"Confessions of a Public Speaker", a Fun and Inspiring Guide for Giving Better Talks!

Jonathan Petitcolas
Jonathan PetitcolasApril 16, 2018
#book-review#conference

I have given numerous conferences in the past, with an audience ranging from a dozens tens of people at some regional events (Apéros Web Nancy, Caen Camps, Paris.js, etc.) to more than a thousand as at the Symfony Live Paris. So I don't consider myself as a rookie anymore. Yet, I am far from being a rockstar speaker. When retrospectively watching my own talks, I find so many things to improve...

In order to improve, I started looking for feedback from professional speakers. And I stumbled upon Scott Berkun's "Confessions of a Public Speaker". After a few hours reading the 200 pages of his book, I really advise you to read it if you wish to be a better public speaker (or if you want to give a talk for the first time). It brought me a lot of valuable insights on how to better captivate my audience.

I won't cover in detail all the tips extracted from this book. On the one hand, I don't want to penalize Scott by generating abusive spoils about his book. And, on the other hand, I'm currently preparing a conference linking my own personal experience to the advice given in his book. Yes, a talk about talks... Talk-ception! But don't worry, the transcript of this talk will be published on this blog later.

Talkception

One of the first and most present topics in this book is: we all have fear to speak in public. And that's normal. We just need to realize that this is a primal feeling which helped a lot of our prehistoric ancestors to survive. Being alone in front of a crowd we don't know, without any place to hide, is not the safest situation from our distant fathers' point of view. And we inherited it. So, instead of lying to ourself, and trying to convince our primal brain that we should not be afraid, we just need to deal with it, and turn it into fuel for our talk!

I really like Scott's direct tone. He doesn't beat around the bush with convoluted sentences, he doesn't try the scholarly side either. That's a good point for the readers, but also for any audience, as explained in his book:

Make your specific points as concise as possible. If it takes 10 minutes to explain what your point is, something is very wrong. [...] A mediocre presentation makes the points clear but muddles or bores people with the arguments. A truly bad presentation never clarifies what the points are.

Instead of bullshitting, Scott takes the reader straight to the point, providing practical advice. And, don't believe he mentions only successful experiences... He willingly admits his most embarrassing adventures, and those of other famous speakers. SWAT intervention during a talk, mistaking an URL causing a porn website popping in front of dozens of people, or getting only 5 people in a huge room... All these fails are distilled through the whole book, and even have a dedicated chapter. That's nice to read it: it helps to stop feeling so lonely in case of a glitch.

Scott Berkun
Scott Berkun

Scott also gives practical advice. He talks about material issues (don't underestimate the value of a remote control!), but also gives a list of how-tos to handle some wrong situations, such as (non exhaustive list):

  • Your time slot gets cut from 45 minutes to 10,
  • Rambling question that makes no sense and takes three minutes to ask,
  • You left your slide deck at home,
  • Your laptop explodes

These events really happen. And that's always scary to handle it without knowing if it is the right thing to do. Having a if... then... pattern is really comforting in such situations.

Humour, direct tone, inspiring topics, experimented speaker feedbacks... This book is really easy to read, and is a must-read for all speakers, either for people living from their talks, or for professionals wanting to improve their rhetoric. I strongly recommend it!