Book Review: Confessions of a Public Speaker

book cover: Confessions of a Public Speaker (man sitting next to lecturn)I absorbed Scott Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker (O’Reilly) during the four days after Christmas (amidst the bizarre humidity and noise of an indoor Boston water park with my family). Berkun grabbed & held my attention with amusing stories and solid advice that resonated with my presenting experiences, good and bad.

Read this book if you present at conferences, pitch your ideas, your products, or your firm. It’s a manual for being prepared and engaging. (It is not an in-depth discussion of rhetorical styles nor presentation slides; for these Berkun refers the reader elsewhere). The book offers many useful suggestions for conference hosts as well.

The central tenet of the book is that successful public speaking requires serious thinking. The more you’ve thought through your ideas, the more confident you will be in your ability to discuss them, even through technical glitches and difficult audience questions.

I look forward to using Berkun’s suggestions for getting started on new presentations. He offers a fill-in-the-blank list for writing a strong title and brainstorming ideas for inclusion. While he’s not particularly moved by the utility of concept maps or storyboards, Berkun suggests that whatever you use to get there, ultimately you need to end up with an outline of basic points. The information architect in me always starts brainstorming points on index cards, for easiest sorting, reorganizing and refining.

“Work hard on transitions between slides and points.” Amen. I’ve committed to doing an audio recording before all presentations. I started doing so in order to make it available online immediately after presenting, for the selfish reason that the slides would most likely be shared while still on people’s minds. I’ve continued to do so because it forces me to get those transitions correct. If the flow between slides or points is not there, it’s a good sign I have not spent enough time on organization, or that something needs to be removed. Berkun shares techniques for maintaining control over the pace and the flow of a talk, in order to keep your audience engaged.

The book includes a thorough review of things to do before the presentation, including questions to ask the host, rehearsal, best room types, best clothes for lapel mics (if you’re a guy), and how to check out the venue on arrival to ensure problems are addressed. Berkun entertains with many stories of awkward situations and weaves in suggestions for recognizing and addressing problems mid-stream, as well as ways to avoid pitfalls in the first place.

“Clear ideas and strong points are what people remember.” Berkun’s notes about concise, memorable statements call to mind the excellent book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die (Heath & Heath), which appeared as #4 in the Confession’s ranked bibliography. He discusses making use of silence and intonation, and avoiding what Heath and Heath call the curse of knowledge, encouraging us to “emphasize key points the audience should notice or understand.” Both books emphasize the power of storytelling to make people care and remember your ideas.

I enjoyed the ideas shared for involving the audience. Berkun suggests “resetting” the audience’s attention every ten minutes. There is nothing like eliciting participation to get people fully engaged. My work team has been using multiple-choice pop quizzes lately, with audience members volunteering to explain their answers/guesses. What are your favorite ways to involve the audience?

The book’s venue-related advice will be useful to conference hosts, including: controlling environmental distractions, providing timing queues, and encouraging people to move to the center front to create good energy in support of the speaker. One of my favorite parts of the book is the suggestion list for good session evaluation questions, which largely evaluate the extent to which participants think they will be able to use what they learned. Host venues can help by ensuring that compiled evaluation data gets to the presenter. Berkun suggests providing an email list so the speaker can follow up, such as by asking, “Now that you’re back at work, do you have any new questions?” (Twitter would serve well for this for some audiences.)

Berkun’s interest in improving speaking is infectious. He suggests we probe for more information when receiving a compliment after speaking: “Thanks, but how could I have made it better?” I missed a recent Boston opportunity to see Scott speak, but hope to catch a talk in the coming year.

Update 1/5/10: Improv Class

After reading the book, upon Berkun’s suggestion, I resolved to take an improv class in 2010. I thought this was my least convincing resolution of the year, but five days in, I registered at the local theater.
tweets between me and scott berkun about my terror at signing up for an improv class

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