December 6, 2023

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Book Review – Confessions of a Public Speaker – By Scott Berkun

If you are curious about what it really takes to deliver an effective speech, you need to understand both how compelling content is created as well as the presentation skills necessary to deliver that content. Libraries are filled with books on speech writing and presentation skills. They are also filled with books on tennis and golf. But theory alone does not convey the truth of what it is to be an effective speaker.

Scott Berkun’s new book, Confessions of a Public Speaker, tells the inside story of one man’s experiences speaking on innovation to audiences around the world. Outside of a good late-night discussion at the bar at a National Speakers Association convention, you’re not likely to hear such an honest assessment of what life as a professional speaker is actually like.

First-person account

Berkun tells his back story, as well as what it takes to become a compelling public speaker. His first-person account is mostly a series of stories about life on the road, and he shares it all-from the daily fees and annual income to the embarrassment of being late for important talks. If you identify with him, you’ll find these stories entertaining, interesting and instructive; if you don’t, well, you probably won’t like the book. Personally, I liked the book.

Berkun’s stories hit home. They are instructive in the same way that speakers who take a risk and include personal stories in their speech can use their own material to inform and connect with an audience.

Valuable lessons

We hear about Berkun’s early-morning experiences traveling from the airport Starbucks to the backstage green room, where presenters gobble doughnuts and take to the stage on a sugar high. We sympathize with him over equipment problems and the challenge of delivering to non-English-speaking audiences. And we learn:

  • What to do when 45 people show up in a 2,000-seat auditorium. (Ask them to cluster in the front rows.)
  • How to deal with persistent hecklers. (Address them and move on.)
  • How to overcome a fear of speaking. (Find a way to enjoy yourself onstage.)
  • How to prevent a wardrobe malfunction. (“Remove all nipple piercings.”)

As that last example shows, Berkun has his own style of humor. Love him or hate him, you’ll discover aspects of what it is like to be a public speaker that are well worth knowing before you next step onto the podium.

Sound advice

Altogether, Berkun’s basic advice is sound, and it centers on a handful of principles:

  • Practice makes perfect.
  • Place the audience’s needs before your own.
  • Show up early, and end your talk early.
  • Learn from your mistakes.
  • Don’t be seduced by style over substance. “It is possible to become an eloquent speaker, who makes beautiful slides and has a great vocabulary and perfect diction, without having much to say.”

The reason Berkun’s advice resonates is that his heart is in the right place. He champions the audience and doesn’t settle for the mediocre standard of so many corporate speeches.

Authentic and compelling

Berkun wants speakers to be authentic. He’s offended by executives who won’t invest a few hours preparing a speech and who then waste hundreds of cumulative hours of an audience’s time. He challenges us to aim higher: Instead of providing bad slides and mind-numbing detail, he suggests spending time on content, and he encourages rehearsing the delivery until the speaker is able to present his message with interest and confidence.

He notes that speakers today can easily videotape themselves rehearsing but laments that few do, because “it’s just too scary for them to watch.” To that, Berkun says, “If you’re too scared to watch yourself speak, how can you expect your audience to watch you?”

Berkun wants speakers to tell compelling stories that arouse the audience’s curiosity. He reminds us how powerful it is to involve the audience-to risk interacting, even with something as simple as a show of hands asking if the pace of the talk is too slow or too fast. Speakers should offer simple insights, he says, rather than hide behind the smokescreen of arid facts and abstract knowledge that many subject experts use to pad their talks.

Confessions of a Public Speaker offers presenters-and those of us who support executives who give presentations-a great source of ideas to improve both the content and delivery of future talks.