Book review: “Confessions of a public speaker” by Scott Berkun

Resources

Introduction

A couple of weeks ago I was giving a presentation on Reactive Extensions at VBUG 4Thought spring conference, and there was an O’Reilly stand. I picked up CLR via C# 3rd edition (I now have all three editions, which is kinda crazy) and I happened to spot this book too.

I’ve been doing a reasonable amount of public speaking recently, with more to come in the near future (and local preaching roughly once a month), so I figure it would probably be a good idea to find out how to actually do it properly instead of bumbling along in the way I’ve been doing so far. This looked as good a starting point as any.

It’s been a while since I’ve had a lot of time for reading, unfortunately – C# in Depth is still sucking my time – but this is a quick read, and I finished it on the plane today. I should point out that I’m currently flying to Seattle for meetings in the Google Kirkland office. The book itself is in the overhead locker, so obviously I could reach it down – but I’d rather not. Surely a book like this should at least largely be judged by the impression it makes on the reader; if I couldn’t find enough to talk about when I only finished it a few hours ago, that would be a bad sign. It does mean that I’m not going to be as concrete in my notes as I would usually be – but that’s probably reasonably appropriate for a non-technical book anyway.

Content

The book covers various different topics, from preparation to delivery and evaluation. The book is clearly divided into chapters – but a lot of the time the topics seem to leak into chapters other than the ones you might expect them to crop up in. If this were a technical book, I would view that as a bad thing – but here, it just worked. In some ways the book mirrors an actual presentation in terms of fluidity, narration and imagery. Sometimes this is explicitly mentioned, but often in retrospect and never in a self-aggrandising manner.

Although steps for designing your overall talk are examined, there’s little guidance on how to design slides themselves: that’s delegated to other books. (I’m reasonably happy with my slide style at the moment, and as it’s somewhat uncommon, it may well not benefit much from “conventional wisdom” – there are plenty of bigger picture things I want to concentrate on improving first, anyway.)

There are suggestions for audience activity – from moving people to the front to make an underpopulated venue feel more friendly, to trying to make the audience actively use what they’ve been told for a better learning experience. While I’d like to think I’m a pretty friendly speaker, I could definitely improve here.

While there are some mentions of financial matters, there’s no discussion of getting an agent involved, or what kind of events are likely to be the most lucrative and so on. There is the recommendation that you either need to be famous or an expert to make money – which sounds like very good advice to me. I have no particular desire to go into this for money (and I think I have to speak for free under my current contract with Google) so this was fine by me.

Anecdotes abound: they’re part of the coverage of pretty much every topic. At the end there’s a whole section of gaffes made by Scott and other speakers, as a sort of “you think you’ve had it bad?” form of encouragement. There’s never a sense of the stories being inserted with a crowbar, fortunately – that’s a trait which usually annoys me intensely in sermons.

Evaluation

As you can probably tell already, I liked the book a lot. Scott is a good writer, and I strongly suspect he’s a great presenter too – I’ll be looking out for his name in conferences I’m going to, with the hope of hearing him first hand.

The real trick is actually applying the book to my own speaking though. It would be hard to miss one central point where I fail badly: practising. I simply don’t go through the whole “talking in the living room” thing. For a couple of talks I’ve gone through a dry-run at Google first as a small-scale tech talk, but usually I just put the slides (and code) together, make sure I know roughly what I’m going to say on each topic, and wing it. Assuming the book is accurate, this puts me firmly in the same camp as most speakers – which is somewhat reassuring, but doesn’t actually make my talks any better.

So, I’m going to try it. I’m expecting it to be hugely painful, but I’ll give it a go. I feel I somehow owe Scott that much – even though he makes it very clear that he expects most readers not to bother. Possibly putting it as a sort of challenge to exceed expectations is a deliberate ploy. More seriously, he convincingly makes the point that I owe the audience that much. We’ll see how it goes.

