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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 sopssa ( 1498795 ) * <> on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:02PM (#30357032) Journal

    One thing everyone should also always remember is that you will usually suck at things when trying the first time. Public Speaking fear comes mostly from the lack of experience and that if you fail at something during it, lots of people will notice as they're all watching you.

    Like with everything else, humor helps. If you fail, laugh or joke it off and continue. It's not really a big deal.

    It's pretty much the same thing when people on their teenage years (and later if it's a really hot girl) fear talking to them. They think it's going to ruin their world. Once you've got used to messing up with girls, hot girls too, you will notice it's not really a big deal. Laugh at it, she probably will do. If you're scared of that, fail with a girl intentionally to see how she responds. It's quite an eye-opener and you will not really fear failing again. It's ok, and public speaking and talking with random girls is successful only if you can also fail successfully and continue.

  • Style and Fun (Score:4, Interesting)

    by carp3_noct3m ( 1185697 ) <slashdot AT warriors-shade DOT net> on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:35PM (#30357386)
    What public speaking is all about is about gaining and maintaining the audiences genuine interest and attention. If you don't have at least some of these things, they will slowly fade into oblivion. I learned this quickly in the Corps, where I learned how to start off (first impressions are very important) with a loud booming voice introduction, followed up by some sort of attention grabber (Usually a random video). If the audience doesn't want to engage, engage them. Ask them questions. Randomly pick out a person to pick on (with the right amount of humor for the audience, for Marines a thorough degradation sufficed =). Do not become like the officers always do, which is addicted to fancy powerpoints. When he says stick to content that is the truth. Yes it can be boring to go over the correct way to clear a multi-story building with civilians in it. But something as simple as having a handful of guys standup and demonstrate an action etc makes the engagment contagious. If you make it fun, people will respond, if you don't, they will go comatose (and remember whose fault that is).
  • Advice to the Shy (Score:3, Interesting)

    by handy_vandal ( 606174 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:37PM (#30357402) Homepage Journal

    If you are shy and afraid of public speaking, don't despair. Anyone can learn public speaking -- even the shy.

    I speak from experience. I was profoundly, painfully shy as a child, as a teenager, into my adult years. At the age of nineteen, I looked at my shyness and said to myself, "I want something more." So I set challenges for myself: "Go to parties and meet people." "Get up on stage and sing." And so on. This was not easy, but I made myself do it. Over the years (I'm now approaching 49) these skills gradually became second nature to me.

    Shyness continues to inform my character: I'm still something like what I was before. But I'm also something more than what I was before: I'm a man who can stand up in front of strangers (or friends, for that matter), and hold forth on this or that subject, without the fear and agony that accompanied my childhood shyness.

    Indeed, public speaking can be a rush. Turn that fear into an adrenaline buzz! You can do it.

  • by SwashbucklingCowboy ( 727629 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:50PM (#30357566)

    I don't think he's qualified to write this book. He's not a very good public speaker.

  • by chris44larsen ( 1628843 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @04:52PM (#30357602)
    i saw some of the presentations of his on his youtube channel, I thought he was good why do you say that?
  • Re:This is /. (Score:4, Interesting)

    by devleopard ( 317515 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @05:12PM (#30357824) Homepage

    In my former life (before programming), I was in academic debate and competitive speech. I wasn't incredibly successful, but I won a fair amount. Those skills really do serve me well as a programmer. They allow me to communicate with stakeholders without a bunch of "ums", sweaty palms, and the inability to complete a sentence without using 3 acronyms.

    That skill extends to interviewing - a form of speaking. It's all about knowing what your audience hears, and how they interpret the messages they hear. (Even the most intelligent MBA or lawyer thinks "giant piece of yarn" when a programmer says "big string" or "car-wash is busy" when they hear "buffer overflow".) I've been told my interviewing ability has gotten me jobs when my competition included programmers who were far more talented than I.

    Even among programmers, you need to learn to speak. The programmers that sit in their cubicle, head in a terminal, are the ones who are boo-hooing when they lose their job. Want to build your career? Speak at public functions like user group meetings for your technology. (No, your Blogspot page isn't the same thing, and neither is your YouTube channel that has 4 subscribers.) You establish yourself as an expert, a go to guy (or girl). In this "recession", post-dot-com bust, and post-9/11, I never went without work, and over 50% of it came through networking from my user group participation. These days, I'm a full time consultant; I have a box of business cards on my desk, but they're just taking up room, as I don't need to hand them out. Ditto on my web site - I haven't updated it, because I have zero need for marketing. All due to being willing to step out and speak publicly.

    You don't want to do that? "I'm a geek, and am happy to stay in my comfort zone.." Fine. While you're working on your WoW characters, I'm giving presentations. You can have your mod points; I'll take your job. Just remember to call me "Sir" when you're handing me my receipt at Best Buy.

  • by antifoidulus ( 807088 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @05:18PM (#30357880) Homepage Journal
    Ironically you sound just like my speech teacher....seriously. At my university we were required to take a speech class and in that speech class we had to hand over our notes. I repeatedly lost points because my notes weren't in the "right format"...but they are my fucking notes, why shouldn't they be in the format that I find most useful? Hopefully this book takes a much less mechanical approach.

    I did let my speech teacher know my frustrations with her in a not so subtle fashion. For our midterm we were required to formulate an argument and list points supporting it. My argument was that she was a horrible speech teacher and should be fired, but since I made all my points in the required format, I got an A.
  • by Microship ( 241842 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @06:53PM (#30358922) Homepage Journal

    I found an easy solution to the resounding silence that sometimes happens, especially with uptight audiences, when you leave a nice big block of time for questions, close the monologue, then wait with rising anxiety for the hands to go up... umm... anyone? I now deliberately leave out a few fundamentals that everybody wants to know. By the time the floor is open for questions, hands shoot up for the FAQ, and snappy well-oiled answers get the room warmed up for the good stuff. Works even with the stuffiest crowd.

    One piece of advice I'll add is to know as much as possible about the audience and the client's expectations. I once stumbled into an awkward situation with a keynote at a Fortune 500 international annual sales meeting (nice gig via my speakers bureau). Just as I was about to go on, the client walked over, introduced himself, and said, "oh, by the way, please avoid regionalisms and wordplay. OK, looks like you're on!" The audience was divided into blocs by country, with many wearing headphones getting live translations from workers in other rooms. Yikes. My usual engineering-humor patter, sprinkled with anecdotes, led to some awkward moments as different groups would laugh, frown, frantically take notes, or just stare blankly back at me. Took a while to adapt to that room!

    Third, if at all possible, know more about the subject than anyone in the audience. Before my "claim to fame" that led to lots of gigs, I would occasionally accept conference-session invitations. More than once I would look out in the audience and see the people who created the technology I was talking about... which can be a bit intimidating. Not until I was actually speaking about my own thing did I fully relax. In situations where there is some overlap between the two extremes, I'm happy to engage domain experts in the audience.

    Oh, and Berkun's advice to videotape yourself is golden - I did that early on and was horrified to see, when fast-forwarding, a cyclic physical behavior pattern that appeared with almost robotic regularity. Along with uncovering a couple of speech habits I didn't know I had, that tape was immensely helpful in debugging my presentation style.

  • by Avatar8 ( 748465 ) on Monday December 07, 2009 @07:18PM (#30359198)
    I haven't heard him speak live, but after watching several minutes of the video on his website, I completely agree.

    While his experiences may have some tips for future or present speakers, I certainly hope no one is relying on this book as their only source for public speaking.

Competence, like truth, beauty, and contact lenses, is in the eye of the beholder. -- Dr. Laurence J. Peter