    Order flowers. Fresh flowers will add beauty and a pleasing fragrance to the atmosphere. They can be attractively placed on your registration or food table, or in your arrangements office or chapel/visitation area.

Assembling Information Packets for Your Audience
People love to take handouts and written materials home with them after a presentation. Professional folders can be purchased that will keep all of the information in one place. Items to include are:
•    a funeral home or cemetery brochure (which often contains the history of the home and a list of services);
•    a calendar of any future seminars or support groups; and
•    articles or additional pamphlets on topics such as retirement, preplanning, the value of the funeral, embalming and memorialization.
•    A newsletter kit is also popular. This specifically includes a two-sided quarterly newsletter, retirement information, "Did You Know?" sheets, financial information and light subject matter, such as a recipe.

Prior to your presentation, find out how many packets you'll need. These will generate excellent public relations for your funeral home.

Evaluating the Presentation
Most community groups and professional organizations recognize the value of obtaining written evaluations from attendees at the end of a meeting. Check with the program chair to find out if the group you are speaking to handles its own evaluations or if it would be possible for you to distribute a short questionnaire. (See Sample Questions For an Evaluation Form below)

Sample Questions
For an Evaluation Form

    Was the speaker informative?
    What did you expect to hear?
    What did you learn? (Describe one point)
    What was the most interesting? (Describe)
    Did you feel comfortable throughout the talk?
    Did the video add to the presentation?
    How could we improve future presentations?
    Was the information helpful?
    Can we supply you with more information?

Likewise, you should do this if you are in charge of arrangements. Evaluation is an important step in the process that can help you improve future presentations.

The form should look professional and appear on funeral home or cemetery stationery. Make enough copies for all attending and distribute them at the end of the event. Encourage all attendees to complete the form before they go home. Reiterate its importance and ask them to deposit them in a box near the exit.
Leave space for additional suggestions and comments at the bottom of the sheet. Ask people for their names and addresses that can then be added to the mailing list. Some will prefer to remain anonymous, which is fine, too. Perhaps the arranger will even provide you with a group directory of names and addresses, and mark off those in attendance. This specific information will help you with your thank-you note process, another vital follow-up activity.

Arranging Future Speaking Engagements
At the time when you first meet the program chairman and fees are mentioned, your best reply is that you do not charge, but that you do request a testimonial letter if the group is happy with your presentation. This will help you secure future speaking opportunities.

As you conclude your presentation, offer to speak to the group at another meeting and ask them to recommend you to others. This will continue your chain of awareness building in the community. You can also extend your speaking offer in the thank-you note.

After you have given one or more talks, the power of this marketing strategy will become more obvious: Remember: If people, buy what you are saying, they will buy what you are selling!

I know of many funeral service practitioners giving two or three programs a week who report a dramatic increase in qualified leads and actual closings on pre-arrangements. They are convinced that the community presentation has a definite advantage over advertising or direct mail since it opens the door for lasting relationships.

Most importantly, the community presentation allows people to get to know you, up close and personal. When they se that you are a real live human being with your own fears and vulnerabilities, a lot of the mystique about death and dying begins to evaporate. A free-flowing exchange of information is an extremely healthy and meaningful experience for the public and profession as a whole.