Confessions of a Public Speaker - by Scott BerkunISBN: 0596801998
Date read: 2010-06-28
How strongly I recommend it: 4/10
(See my list of 320+ books, for more.)
Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.
Best book on public speaking. A must-read if you do this at all. Great concrete advice and personal tales.
It’s an amazing way to live, getting paid to think and learn and exchange ideas.
My goal is to see how long I can make an independent living purely on the merits of what I write and what I say.
If you love ideas, speaking and writing are natural consequences. You know about history’s great thinkers because they either spoke or they wrote.
I hope to be a great thinker someday, and I know the way to get there is to speak and write.
Expressing ideas is often the only way to fully understand what ideas are, and to know what it is you really think.
Expression makes learning from the criticism of others possible, and I’m happy to look like a fool if in return I learn something I wouldn’t have learned any other way. I’m fascinated by ideas of all kinds, in wildly different subjects, and I hope to write and speak about them all. I’m insanely grateful to make a living as a trafficker of ideas. I hope to be able to do it for the rest of my life.
Public speaking is a form of expression. You have to do it about a topic, and whatever that topic is defines you better than the actual speaking does. But I speak about the things I write about, which can be just about anything. Calling myself a freelance thinker - as vacuous as it sounds - is accurate.
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 something good with it - whatever I say next, they are sure to remember.
If you’d like to be good at something, the first thing to go out the window is the notion of perfection.
Obsessing about perfection stops you from growing. You stop taking chances, which means you stop learning. I don’t want to be perfect. I want be useful.
I was given 10 minutes to speak, and since the average person speaks 2–3 words per second, all you need is 1,500 words of material (600 seconds x 2.5 words per second).
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.
The mistakes you make before you even say a word that matter more. These include the mistakes of...
* not having an interesting opinion
* not thinking clearly about your points
* 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.
Fear focuses attention. All the fun, interesting things in life come with fears.
All good things come with the possibility of failure.
Practice: stand up at your desk, imagine an audience around you, and present exactly as if it were the real thing.
But I don’t practice to make perfect, and I don’t memorize. If I did either, I’d sound like a robot, or worse, like a person trying very hard to say things in an exact, specific, and entirely unnatural style, which people can spot a mile away. My intent is simply to know my material so well that I’m very comfortable with it. Confidence, not perfection, is the goal.
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?
I repeat this process until I can get through the entire talk without making major mistakes.
I want to make my body as relaxed as possible and exhaust as much physical energy early in the day. As a rule, I go to the gym the morning before a talk, with the goal of releasing any extra nervous energy before I get on stage.
For private functions - say, when Google or Ferrari throws an annual event for their employees - how much would it be worth to have a speaker who can make their staff a little smarter, better, or more motivated when returning to work?
The ideal room for a lecture is a theater.
Ask the crowd if they’re too cold or too warm, and then, on the mike, ask the organizers to do something about it (even if they can’t, you look great by being the only speaker to give a care about how the audience is feeling).
Hear the previous speaker. Sometimes you’ll hear a joke or comment in the previous talk that you can pick up on, or know to avoid, given that it’s been used before.
Being paranoid has strikingly good odds of creating what we’re afraid of, perpetuating the paranoia.
I have to embody what I want the audience to be.
If I want them to have fun, I have to have fun. If I want them to laugh, I have to laugh.
But it has to be done in a way they can connect with, which is hard to do. A drunken toast at a wedding is often great fun for the toaster but miserable for everyone else.
But great speakers are connection-makers, sharing an authentic part of themselves to create a singular, positive experience for the audience.
I’ve never claimed to have a new idea. I deal with the obvious. I present, reiterate, and glorify the obvious - because the obvious is what people need to be told.
The greatest need of people is to know how to deal with other people. This should come naturally to them, but it doesn’t. - (Dale Carnegie)
The problem with most bad presentations I see is not the speaking, the slides, the visuals, or any of the things people obsess about. Instead, it’s the lack of thinking.
All good public speaking is based on good private thinking.
Transform a rough set of ideas into clear points.
