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Confessions of a Public Speaker 111

brothke writes "While there is a plethora of books such as Public Speaking for Dummies, and many similar titles, Confessions of a Public Speaker is unique in that it takes a holistic approach to the art and science of public speaking. The book doesn't just provide helpful hints, it attempts to make the speaker, and his associated presentation, compelling and necessary. Confessions is Scott Berkun's first-hand account of his many years of public speaking, teaching and television appearances. In the book, he shares his successes, failures, and many frustrating experiences, in the hope that the reader will be a better speaker for it." Keep reading for the rest of Ben's review.
Confessions of a Public Speaker
author Scott Berkun
pages 238 pages
publisher O'Reilly Media
rating 8/10
reviewer Ben Rothke
ISBN 0596801998
summary Professional speaker Scott Berkun reveals the techniques behind what great communicators do
An issue with many books on public speaking is that they focus on the mechanics of public speaking. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with that approach, Confessions takes a much deeper and analytical look at public speaking. The book demonstrates that the best public speakers are not simply people with fancy PowerPoints; rather they are excellent communicators with a strong message.

While other books focus and stress the importance of creating good PowerPoints, Confessions shows how one can rise above the PowerPoint and be a presenter of ideas to the audience. Such an approach can take a dry presentation and turn it into a compelling one.

Berkun notes that while many people perceive public speaking to be a terrifying experience, the reality is that it does not have to be so petrifying. With fundamental preparations, even the most timid person can be a public speaker. While such a person will never be a speaker at the caliber of a Steve Jobs, there is no reason they can't present an enjoyable and educating presentation.

The book is loaded with chapter after chapter of practical advice. Berkun also shows what to do when things go terribly wrong; from how to work a tough room, when technology fails, microphones that go bad and more.

The book also provides effective techniques on how to deal with a participant, who in the course of asking a question, turns it into a monologue or diatribe. His suggestion is to throw the question back at the audience. Ask the audience "how many people are interested in this question?", If only a fraction of the audience raise their hands, tell the questioner to come up afterwards and that you will answer them. Berkun concludes that just because a question is raised, does not mean that the speaker is obligated to answer it.

Some of the advice in the book is obvious, but only after you read it, such as not turning your back on the audience, and more. One of the better suggestions is rather than ending a talk with "are there there any questions?", use "what questions did you think I would answer but didn't?"

As an effective communicator, one would have thought that Berkun could have gotten his message across with less profanity. While the book is not necessarily profanity laden; it is there in numerous places. That will preclude the book from being purchased in many organizations sensitive to that.

Chapter 6 — the Science of not boring people — is perhaps the best chapter in the book, where Berkun takes a look at a fundamental problem with many public presentations, they are simply boring. The chapter describes an experiment in which heart-rate monitors were strapped to listening students during lectures. Their heart rate peaked at the start of the lectures and then steadily declined. Berkun notes that with this depressing fact, it's easy to understand why most lectures are slow one-way trips into sedation. Our bodies, sitting around doing little, go into rest mode, and where our bodies go, our minds will follow."

Berkun also writes of perhaps what is the biggest bane of having to listen to a speaker, death by PowerPoint. Far too many speakers lack relevant content and try to make up for that with fancy PowerPoint presentations. Berkun notes that far too few people create their content first. Rather they put their ideas immediately into a PowerPoint, with the hope that good content will magically emerge. The message Berkun says repeatedly and which speakers should take to heart, is that content is what matters, and not the sacred PowerPoint.

The reason for so much death by PowerPoint is that many speakers are seduced by the style of the presentation and get caught up in the fonts, videos, graphics, and more, and lose all context of the points that they want to make. Berkun concludes that the problem with most bad presentations is not the slides, the visuals or any of the things that most people obsess about; rather it is the lack of thinking.

The book also stresses the importance of good feedback for the speaker to grow into a better speaker. The challenge is that most attendees are reticent to give effective rebuke to the speaker. Berkun says the best way to overcome this is for a speaker to videotape themselves, and be merciless with themselves, extracting what their mistakes are.

The last chapter is "You Can't Do Worse Than This" is made up of stories of disastrous experiences from various public speakers. The chapter is exceptionally insightful and entertaining. Perhaps the funniest story was when Larry Lessig was invited to be a guest at a conference in Georgia (as in Eastern Europe) and after the introduction, was unexpectedly told that he was to give a one-hour talk comparing the German, French and American constitutions, with special insights for Georgia.