There are plenty of other aspects of the book which I expect to put to good use – particularly in terms of approaching the relevant topic to start with, writing down a big list of possible points, and whittling it down. I’m not going to promise to write a follow-up post trying to work out what’s helped and what hasn’t… I know perfectly well that I’d be unlikely to get round to writing it.

Conclusion

If you speak in public (which includes “internal” talks at work) I can heartily recommend this book as an entertaining and potentially incredibly helpful read.

We’ll see what happens next…

11 thoughts on “Book review: “Confessions of a public speaker” by Scott Berkun”

  1. Back in the 80s, when my consultancy job included teaching seven or eight external residential one-week training courses each year, my favourite session on my favourite course (“Basic Business Systems Analysis”, FWIW) was the Thursday afternoon finale on presentations. Probably because we got to spend the first half doing all the wrong things to illustrate what not to do. It was a brilliant and memorable way to teach and invariably got us the highest student assessments.

    I think there’s a place for the “wing-it” approach, although it’s high-risk. The better you know your material, the more likely it is to work, generally speaking. In the course I mentioned, I started out highly scripted and rehearsed but I found that after a while I knew what I wanted to put across and how to support it well enough that I could shuffle my overhead slides (all acetates in those days) and improvise around the surprises. usually. As I say, high risk.

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  2. I have to admit that the practice bit is really important. Every time I’ve not wandered round the house talking to myself, I’m keenly aware that it’s harder work when giving the actual talk.

    There was a good podcast from Lucy Kellaway (of the Financial Times) regarding speaking in public, and she came to the very same conclusion. You can hear it here, http://podcast.ft.com/pop_up_player.php?pid=624

    It’s really tough when you’ve given the presentation before, but not for some time. It’s far too tempting to not perform a proper run through in the days prior to the presentation as you already know it.

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  3. Your timing is perfect since I’ve been thinking of doing some local speaking but haven’t quite gotten the nerve yet. I’ll definitely check out this book.

    For some reason the title of this post threw me off for a minute – I thought maybe Scott Berkun was a guest writer on your blog. Then I realized it was a book review.

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  4. Thanks much for the review.

    On practice vs. not-practice: I just think most people, when having brain surgery performed on them, would hope the surgeon has practiced that particular surgery many times before.

    Speaking isn’t surgery, but every presentation and speech is different, and has nuances that can only be learned by standing up and doing the whole thing, even if just in front of your empty couch, and your bored, cat as the audience.

    I don’t enjoy the practice part either, but in doing what must be 100s of lectures now, I can’t recall a single time where I practiced and felt afterwards it wasn’t an amazingly good use of my time. And as a counterpoint, I have had bad talks, and each and every time that happened I did in fact think it was quite dumb of me not to carve out time to practice it at least once.

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  5. @Scott: Yup, I’m sure I would be better with practice. That’s entirely logical – but I’m a lazy human who really dislikes feeling embarrassed *even in private* which is why I haven’t done it in the past. I’m hoping that after practising a few times, I can get used to it.

    One interesting semi-counterexample is in preaching: often I find that the services which have turned out best were the ones I was most nervous about. The Christian reasoning behind that is that I’ve left myself most open to the Spirit intervening. That’s not to say I should put even less effort into my services though ;)

    If I *do* manage to practise and write a follow-up post, I’ll ping you again on Twitter so you can get the indirect feedback :)

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  6. “I’ve been doing a reasonable amount of public speaking recently, with more to come in the near future…”

    A bit late maybe, but is any of this likely to be in _public_ public speaking on technical topics? I happen to be in your general geographical locality for a bit.

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  7. @McDowell: Not sure what you mean by public public speaking, but unfortunately most of it is abroad at the moment – Dublin and Oslo in June, and possibly Sweden later on in the year.

    But there should be videos, with any luck :)

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  8. By “_public_ public speaking”, I was just referring to the fact that part of working for a multinational can involve talking to large groups of people without it being a speaking engagement open to the public.

    Alas, I won’t be in those countries for those talks, but I’ll look out for the videos.

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