Confessions of a Public Speaker

Confessions of a Public Speaker

By: Scott Berkun
  • Highly practical book that shows techniques to be a great speaker.
  • Practical advice to not bore people, survive nerves, and what to do when things go wrong
  • Funny disaster stories that will help you avoid making the same mistakes

The Stever Robbins of Public Speaking

As someone who speaks and coaches others to speak, Confessions was an especially enjoyable read, affirming some of my anxieties, causing multiple laugh breaks, and conveying some fantastic new tips along the way. Berkun's mix of honesty, practical insight and comedy reminded me a lot of admired productivity coach Stever Robbins, author of Get-It-Done Guy's 9 Steps to Work Less and Do More (Quick & Dirty Tips) -- so if you like Confessions and want to get more done, definitely check out Stever.

Cool tips I learned:

Tip 1: Use PowerPoint's presenter view (which previews the next slide and your notes, just in case, on your laptop but not the projector screen)
Tip 2: Invest in one of those super fancy presentation remotes with the vibrating timer (never pull out your smartphone to check the clock again!) Logitech Professional Presenter R800 with Green Laser Pointer
Tip 3: Your response to mistakes influences the audiences mistakes (so don't freak out, or they'll freak out)
Tip 4: Always end early (no one complains when you give time back)
Tip 5: A tightly-packed audience will receive your message better than a thinly dispersed audience (so if your crowd is small, ask everyone to come down front)

Last, no matter what pressures I face on stage, the story of the guy invited to a conference in the Republic of Georgia, but not told he needed to deliver a complex lecture until he was IN THE ROOM and SURROUNDED BY ANTICIPATING OFFICIALS will always put my public speaking woes in perspective :-) Thanks for the great read, Scott!

P.S. Though after reading Confessions (and great public speaking books by Brian Tracy and Carmine Gallo) I may need to change the title, for a really good book on the nuts and bolts of public speaking, primarily for novice and journeymen speakers, consider my The Best Public Speaking Book: How to Conquer Nervousness, Polish Your Authentic Stage Self, Develop & Deliver Dynamite Presentations. Cheers!

Matt Deaton, Ph.D.

Matt Deaton, Ph.D.

Philosophy professor, ethics bowl enthusiast, occasional speaker | Vonore, TN

More Praises

How to become a more Effective Communicator

Below are key excerpts from the book that I found particularly insightful:

1) "Most people listening to presentations around the world right now are hoping their speakers will end soon. That's all they want. They're not judging as much ass you link, because they don't care as much as you think. Knowing this helps enormously. If some disaster happens, something explodes or I trip and fall, I'll have more attention from the audience than I probably had 30 seconds before. And if I don't care that much about my disaster, I can use the attention I've earned and do letting good with it—whatever I say next, they are sure to remember. And if nothing else, my tragedy will give everyone in the audience a funny story to share. The laughter from that story will do more good for the world than anything my presentation,or any other that day, probably would have done anyway."

2) "If you'd like to be good at something, the first thing to go out the window is the notion of perfection. Every time I get up to the front of the room, 1 know I will make mistakes. And this is OK. If you examine how we talk to one another every day, including people giving presentations, you'll find that even the best speakers make tons of mistakes...If you listen to Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, or Winston Churchill, and then read the unedited transcripts of those same speeches, you'll find mistakes. However, they're mistakes we commonly ignore because we're incredibly forgiving of spoken language."

3) "If anything, making some mistakes or stumbling in a couple of places reminds everyone of how hard it is to stand up at the front of the room in the first place. Mistakes will happen—what matters more is how you frame your mistakes, and there are two ways to do this: I. Avoid the mistake of trying to make no mistakes. You should work hard to know your material, but also know you won't be perfect. This way, you won't be devastated when small things go wrong. 2. Know that your response to a mistake defines the audience's response. If I respond to spilling water on my pants as if it were the sinking of the Titanic, the audience will see it, and me, as a tragedy. But if I'm cool, or better yet, find it funny, the audience will do the same."

4) "And it's often the case that the things speakers obsess about are the opposite of what the audience cares about. They want to be entertained. They want to learn. And most of all, they want you to do well. Many mistakes you can make while performing do not prevent those things from happening. It's the mistakes you make before you even say a word that matter more. These include the mistakes of not having an interesting opinion, of not thinking clearly about your points, and of not planning ways to make those points relevant to your audience. Those are the ones that make the difference. If you can figure out how to get those right, not much else will matter."

5) "f you pretend to have no fears of public speaking, you deny yourself the natural energy your body is giving you. Anxiety creates a kind of energy you can use, just as excitement does. Ian Tyson, a stand-up comedian and motivational speaker, offered this gem of advice: "The body's reaction to fear and excitement is the it becomes a mental decision: am I afraid or am I excited.^" If the body can't tell the difference, it's up to you to use your instincts to help rather than hurt you. The best way to do this is to plan before you speak. When you are actually giving a presentation, there are many variables out of your control—it's OK and normal to have some fear of them. But in the days or hours beforehand, you can do many things to prepare yourself and take control of the factors you can do something about."

6) "When I practice, especially with a draft of new material, I run into many issues. And when I stumble or get confused, I stop and make a choice: Can I make this work if I try it again? Does this slide or the previous one need to change? Can a photograph and a story replace all this text? Is there a better lead-in to this point from the previous point? Will things improve if I just rip this point/slide/idea out completely?"

