Review: Confessions of a Public Speaker

Every Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal finance or other book of interest. Also available is a complete list of the hundreds of book reviews that have appeared on The Simple Dollar over the years.

Confessions of a Public SpeakerUnless you’re intentionally sticking with purely entry-level jobs or greatly restricting your career choices, you’re going to eventually find yourself in a position where you have to publicly present your ideas. It might just be to a room of peers, it might be to a large crowd, or it might even be to a large television audience, but in any of those events, you’re going to be practicing the art of public speaking.

I’ll be straight with you. The best way to become a good public speaker is to practice at it, but practicing at it involves a lot more than standing in front of a mirror and looking at yourself while you’re talking. There are a lot of little pieces that need to come together for effective public speaking.

Scott Berkun has been a public speaker for a long time. It was actually his talk on the myths of innovation that convinced me to find out more about him, and it was the strength of his public speaking style that convinced me to give Confessions of a Public Speaker a read.

It was well worth it. Confessions of a Public Speaker is probably the best book I’ve ever read on the art of public speaking. It balances the entertaining and anecdotal nature of such a book perfectly with hard-hitting and useful advice on getting up in front of a crowd and sharing your ideas.

I can’t see you naked
The trick to a good presentation is to realize that the audience mostly just wants for the presentation to be over so they can do other things – maybe get back to their work, maybe network with other people, maybe goof off. Because of that, they’re mostly not going to notice the small mistakes you make, so don’t worry about them. What about the big mistakes? Just try to roll onwards from them, preferably using them as a launching pad. For example, if you make a blunder, say, “You think that was bad? …” then share an anecdote that ties you to the audience and (hopefully) helps you to get back on track.

The attack of the butterflies
The best way to relieve nervousness before a talk is to practice it enough beforehand so that it feels natural and to eliminate little things that can make you nervous beforehand. Do things like getting a good night’s sleep the night before a talk, eating a healthy meal a couple hours beforehand, chatting with people in the audience before a talk (so that they seem friendly and not oppositional), and getting there in plenty of time so that you don’t have to rush and little hiccups become easier to deal with.

$30,000 an hour
What’s a justifiable amount for a public speaker to earn? Berkun breaks down a $30,000 speaking fee and really lays out how it’s not all that unreasonable for a 60 minute speech. It requires two days to create the presentation, the stress of speaking for that long, the time to travel there and handle the logistics of getting from your home to the venue and back home, and the career effort it took to reach a point where you can command a nice speaking fee. He makes a great case for why good public speakers ought to earn a lot.

How to work a tough room
The best defense against a tough room is on-site preparation. Get to the room as early as possible and get a feel for how you’ll sound in there. If there are other speakers, watch them and see how the crowd reacts to them. Are they an easy crowd or a tough crowd? If you’re the first speaker, encourage people to sit near the front, not spread out throughout the room (this way, you have a smaller area to focus on with your gaze and attention). The more you know the room and the crowd, the better off you are.

Do not eat the microphone
There are four key parts to assembling any good presentation. Take a strong position in the title of the presentation. Think carefully about your audience. Make your specific points as concise as possible. Know the counterarguments from an intelligent audience and address them. If you do these things, you’re going to have a presentation that grabs their attention and makes your case as well as possible. A good way to start is to simply list the five key points to making whatever case you want to make, honing those key points down, then making sure you’re able to handle the inevitable counterarguments.

The science of not boring people
The shorter your presentation and the faster the pace of it, the less likely you are to bore people and the more likely you are to make them leave with a positive impression of your message. Presentations that go on too long or dwell too long on specific points are often easily forgotten, which completely undoes the entire point of your presentation. Make it snappy.

Lessons from my 15 minutes of fame
My favorite point from this chapter is that memorization and teleprompters are evil for the vast, vast majority of speakers. If you have your speech memorized or are just reading it, you’re almost always not sounding genuine or human. Focus on knowing your points cold and delivering them naturally without reading a single thing. This sounds much more conversational and much more interesting to the person receiving the message.

The things people say
The best way to improve on your presentation is feedback, but feedback isn’t as easy as you might think it is. Having someone just watch your presentation and critique it doesn’t really help. A much better tactic is to ask people how your presentation compares to other ones, as it’s much easier for people to compare and contrast two things (plus it feels less insulting when pointing out your flaws). Another great tactic is to simply videotape your own presentations, then watch the tape and see what’s wrong with the presentation.

The clutch is your friend
If you’re not connecting what you’re talking about to the lives of the people you’re presenting it to, they’re not going to be very interested. How is this relevant to their lives? Another key: you can’t just tell them it’s relevant. You’ve got to show them. Doing something is the most powerful way to learn, and you’ve got to get as close to having the audience do something as you can in the format of your presentation.

The remainder of the book is almost like a blog. It addresses a bunch of very specific points about presenting, such as choosing the right pointer (this one) and how to properly put a wireless microphone on (clip it to your neck, then hide the cable inside your outer shirt). There’s just a bunch of good little tips here.

Is Confessions of a Public Speaker Worth Reading?
If you are on a career path that is going to involve making presentations in public at any point, Confessions of a Public Speaker is going to be well worth reading. It’s the best single volume on public speaking I’ve yet read.

The only complaint is that there’s not a whole lot on actually creating slides and building a presentation. Thankfully, a book I reviewed earlier, Presentation Zen, does that wonderfully. These two are great complements to each other.

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