Being a public speaker is as close as you can get to being a RockStar during the daytime. And, it involves pretty much the same steps too: develop material over weeks and months, make a ton of phone calls trying to get booked, spend a solid amount of time getting to the venue hours early so you can do a 5-minute sound check, wait until it’s your turn, worry about how many people are in the audience, deliver what you hope is a great presentation, try to minimize your mistakes, collect your applause and only sometimes a check, go back home and try to get another gig.
Now, I love speaking just like I loved playing in a band (although it is nice that now I don’t have to lug around a drum set). But it’s easy to get caught up in the sexiness without realizing that both of these paths are filled with a lot of hard work and struggle. When you only see the very brief public side of an endeavor, like an 18-minute TED talk, we forget the iceberg effect – we can only see a small portion of the work that goes in.
Scott Berkun’s Confessions of a Public Speaker goes a long way to balance the scales. It was fitting that I read most of Scott’s book on 4-hour flights back and forth to Portland (and in the airports while waiting for said flights – gotta love a 3-hour delay sitting in Denver) for a speaking engagement. Confessions reads like what a professional would share with you if you were having a beer with him at the end of the day – and it isn’t non-stop glamor. Most writers who go behind the scenes of public speaking are trying to sell you their course on how to be a better speaker; so most of what they say is suspect at best and bullshit at worst.
But I found most of what Scott wrote fairly balanced. He’s not trying to sell people off the idea of being a public speaker, in fact, I think he’s quite encouraging. He just wants everyone to have a realistic perspective; he’s outlining the landscape as he sees it. In doing so he also shares a ton of great nuggets for those of us who are already practicing speakers or those who want to start.
Some of my favorite parts:
- His theory about crowd density is right on the money. It’s hard to speak to people when they are dispersed throughout a room. There’s no such thing as a too small crowd, just rooms that are too big. There’s more energy when people are packed together – that’s one of the reasons why everyone ends up jammed into the kitchen at parties. The next time you are presenting to people scattered throughout the room, just ask them to gather around.
- I have a degree in history and people always think that it doesn’t have anything to do with my current career. They couldn’t be more wrong. The best thing about writing an endless number of history papers is that I learned how to structure an argument. Scott comes back to the key role of presentation structure over and over and he’s completely right to do so. At its heart a good presentation is structured like a good argument. Almost every bad presentation is bad because of poor organization – so get very good at creating a coherent and compelling structure to your messages.
- Practice – We all need to practice more. You do, I do, even Scott admits to needing to. Repetition builds skill, period.
- Public speaking is all about keeping people’s attention. And that’s hard. Every tactic and tool you can develop to engage an audience is well worth developing, because you’ll need it. Also, when you realize that not everyone is paying attention to you at every moment, and that getting everyone to pay attention is an almost impossible fear, you relax a little because then you just talk to the people who are focused on you (and you stop worrying about the people who are checking their phones…).
I know I’m reading a good book when part of me wishes I had written it. And I totally wish that I had written this. Scott’s honesty and humor are refreshing, and I love his tactical tips. So always remember, there’s good and bad in every path. Part of being in a band was awesome, like the time I got to play at the Metro, my favorite venue in Chicago. But there was much more of, “…and then there’s the 4-hour drive to play a 45-minute set in front of 18 people, 17 of which came to see the other band – a Hanson cover band…”
[I found Confessions of a Public Speaker because I read one of Scott’s other book, The Year Without Pants, about his year working with WordPress. I first picked it up because I believe strongly in working without pants (in the privacy of my own home) It turned out to be an interesting investigation of how work could be structured in the future. If that sort of thing floats your boat, you should check it out.]