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
Hope to be entertained
Have a need they hope you will satisfy
Desire to meet other people interested in the subject
Seek a positive experience they can share with others
Are forced to be there by their bosses, parents, professors, or spouses
When 100 people are listening to you for an hour, that’s 100 hours of people’s time devoted to what you have to say. If you can’t spend 5 or 10 hours preparing for them, thinking about them, and refining your points to best suit their needs, what does that say about your respect for your audience’s time?
Take a strong position in the title. All talks and presentations have a point of view, and you need to know what yours is.
Start with a strong title. Titles get so little attention, but they’re always the first words on your slides. And if you’re speaking at an event or conference, it’s how people choose whether they want to attend your session.
If I call it “Creativity for beginners.” I have already set myself up to fail. How can I possibly say everything a beginner needs to know about creativity? And why would the audience care to know everything? That would be boring and take forever. Good lectures are never comprehensive because it’s the wrong format to do so.
A better title would be, “How to be creative in doing boring work” or “Green eggs and brainstorming: how to learn creativity from reading Dr. Seuss.”
People really want insight. They want an angle. A good speaker or teacher finds it for them.
You can rip off any of the following titles and be well on your way to a stronger presentation:
The top five problems you have with _____ and how to solve them
Why _____ sucks and what we can do about it
Mistakes I made in _____ and what I learned
The most frequently asked questions and brilliant answers about _____
The truth about _____ and how it can help you
Smart shortcuts and clever tricks only experts know about _____
The five reasons you win by giving me _____
Why _____ will change your life forever, for free, right now
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.
Make your specific points as concise as possible.
Every point should be compressed into a single, tight, interesting sentence. The arguments might be long, but no one should ever be confused as to what your point is while you are arguing it.
Know the likely counterarguments from an intelligent, expert audience.
If you do not know the intelligent counterarguments to each of your points, your points cannot be good.
Having thought clearly through my points, even if I lose the specific way I had hoped to present them, I 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:
1. an elevator pitch (the title)
2. a five-minute version (saying each point and a brief summary)
3. the full version (with slides, movies, and whatever else strengthens each point).
Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, and Franklin Roosevelt all used a short outline of five or six points - often with just a few words per point - to help them recall their hour-long speeches while giving them.
If you do enough thinking in advance, all your brain needs is a little list, and most of the speaking will take care of itself
When the entire audience goes silent. All the conversations and rustlings stop, and everyone, at about the same time, falls into quiet anticipation for what is about to happen. This is called the hush over the crowd, but really it’s the moment when the crowd itself first forms. The 200 unique people with different thoughts and ideas now become one single entity, joining together for the first time to give their unified attention to the front of the room.
And the strange part is that the audience gives control over to the unknown. They have not seen the movie before. They haven’t heard the lecture or seen the play. It’s an act of respect and an act of hope - and it’s amazing.
There are only a few things in the world that can silence a room full of people, and the beginning of a performance is one of them.
That special moment is the only time I will have the entire audience’s full attention.
How well I’ll do starts with how I use the power of that moment.
How will I keep people’s attention after that moment is gone?
Never spend more than 10 minutes on a single point
Structure the entire lecture around a sequence of points you know the audience is interested in hearing.
We distribute power unevenly by design; for example, we have 100 senators, 50 governors, and only one president, and each has magnitudes more power than the citizens he or she represents. Uneven distribution of power is necessary to get things done efficiently.
For much of the history of civilization, the only public 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.
The easiest way to use power is to set the pace.
“I have 30 minutes to talk to you, and five points to make. I will spend five minutes on each point and save the remaining time for any questions.”
That takes about 10 seconds to say, but for that small price I continue to own the attention of the room because they know the plan.
Once you have everyone’s attention, briefly outline how things will work.
Something is wrong if 60 seconds go by and you aren’t already into your first point.
Don’t waste time giving your resume or telling the back story (“I first read about blah blah at blah blah”). They don’t care.
Think of your opening minute as a movie preview: fill it with drama, excitement, and highlights for why people should keep listening.
The best way to direct attention is to tell a story the audience cares about. Then they have two reasons to be interested: the situation and who it’s happening to.
