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Book Review: Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun

conf-pub-speaker.jpgNote:  After blogging for Entrepreneur over at Top Shelf Reading Picks for a few years, we decided to add my reviews to the Daily Dose.  So, I bid welcome to my new readers. Hope you find these useful and fun.

Last night at dinner I got the inevitable question any book reviewer gets:  "What should I read next?"  Fortunately, this group was a bunch of corporate rock stars who often get asked to speak to crowds, so it was easy to recommend Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun.

I'll make my own confession: I was one of those naïve people who thought that I could make a living from writing. I had no idea that I would ultimately end up getting paid to speak and actually having to give my books away. Wish I had Berkun's book back in 2003--I would've been off to a less rocky start. Because whether you are trying to earn money on the speaker's circuit or might speak in public from time to time, here are some of the tips and bits from the book that caught my attention:

Speakers often worry about the wrong things.

Mistakes are part of the territory. "If you'd like to be good at something, the first thing to go out the window is the notion of perfection." Berkun notes that many of the best-known speakers and speeches have mistakes in them--including MLK and Churchill--and that it's important to remember that the audience wants you to do well.  The worst mistakes are the ones that could happen before you start speaking. Such as:

  • Not having an interesting opinion
  • Not thinking clearly about your points
  • Not planning ways to make those points relevant to your audience
Get those right, and not much else matters

Logistics do matter
Berkun devotes a lot of the book to dealing with logistics. One thing that really struck me was his section about how getting to the speech is often a bigger challenge than the speech itself. I can totally relate to this. I am definitely more stressed about flights, traffic, where I'm supposed to park, etc., than ever giving a speech itself.

Another section of the book addresses how to deal with less than ideal rooms to speak in. This is something I wish I had known earlier. Almost all of my worst speeches were due to awkward situations where I didn't take control and fix things, for example, overcrowded rooms with no microphone. I should have insisted because I'm the only one who looks bad.

Another time the host organization wanted to control my slides. This would've been all right if I'd have known in advance and could plan for it, but it completely threw me off as the person advanced them too quickly, and I wasn't polished enough back then to realize that it really didn't matter (back to Berkun's points above about the mistakes that really matter).
 
  • Big rooms + small crowd? Take charge and move them all up front near you.  They will be more engaged and more likely to focus.
  • "Failing to own your turf is the big mistake that can create a tough crowd."
  • "Taking responsibility for the crowd means showing up to the room early enough to at least hear the previous speaker." (It gives you time to read the audience.)
  • If you have a tough crowd or are flailing, find the person who hates you the least, and focus on him or her.
Content is key and preparation is non-negotiable
Four rules of preparation:
  1. Take a strong position in the title (note to self: no more Social Media 101 titles ...)
  2. Think carefully about your specific audience.
  3. Make your specific points as concise as possible.
  4. Know the likely counterarguments from an intelligent, expert audience.
Play the part: You're the star
"Be bigger than you are. Speak louder, take stronger positions and behave more aggressively than you would in an ordinary conversation."

I learned this the hard way. My first speech was supposed to be to a dozen or so women engineers. For some reason, it attracted nearly 70 people, and half the crowd was male. I started to panic--in my first speech ever, I had to toss out some of the preparation and try to ad lib. Well, I pretended I was Oprah and discovered that ad libbing is my strong point.   

"If you do webcasts, teleconferences or otherwise speak through computers, this point is even more important. Being on a computer means you instantly fall from being three-dimensional to two. They can still see you, but it's a pixilated, washed-out, flat video version of you . . . your onscreen audience needs every extra bit of energy they can get from you to keep their attention from sliding away."  

This must be why I feel that the best public speaking training I have ever done was to co-host a podcast. Being forced to entertain folks (especially when guests call in on cell phones and get disconnected) without viewing them really pushed me to be more animated, no matter what I did. Not to mention, it honed my skills as a moderator, a role I've grown to love.

Troubleshooting
The last section of the book is "What to do when things go wrong," along with some great stories from other speakers that will make you feel pretty good about yourself.  Do you have any public speaking horror stories or potential ones that you turned into a success?  I'd love to have you share them below in the comments!

Top Shelf Bottom Line.
  A must-read for anyone who regularly gives talks to audiences or appears on panels. Even if you just have to do a single speech, Confessions contains some great tips to help you compartmentalize your fears and make sure you do the best that you can do. Berkun is a fun guy and that makes the book a lot of fun to read. Confessions of a Public Speaker is one of my favorites in 2010.

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