7) "The solution to this, and to many other tough room problems, rests on the density theory of public speaking, a theory I discovered one day after repeating the Dallas experience in some other city, with some other embarrassingly small crowd in a ridiculously large room. I realized that the crowd size is irrelevant what matters is having a dense crowd. If ever you face a sparsely populated audience, do whatever you have to do to get them to move together. You want to create a packed crowd located as close as possible to the front of the room. This goes against most speakers' instincts, which push them to just go on with the show and pretend not to notice it feels like they're speaking at the Greyhound bus station at 3 a.m. on Christmas morning."

8) "No matter what kind of speaking you are doing, there are only a few reasons people will be there. As you plan your talk, start with the goal of satisfying the things listed below. People come because they: Want to learn something Wish to be inspired 3- Hope to be entertained 4- Have a need they hope you will satisfy 5. Desire to meet other people interested in the subject 6. Seek a positive experience they can share with others 7- Are forced to be there by their bosses, parents, professors, or spouses 8. Have been handcuffed to their chairs and haven't left the room for days. "

9) "To prepare well, you must do four things: Take a strong position in the title. All talks and presentations have a point of view, and you need to know what yours is...Think carefully about your specific audience. Know why they are there, what their needs are, what background knowledge they have, the pet theories they believe in, and how they hope their world will be different after your lecture is over...3. Make your specific points as concise as possible. If it takes 10 minutes to explain what your point is, something is very wrong...4. Know the likely counterarguments from an intelligent, expert audience."

10) "I usually present with slides. I love using images and movies to make points, but I never worry that these things won't work. Having thought clearly through my points, even if 1 lose the specific way I had hoped to present them, 1 can still offer them to my audience. If I'm fluent in my research, I can offer those anecdotes naturally. In effect, by working hard on a clear, strong, well-reasoned outline, I've already built three versions of the talk: an elevator pitch (the title), a five-minute version (saying each point and a brief summary), and the full version (with slides, movies, and whatever else strengthens each point)."

11) "But there's a solution. The answer to most attention problems is POWER...The setup for public speaking is beyond republican—in the political science sense of the word—it's tyrannical. Only one person is on stage, only one person is given an introductory round of applause, and only one person gets the microphone. If the aliens landed during the TED Conference, they'd obviously assume the guy standing on stage holding the microphone was supreme overlord of the planet. For much of the history of civilization, the only ic speakers were chiefs, kings, and pharaohs. But few speakers use the enormous potential of this power. Most speakers are so afraid to do anything out of the ordinary that they squander the very power the audience hopes they will use."

12) "There are three things my brother did that anyone trying to teach must do, and it's no surprise that they're easier to do with a smaller number of students: 1. Make it active and interesting. 2. Start with an insight that interests the student. 3. Adapt to how the student responds to #1 and #2. The bad news: applying these rules always takes more time. The good news: any time at all you spend pays off."

13) "Finding and simplifying insights requires humility, something rarely attributed to experts and public speakers. Keep your hard-earned knowledge in mind, but simultaneously remember how it felt to be a complete novice. It's rare to achieve this balance, but it's what makes a teacher great. It turns out, my brother learned to drive stick the difficult, old-school way. Instead of passing on that misery to me, instead of projecting his own suffering onto me as a : of passage all drivers should endure, he chose to convert his misery into my delight. Teaching is a compassionate act. It transforms the confusing into the clear, the bad into the good. When it's done well, and the insights are experienced not just by the teacher but by the students as well, everyone should feel good about what's happened. It's amazing how rare it is from many systems for the experience of learning to be a pleasurable thing."

14) "Silence establishes a baseline of energy in the room. Sometimes when a room is silent, people pay more attention than when you are speaking (a fact many don't know since they work so hard to prevent any silence when speaking). If y If you constantly fill the air with sounds, the audience members' ears and minds never get a break."

15) "Learning to stop saying "umm" requires only one thing: practice. People who sneak without saying "umm" weren't born that way. They used to do it and have worked their way out of the habit. If you're not sure whether or not you do it, you most likely do. And you're probably in good company. Many famous politicians. celebrities, and executives are hard to listen to because of their annoying filler sounds. It's an easy problem to have, since fixing it is a simple, fail-safe way to make all of your presentations better."

16) "Medium list of little things: Umms and uhhs. Distractions and tics. Putting the audience behind you. Repetition. No eye contact. Discomfort. Dispassionate. Referenced data. Inappropriate for this audience."

O. Halabieh

Houston, TX USA

Tip-toe thru the tulips.

Interesting read. Personal stories, experiences, and such are ok but never got to an "a-ha" moment. Maybe I've been reading to many Speaker-books. That said, I recommend it because it conveys many real-life moments which are usually training and/or awareness moments. I did read the entire book but must admit I did tip-toe lightly over some parts.

Tom j Dolan

VoceOver, Actor, Global-English Public Speaking Trainer | Los Angeles

Book Details

Publisher : O’Reilly Media; 1st edition (January 11, 2011)
Language: : English
Paperback : 240 pages
ISBN-10 : 1449301959
ISBN-13 : 978-1449301958
Item Weight : 11.2 ounces
Dimensions : 5.5 x 0.5 x 8.5 inches
Best Sellers Rank : #75,575 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
#6 in Presentation Software Books
#64 in Web Design (Books)
#68 in Enterprise Applications

About the Author

Scott Berkun


Scott Berkun (@berkun) is the best-selling author of seven books, including Making Things Happen, The Myths of Innovation, Confessions of a Public Speaker and The Year Without Pants. His work has appeared in the The Washington Post, The New York Times, Wired Magazine, Fast Company, The Economist, Forbes Magazine, and other media. He has taught creative thinking at the University of Washington and has been a regular commentator on CNBC, MSNBC, and National Public Radio. His many popular essays and entertaining lectures can be found for free on his blog at

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