“Here’s line 5 of the new tax code.”
That’s just a boring fact, floating in space, encouraging people to put their attention elsewhere. It’s quite another to say:
“80% of you in the audience confused line 5 with line 6 on your last tax return, which cost you $500. Here’s how to not make that mistake.”
Even a topic as mind-numbingly dull as tax forms becomes interesting if the speaker cares both about the problem and the people affected by it.
Influence is a function of grabbing someone’s attention, connecting to what they already feel is important, and linking that feeling to whatever you want them to see, do, or feel. It is easier if you let your story land first, and then draw the circle of meaning/connection around it using what you see and hear in the responses of your listeners.
If they give you an hour of their time to talk to them, they expect you to be confident in what you say and do.
If you fumble with the remote for your laptop, get confused by your own slides, or apologize for not being more prepared for the presentation, you are making it clear that you are not worthy of their attention. You are not playing the role they expect - that of a confident, clear, motivated, and possibly entertaining expert on something.
You do not have to be perfect, but you do need to play the part. In other words, be bigger than you are.
Speak louder, take stronger positions, and behave more aggressively than you would in an ordinary conversation. These are the rules of performing.
A common mistake people make is to shrink onstage. Don't become overly polite and cautious.
Be a passionate, interested, fully present version of you.
The study of acting is not the practice of being fake. It’s learning how to become more expressive as yourself and applying that to life on stage and off. All communicators benefit from learning about theater.
I could know half as much on a subject as my audience, yet still amaze, surprise, and entertain them by how I weave my stories together.
This makes the transitions between slides critically important. I have to know what’s coming next and set up what I say on the current slide to make the following pay off.
Doing this well depends on how much I practice. I can’t remember the transitions between points or how one story will best tie in to the next unless I’ve rehearsed and learned how to do it.
The simplest kind of tension to build and then release is problem and solution.
If your talk consists of several problems important to the audience, and you promise to release the tension created by those problems by solving each one, you’ll score big.
The audience will follow you through each sequence of tension and release.
If you do a great job with the first problem you identify, and offer a practical or inspiring way to handle it, they’ll stay with you throughout your entire talk.
During your talk, you can also use the audience to get feedback about your pace.
Ask, “How many of you think I’m going too slow?”, followed by, “How many think I’m going too fast?”
You now have real-time data and can adjust accordingly.
The stupidest thing for a speaker to ask his audience is, “Any questions on what I just said?”
This sounds threatening, like he’s daring you to challenge his authority, which many people won’t want to take on.
Instead, make it positive and interactive. Say, “Is there anything you’d like me to clarify?”
Let the audience help tell your stories or show what they know:
“Anyone here know who invented cheesecake?”
Then give out prizes, decent things like copies of your book, items you know are popular with the crowd, or $10 gift certificates to Starbucks. The audience attention level will definitely rise.
If you know of interesting, challenging problems related to your topic, pose them to your audience. Pick problems small enough that they can be solved in 30–60 seconds.
Even if no one answers the questions you’re asking, more people will be listening to the silence in the room than were listening to you talking before the room went silent.
Never be afraid to enforce the rules you know the room wants you to follow.
When in doubt, ask the room for a show of hands: “Should we continue with this topic or move on?” If they vote to move on, that’s what you should do.
When you enforce a popular rule, you reengage everyone who supports that rule. You restore your power and earn the audience’s respect.
Don’t hesitate to cut off a blowhard, silence the guy on his cell phone, and interrupt the table having a private but distracting conversation. As long as you are polite and direct, you’ll be a hero.
Always plan and practice to end early.
The big lesson from being on television is simple: we are always performing.
Any time you open your mouth and expect someone to listen, you are behaving differently than you would if you were alone.
The bigger the audience, the bigger you need to be. Your voice needs to be louder, your hand gestures more dramatic, and your pace more upbeat.
This is especially true for television. Since your appearance might be on a tiny TV in someone’s living room or in a browser window on his computer, you have to act big to project yourself across that distance.
Make whatever medium you’re in feel like something simpler and often less formal. It’s the art of making the unnatural seem natural.