Overall, Confessions of a Public Speaker is a very well-written, entertaining and engaging overview of the art of public speaking. For those that are contemplating public speaking, or want to improve their current aptitude, it is impossible that after reading the book, they won't be a better speaker. For those that simply want to know what goes into, and what makes a really good presentation, Confessions of a Public Speaker is also a worthwhile book to read.

Ben Rothke is the author of Computer Security: 20 Things Every Employee Should Know.

You can purchase Confessions of a Public Speaker from amazon.com. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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Confessions of a Public Speaker

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  • by TalmerS ( 1690052 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:16PM (#30357198)
    read Presentation Zen [presentationzen.com] by Garr Reynolds and you'll (almost) never use a bullet list again.
  • Dale Carnegie's book (Score:4, Informative)

    by turing_m ( 1030530 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:52PM (#30357598)

    I first read "The quick and easy way to effective speaking" by Dale Carnegie over 10 years ago (probably through reading amazon reviews). It was excellent then. It is excellent now. It will still be great in a hundred years time. If you have to read one book, read that one.

    As long as public speech is judged by an audience of humans, the principles of engaging and holding human interest will remain unchanged even with advances in technology. A riveting public speaker is riveting without the aid of graphs, powerpoint, and especially - powerpoint animations, and they have been for thousands of years. No magical powerpoint animations are going to help the public speaker who doesn't look the audience in the eye, who doesn't know his subject matter, who is not interested in his topic, who has not thought about how to find something in his topic that relates to the audience, who has not considered how to plan his speech so that the structure leads his audience to understanding, and who does not gauge audience understanding as he goes along to prevent "losing them".

  • by macshome ( 818789 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @05:14PM (#30357852) Homepage
    My job is about 80% public speaking of some kind or the other. Sometimes it's a room of 20, sometimes it's 1500, and sometimes it's in a studio recording a webcast. I've been doing this for a while now and I've found a few things that helped me get started.

    First you need to know your material. It's not so much a presentation as it's a one sided discussion. The more conversational you are the more you draw that audience in.

    Second don't put a ton of stuff on your slides. I can't even count how many Keynote decks I've seen that the presenter just reads to the audience. A good concept to have about slides is that they are an outline with points of emphasis for the discussion. The screen isn't giving the presentation, you are!

    Third on the list is to make it fun. Take an easy dig at yourself as it always loosens them up. A really easy potshot is to make fun of end users. If you are presenting to sysadmins this is an instant win. Also strive to make things interactive. Ask questions of the audience that get them to raise a show of hands. It keeps people engaged.

    Next get a presentation remote and walk around the stage/screen. You can be much more physically emotive if you aren't nailed to a lectern the whole time. If it's a big enough room you will need to do this so that you don't loose the people that are far away from you.

    Finally, just be confident. You are presenting because someone thinks that what you have to say is important. Take that vote of confidence and run with it.

    One last tip is to watch effective speakers give presentations. They are easy to find on the web from YouTube or TED. In my group we actually will often record our own presentations and then watch them later in order to pick up places to improve. This is a game that you can always keep improving.
  • My handy hints (Score:5, Informative)

    by ralphbecket ( 225429 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @06:58PM (#30358968)

    Here are my handy hints from having given a number of talks and lecture courses:

    • Read Simon Peyton-Jones' "How to give a good research talk" [microsoft.com] notes. SPJ is one of the most lucid and entertaining speakers to whom I've had the pleasure of listening.
    • A talk is essentially a one-sided conversation with the audience. If you read from the slides or from prepared notes then your talk will be awful: the audience can read things for themselves.
    • Relax; be somewhat casual. The audience is on your side. (Except for undergraduates: these guys will just stare at you for weeks, like an inert zombie horde, until you finally connect with them.)
    • If you are interrupted with many questions then this is a sign of success: you are engaging the audience.
    • Avoid slides full of bullet points. It's much better to put up some example code or a diagram and talk around that.
    • I loathe slides that incrementally reveal points. Don't patronise the audience.
    • Be careful when attempting humour: if you're not sure it's funny, don't say it.
    • In a half-hour talk, you can get one key point across. Let the full paper provide all the other details.
  • by Itninja ( 937614 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @07:21PM (#30359262) Homepage

    ...lost he is without his teleprompter

    I have seen a few gaffs, but 'lost'? Never saw that. Never saw him totally lock up on a question and start in with the ums and ahhs. Or saw him turn and attack the impromptu questioner because the answer was 'hard'.

I'd rather just believe that it's done by little elves running around.