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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 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 Red Flayer ( 890720 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:08PM (#30357110) Journal

    The book demonstrates that the best public speakers are not simply people with fancy PowerPoint's rather they are excellent communicators with a strong message.

    While other books focus and stress the importance of creating good PowerPoint's, Confessions shows...

    An apostrophe is not used to signal "look out! here comes an 's'".

    Sorry, but a book review is no place for grammatical errors. Furthermore, if you ever hope to get published in the wider world... making a generic term out of a trademarked name is a big no-no. They are not Powerpoints... they are Powerpoint presentations... I know you used the correct term in part of your review, why not in all of it?

    I knw this isn't really a forum for critique of your writing style... but that blatant misuse of the apostrophe is glaring so brightly I had trouble reading the rest of your review.

  • by Trepidity ( 597 ) <> on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:16PM (#30357204)

    The biggest problem I've found with public speaking is that often the speaker really does not want to be giving a talk, and so it's kind of forced. Sure, they may be interesting people with a lot to say, but for this 30-minute, or 60-minute, or whatever it is slot, they've been assigned to do it, or are doing it for money, or are doing it for some other reason besides, "really have something I want to say to this audience".

    I see this a lot as an academic--- in computer science, conferences have in a lot of areas displaced journals as the primary publication venues, so people mainly submit to a conference to get their paper published in the proceedings. Then the conference rolls around, and they have a 20- or 30-minute slot to fill. Some people really have something to say in that slot, but others, whether through inclination or the subject matter, really don't, and give essentially a very long and drawn-out version of, "just read the damn paper".

    Of course, some technical improvements to talks---use of figures, non-monotone voice, etc.---can make them more engaging, but it doesn't really solve the underlying problem. In the academic-conference case, it basically transforms a boring 20-minute ad for the paper into a somewhat amusing 20-minute ad for the paper--- but still not a good talk.

  • Join Toastmasters (Score:2, Insightful)

    by NoYob ( 1630681 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:28PM (#30357312)
    They'll give you plenty of practice.
  • by martyros ( 588782 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:37PM (#30357406)

    I think the best advice I ever saw on presentations was to start with asking, "What's my goal? What am I trying to accomplish here?" A lot of people's goal is to "talk about [foo]", and that's exactly what they do: they put a bunch of [foo] on slides, and talk about it. The thing is, they could have done that in their basement and been successful. Your goal in giving a talk with other people present should be to change the listener somehow: to inform them of something, to help them understand something, to persuade them of something, to entertain them, to make them think. Otherwise they didn't really need to be there.

    The last two conference presentations I've done, after a "hook" intro, I put up a "goals" slide, and said, "At the end of this presentation, I want you to know that..." and I had three or four points. Then I put up my outline; "To do that, I'm going to talk about these subjects." Then, away we go. Cover the material, but only the material that is necessary to reach those goals presented at the beginning. Other material can be found in the paper. Then at the end, put up the outline slide to review, and end with the goals slide to remind them (and myself, as I'm preparing) what my point was.

    Explicitly listing the goals isn't suitable for every talk, but having goals (stated or not) is a prerequisite for any effective talk.

  • by NoYob ( 1630681 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:38PM (#30357434)
    Toastmasters []is a club that is for public speaking. During a meeting, there is a time where you maybe called upon to talk about a topic that's pulled out of thin air to teach you how to think and speak on your feet, you have speaking assignments to get a certification, and you get to critique others speaking. Some clubs from what I understand, are so big that you hardly ever get to speak so "shop" around clubs. Also, it's pretty G- rated.
  • by Reason58 ( 775044 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @05:48PM (#30358174)

    Uh...just don't...uh...keep unconsciously...uh...saying...uh...annoying words...uh....throughout...uh...your...uh...speech.

    So this. Simply pause and collect your thoughts rather than use filler words like "uh" and "um". Think of it as buffering a video clip. Everyone would prefer a slight pause and then smooth playback over constant skips.

  • by MoralHazard ( 447833 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @07:50PM (#30359538)

    It sounds like you're almost proud of this story, or at least feel justified in your conduct. If I misinterpreted that part, sorry in advance, but...

    That's a terrible thing to do to a teacher, or anybody, really. I think you acted inappropriately, and displayed an incredible lack of maturity for someone old enough and sophisticated enough to be in college.

    Also, you're flat-out wrong about whether having notes in the correct format is important. Would you get pissy with your Calculus teacher because she insisted that you show all the little nitty-gritty steps in your solutions, instead of just writing a final answer? If she docked your score because you didn't follow instructions, would you throw a temper tantrum and tell her she ought to be fired? Or how about a composition teacher who insists that you submit an outline and a rough draft, before your final draft?

    BTW, are you one of those jerkoff, should-be-on-Ritalin babies who can't get his shit together, and acts out and gets mad at everybody else for the fact that God made him broken?

    I think the fact that she gave you an "A", in the end, is purely a testament to her professionalism and self-control. The fact that you got the "A" doesn't really prove much about you--after all, everybody knows a speech class is an easy "A" if you just do what you're told. If anything, you should be ashamed of yourself.

    I really hope you have grown up since then.

COMPASS [for the CDC-6000 series] is the sort of assembler one expects from a corporation whose president codes in octal. -- J.N. Gray