Updated on 01.01.12

Review: Confessions of a Public Speaker

Trent Hamm

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.

Check out additional reviews and notes of Confessions of a Public Speaker on Amazon.com.

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  1. Geoff Hart says:

    All good advice (based on my own career as a teacher and trainer; I’ve received excellent ratings for all my talks), but a few points that weren’t made explicit or that were omitted:

    The first thing to do is ask yourself what about the topic excites you. If you’re not excited by the topic, odds are good you won’t be able to communicate why it’s important and interesting to anyone else. On the other hand, if you can feel excited or inspired by the topic, you can enjoy giving the presentation and share your excitement with the audience; that makes all the difference.

    I find that when I remind myself why I’m doing the presentation, and remind myself that (by and large) I like my audience, that removes 90% of the pressure because the context becomes a dialogue or conversation with people I like and who I hope will like me, not a lecture to an audience that is there to criticize me.

    Second, work until you understand the topic thoroughly. One of the biggest fears is that someone will ask you a question you can’t answer and that this will make you look like a fool. It’s never possible to know everything about a topic, and sometimes you’ll even run up against a troll who’s out to make themselves look good at your expense. But if you establish a friendly, helpful attitude right from the start, as I suggested earlier, the troll’s more likely to look bad than you are. That’s particularly true if you’re willing to admit your ignorance: the best response when you don’t know the answer is “here’s my gut impression, but to be honest, I’m not sure; leave me your e-mail address after the presentation and I’ll try to get you a better answer once I’m home again”.

    The point about rapid pacing is correct, but misleading. You should never race through a presentation like you’re trying to sing a Gilbert and Sullivan “patter” song; on the contrary, you must speak at a brisk but unhurried pace, like you would in any other conversation. Of course, the overall presentation must not drag: present only the key points, and don’t belabor any point by endlessly supporting it with details. Present only the key points, and only the key details required to support those points.

    Lastly, a point about brevity: Presentations must be as long as required to cover the required material, neither longer nor shorter. If you’ve been hired to give a full-day workshop, “concise” simply isn’t possible; 8 hours isn’t “concise” in any reasonable interpretation of the word. But do account for the attention span of your audience. Some excellent advice I’ve seen repeated by really good speakers is “think sitcom, not movie of the week”. Half an hour is a typical attention span, but in practice, for longer presentations such as half- or full-day workshops, you may need to think “mini-series”: a series of 1-hour presentations separated by breaks. This keeps the audience awake and interested, and gives them time to absorb what you’ve said.

  2. @moneyperk says:

    Public speaking is a great fear of mine. I stand there and just think to myself and wonder what everyone is thinking about me. I stumble on my words and it’s just a frightening and embarrassing experience for me.

    In one of my few years in college, I took a public speaking course with over 75 students in the class. My first speech I was very confident and really not nervous about my lecture as it was something I enjoyed talking about and was a subject I knew very well. So I was confident. But once I got up on the podium, and seeing all those eyes starring at me, everything just fell apart. Public speaking is something I’d love to get better at and I’ll definitely will read this book!

  3. DrFunZ says:

    $30,000 an hour. Hmmm…I am clearly not being paid enough. Let’s see. I am a professor who lectures in the advanced sciences to those who are in health professions or will be in the health professions soon. I went to graduate school for 7 years and hold two advanced degrees and I am considered an expert in my field. I am also considered one of the best lecturers in our institution.

    Every week, for 30 weeks each academic year, I give 15 hours of lecture, each hour of which I have spent at least 4 hours of preparation. I also prepare a set of questions and a visual outline will illustrations for each lecture.

    At Berkun’s rate I would make $13.5 MILLION an academic year. I don’t even make 3 times what Berkum makes for just one lecture.

    OK, I’ll take just half that since I do not have to get on a plane and travel. On the other hand, I’ll take it all. I deliver more than 450 different lectures; I bet Berkum has about 10 “set” lectures that he gives over and over again.

    Maybe I should write a book. The content of his book, reviewed above, is what I learned in Debate Club as a freshman in high school. Thus I have been practicing these concepts of public specking for more then 40 years – and almost 150 days a year at that. I bet Berkum doesn’t have that kind of speaking schedule.

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