Doing anything interesting puts you in a position to regularly hear conflicting feedback.
Sometimes the feedback isn’t even about your work - you’re just an easy target for whatever venom has been building up in their lives. You are simply the first thing people have been put in a position to judge after days of being cruelly judged by others. They want to vent, and vent all over you.
When talking to a performer after his performance, most people will say nice, simple, positive things. As a result, there are thousands of bad public speakers running around under the impression that they’re doing OK.
People expect very little from most teachers. When listening to a lecture, most people are quite happy to just be entertained
Credibility comes from the host. If the host says, “This is an expert on X,” people will believe it. People are willing to assume credibility based on how and by whom the speaker was introduced.
Your appearance, manner, posture, and attitude matter. Every audience expects certain superficial things, and if you deliver them, the rest of your job is easier.
The more I seem to care, the more likely people in the audience will care as well.
Here’s some of the real feedback speakers need:
How did my presentation compare to the others?
What one change would have most improved my presentation?
What questions did you expect me to answer that went unanswered?
What annoyances did I let get in the way of giving you what you needed?
Better questions to ask attendees include:
Was this a good use of your time?
Would you recommend this lecture to others?
Are you considering doing anything different as a result of this talk?
Do you know what to do next to continue learning?
Were you inspired or motivated?
How likeable did you find the speaker?
How substantive did you find the speaker’s material?
Ask the students a week or a month later. (to see what they really retained)
Use technology to help show you what you actually did.
If you’re too scared to watch yourself speak, how can you expect your audience to watch you?
Don’t ask people to listen to something you haven’t listened to yourself. Just do it.
If you don’t like what you see, make it shorter. Go for 30 seconds - short, commercial-length material - and practice it until you can do it well. Then add more.
Students are always at more risk than their teachers, which helps explain some students’ delinquent behavior. They are afraid of failing, or being criticized and embarrassed in front of the class, so they reject the teacher first.
Ever wonder why many schoolteachers seem so tired, so mean, so burnt-out on life? They didn’t start that way. Teaching anything year after year, while watching so many students struggle to grasp your lessons, eats away at your soul and can’t help but overtake the love that drove you to teach in the first place.
When it works, teaching is one of the most rewarding experiences there is. Seeing an idea you’ve explained be understood and successfully applied by someone is unlike any other pleasure in life.
If you have two dedicated, reasonably intelligent people, one interested in teaching and the other wanting to learn, something great can happen. Think master and apprentice, mentor and protégé. For learning, small numbers win.
The success of this one-on-one method is proven throughout history; many so-called prodigies were tutored by a parent or family friend (Einstein, Picasso, and Mozart all qualify). Yes, they had amazing, inherent talent, but they were still privately taught by people invested in their learning.
Teaching is intimacy of the mind, and you can’t achieve that if you must work in large numbers.
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:
Make it active and interesting.
Start with an insight that interests the student.
Adapt to how the student responds to #1 and #2.
"I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand."
As difficult as lecturing is, giving the audience things to do is much more difficult.
The teacher has to get out of the way; instead of being the star, he is the facilitator who helps students gain experience. The teacher can achieve this through exercises, games, and challenges where he plays a supporting rather than a primary role.
If you want to teach a behavior skill, at some stage the student should practice it.
This explains why many professors and gurus who are fantastic lecturers are somehow awful teachers. When their “students” leave, they don’t know how to apply anything they heard in the lecture. Given the lecturer’s brilliance, the students assume they are the problem and give up.
Create exercises for your students to practice specific skills, then divide them into small groups so they can collaborate and apply the ideas explained in the lectures.
People never fall asleep if they are at the center of the experience.
Inform everyone that they can ask “Who Gives A Damn?” at any moment, and do your best to explain how whatever obscure thing you're talking about connects to why they are here.
Focusing on facts and knowledge makes it easy for the teacher to stay in control and at the center of the experience. In reality, the ability to do something only has a limited relationship to the quantity of knowledge you have.
Keep your hard-earned knowledge in mind, but simultaneously remember how it felt to be a complete novice.
Ask yourself, at different points during the presentation:
Do they know this fact or lesson already?
