I have been reading Scott Berkun‘s Confessions of a Public Speaker (O’Reilly, 2009) for literally two months now. It isn’t that it is hard to read, or boring, as it is neither of these. In fact, the reason is that I keep finding things I want to follow up, or to try out myself, and in doing so I frequently set the book down and actually go out and do things. That is the highest form of praise I can give for Confessions. Let me explain.

Scott Berkun was a Microsoft flunky for many years, and worked on the Internet Explorer team in its earlier days. However, he eventually found his calling as a business analyst, and has since combined this knowledge with a natural flair for the written word and become a top business author, writing most often on project management and innovation. He is also well-known for being an engaging public speaker, and has given advice to many sectors, from Fortune 500 companies to Ignite! crowds.

Somewhere along the way, it occurred to him to write a book on public speaking, a subject on which everyone I know in my industry (computer software) could use some pointers. Everyone. When I saw on O’Reilly’s site that this book was coming out in November, I actually pre-ordered it, knowing conference season was approaching and hopefully I could gain some tips that would help my somewhat-feeble presentations. I actually got a lot more than I had planned.

To be fair, as Scott says in the book, the bar for public speaking is rather low, and he explains in great detail why this is. Writing from memory, what I have taken from the book is that speakers often fail to inspire their crowds because:

  • they concentrate more on their slides than on knowledge of the subject material
  • they read from their slides
  • they don’t practice
  • they don’t take steps (like exercising first) to relax onstage

This list is not exhaustive, but they are the ones that stuck in my mind. Not only am I guilty of all of these, but nearly every college professor and conference speaker I have encountered does them all the time. There is positive advice, as well (this list is also not exhaustive):

  • study good public speakers, both in your sphere (Dirk Hohndel and Jono Bacon are good ones in the Linux world) and outside it (comedians rank much higher than politicians!)
  • know your material by practicing. seriously.
  • make 5 points, memorize what they are, and separate them from the arguments that support them, so that even if your laptop explodes you can still make your points and walk away
  • remember, the audience is far more forgiving of your talk than you are
  • make your points and finish early, don’t fill time

Obviously I took away much more of the positive than the negative.

One thing I found fascinating was that very little of the discussion is new. Most of it can be found in Dale Carnegie’s books, and the rest can be learned from a handful of visits to your local Toastmasters group. The magic in Scott’s book is not that the material is new, but that his naturally approachable tone and his credentials as a geek spoke to me in a way that Carnegie never could.

So what things did I go out and do? The first thing I did was to look at the last talk I gave, and reduced the material by half. I realized that I only had one point to make with it, but I thought that I had to fill up time in order to justify my existence. In doing so, I’m sure I must have bored the crowd to tears. I also took a look at the slide deck from a talk I gave a few years ago, and found that I really liked it—but then I took a look at the video of it and was horrified that I looked like a robot! No wonder so many people went to sleep. Now I have a flip camera and a willingness to use it.

The only thing I found missing from the book was a “how to create fantastic slides” section, though this omission was not an oversight on his part. His point in the book is that being engaging as a speaker is far more important than having eloquent slides, and I take his point readily. However, I do want to create engaging slides as well, as many people will download my slides to read after the conference and will never have the chance to hear me talk about them. For that, I am also reading Nancy Duarte’s slide:ology (O’Reilly, 2009), which will be the subject of my next review.

And yes, I do have a vested interest in promoting these books, though it isn’t quite what you might think. My motivation for reviewing them is even more selfish than that—with the advent of conference season, I want to see more engaging presentations! So many of them have fascinating material that is given in an unapproachable way, through no fault of the speaker. I am hopeful that getting the word out about these books will help change that.

So what about that highest praise? I think Scott would agree that the most important part of improving oneself as a public speaker is to go out and do something, not to sit around and read. I heard Scott speak at a Creative Techs event last night, and he made the point that actors go onstage prepared—they rehearse, they get into character. If someone gave me a good book on how to play the guitar, I could read it forward and backward and never actually learn how to play. Confessions has actually inspired me to DO, not just to read, and that is a very beneficial thing.

If you have also read Confessions and/or slide:ology, let me know in the comments what you think.