Do they need me to explain this point in a different way?
Are they saturated with information and need a break or a laugh?
Are they too cocky and need a challenge?
It’s impossible to teach well without learning something along the way.
Good teachers listen as much as they talk, improving their material based on what they hear and studying to see if it had the positive effects they hoped.
While I love talking with interesting, friendly people, I’m extremely happy all on my own.
People who are at the center of attention when working - like comedians, teachers, and lecturers - are quieter than average off stage. They exhaust much of their social energy while working.
If you have an interesting opinion, laugh often, and bring a nice bottle of wine, I would love to talk with you. But all things equal, I’m extremely happy with a good book and a nice view.
I studied improv theater. There I learned how to see and how to listen. Humor and insight come from paying attention, not from special talents.
The easiest way to be interesting is to be honest. People rarely say what they truly feel, yet this is what audiences desire most. If you can speak a truth most people are afraid to say, you’re a hero.
Dress shirts are the best, most reliable way to clip on these microphones.
Treat your cameramen well. They can do all kinds of things to make you look or sound stupid. Ask their advice.
Use emphasis to help make each point as clear as possible. You can listen to any great speaker and break down each sentence he says purely by where he places emphasis. He will use different kinds of emphasis, such as repeating words, pausing, gesturing with his hands, or even speaking with a whisper.
Most people say “umm” and “uhh” when they speak. These are called filler sounds
We make them mostly to hold our place in conversation. You’re letting the people you’re talking to know you are not done speaking.
When presenting, this isn’t necessary since you’re the only one with the microphone.
Saying “ummm” is bad. Nothing kills your power over a room as much as a lack of silence.
Silence establishes a baseline of energy in the room. Sometimes when a room is silent, people pay more attention than when you are speaking.
Listen to stand-up comedians: about 20–30% of their time on the microphone is spent in silence, often just to let the audience laugh and enjoy the last thing said, or to provide a pacing break to set up the next thing they want to say.
Silence provides time for consolidation and thought. Their timings requires the skill of an actor. They are useful after rhetorical questions, or when a problem has been posed.
When you step to the front of the room, make sure you don’t behave like someone who has never been in the front of the room before.
No audience wants to feel they are your dry run, unless somehow your experimenting makes it fun for them (which it probably won’t).
If the pace of your presentation is unclear, or you’re not sure what direction you are going in, you are a turtle on crack.
Provide a rhythm the audience can follow.
Have a well-defined, simple, uniform pace.
Divide your time into the number of points you want to make and spend an equal amount of time on each one.
You can subdivide each point into individual arguments, which should also have a clear, simple rhythm to follow.
Little gestures you repeat can be distracting. If you keep rubbing your nose or putting your hands into and out of your pockets, eventually this draws attention away from what you are saying.
We all have pet phrases we use too much, like saying, “This is about,” “So now…,” or “And here we have” to introduce every slide. There are always alternative ways to say the same thing, but first you have to notice which phrases you rely on more.
You need to appear natural enough that people can focus on what you’re saying, and you seem happy to be up there.
Few people speak passionately. They think they’re being passionate, but to the audience they come off as only mildly engaging.
Reestablish the attention of the room every 10 minutes just to get a baseline of who is still with you.
Sometimes I say the following: “Here’s a deal. I’d like you to give me your undivided attention for five minutes. If after five minutes you’re bored, you think I’m an idiot, or you’d rather browse the Web than listen, you’re free to do so. In fact, I won’t mind if you get up and leave after five minutes. But for the first 300 seconds, please give me your undivided attention.”
Most people close their laptops.
Keep in mind that some people take notes on their laptops. They might be live blogging or tweeting what you’re saying, vastly increasing your audience beyond the room. An open laptop doesn’t always mean you’re being ignored.
Your host is your guide. He should tell you if there is something you need to know, like recent layoffs or other bad news that might be on people’s minds. If you’re paranoid, you can ask, “Is there anything that happened recently I should know about?”
Ken Bain’s excellent book, "What the Best College Teachers Do"
See "An Actor Prepares" by Constantin Stanislavski
the Logitech Cordless Presenter