Review of Scott Berkun’s “Confessions of a Public Speaker”

October 15, 2012

It’s three in the morning, and I’ve just arrived at my hotel in Instanbul, Turkey. It took 49 hours of travel to get here. I haven’t really slept in 37 hours. My one piece of luggage is nowhere to be found, which means that I don’t have my suit, laptop cords, laptop remote, or business cards. The presentation is in 8 hours: I have 8 hours to make up for two days sleep and to go shopping (in a new country) for presentable clothes. Oh, and did I mention that I’m deathly uncomfortable with public speaking?

Surprisingly, the presentation is going to go okay, in part because I had the good fortune to have read Scott Berkun’s “Confessions of a Public Speaker.” That may sound like hyperbole, but it’s true.

Berkun is a professional writer and speaker, among other roles, and he provides an excellent resource in his public speaking book, “Confessions of a Public Speaker.” In it, Berkun conveys three things that can greatly improve your presentations and speeches. He:

  • Lowers the expectations of you during the speech itself
  • Raises the expectations of you while preparing for the speech
  • Provides concrete tips for both creating and giving the presentation

Now, the first two items may seem contradictory. And, well, maybe they are, but both are true and very beneficial, especially if you, like me, are uncomfortable doing public speaking.

Lowering Audience Expectations

As for the first idea, there are rare situations in my life where I can quote Dr. Phil (either because I don’t know much about Dr. Phil or because his aphorisms rarely apply to me), but I once heard him say this, and it stuck:

You’d be less concerned about what people thought of you if you realized how little they do.

(Or words to that effect.)

Restated: no one is thinking about you nearly as much as you are. Berkun makes a similar point about how audiences approach presentations. More than anything, Berkun rightly points out, the audience wants to be elsewhere, or wants the presentation to be over quickly. The audience is not as likely to remember, or even notice, if you’re stammering, shaking, and sweating. They often won’t even remember you or much of your presentation. That may sound terrible, but it’s realistic. I once saw Steve Jobs speak in person, and can only recall a vague sense of what he said. Steve Jobs.

So why is this perspective a good thing? Because it takes a ton of the pressure off of you. For example, will the audience notice how much you’re sweating? Maybe, maybe not, but they won’t remember it (unless it’s on a spectacular level). Or yes, you mumbled through that one point, but really: it’s fine.

In terms of lowering expectations, this quote really stuck with me:

I don’t want to be perfect. I want be useful, I want to be good, and I want to sound like myself. Trying to be perfect gets in the way of all three.

Again, not to be all aphoristic, but these are reasonable goals: I can say something useful, I can definitely sound like myself (if I don’t get in my way), and there’s a fair chance that I can be good. Don’t sweat it!

Increasing Your Effort

Second, Berkun makes a great case for you to increase the effort that you put into the speech ahead of time. Even though the audience may want to get out of there ASAP, and may not remember much of your presentation after the fact, Burkun points out that the audience is there: they’ve given you some of their time and that deserves your respect. And by “respect”, I mean best effort.

Berkun points out that most people are uncomfortable speaking in front of others and, as a result, they try to avoid working on it. This is so true. Think of anything you don’t like to do that you have to do: you’re likely to avoid it as long as possible, do the bare minimum, and get it over with as quickly as possible. Not only is this disrespectful of the audience, and detrimental to your reputation as a public speaker, it actually makes the act of public speaking that much harder on you.

One thing Burkun recommends towards this end is to practice your speech beforehand. Sure, this sounds obvious, but it’s not something I did sufficiently in the past. I would write the presentation and read through it in my mind, of course, but I never got in the habit of truly practicing presentations before I gave them. With this Istanbul speech (“Building a Successful E-commerce Venture, or Failing Gracefully“), I had practiced it once a week for 5-6 weeks beforehand, including once just two days prior. And “practice” means standing up, speaking every word, using the remote, using or not using my notes, even dressing appropriately a couple of times. The end result of all this practice was that by the time I was giving the presentation, I knew it. I really knew it. In fact, I knew it well enough that it wasn’t a problem that I didn’t have my notes available during the presentation (I was told ahead of time that my laptop would be with me on the dias, hooked up to the projector, but that was not actually the case).

In short, if you agree to do the job, then put in the effort to do the job as well as you possibly can, despite your discomfort.

(One may well wonder why anyone takes jobs that they’re uncomfortable doing, but such is the way of the world. Particularly if you want to get anywhere.)

Concrete Tips

The first two ideas that Berkun presents (or, to be fair: that I’ve suggested are significant themes in the book) are more big picture concepts, but the book does more than just that: it has a ton of concrete tips for organizing and giving presentations.

In terms of creating the presentation, Berkun makes several suggestions that seem obvious in hindsight but never crossed my mind previously (the sign of truly inspired wisdom: you feel like you should have thought of it yourself before). For example, Berkun argues that you shouldn’t waste the valuable first few minutes talking about who you are. The audience has already decided to attend and they probably know who you are, at the very least from the conference materials. Those first minutes are when the audience is paying the most attention, so actually get to the presentation! (And if that’s not reason enough, consider this: if you’re uncomfortable talking in front of a group, you’re probably also uncomfortable talking about yourself, so don’t.)

By reading “Confessions of a Public Speaker”, you’ll get some great tips on organizing and theming the speech, such as:

  • Thinking about what the audience wants
  • Coming up with a strong, interesting position
  • Being concise with your points
  • Knowing the counterpoints
  • Telling stories
  • Presenting problems and solutions

Berkun also talks about pacing your speech: early on you might list the five things you are going to talk about. Give each topic, say, five minutes of your time, and the whole presentation will be paced at a way that makes it easier to follow and enjoy. And, more importantly, if a person tunes out for a bit—and they will, the pacing gives them an opportunity to tune back in.

Along with the tips for the presentation’s content, “Confessions of a Public Speaker” has many other helpful recommendations for actually giving the speech. For example, Berkun writes about giving speeches while feeling under the weather. He suggests that you carry some medication with you to get through any rough patch: just a couple of aspirin will probably be enough to get by in a pinch. Never crossed my mind, but I’m traveling with a few meds from here on out. Another idea: spend some time sitting in different spots to get a sense of the stage from the audience’s perspective, particularly from the “cheap seats”. And here’s a brilliant tip: have some paper and pens with you onstage to take notes (like debaters do). You may never use it (depending upon the formality of the presentation), but it still makes sense.

Oh, and always end early. The audience will appreciate it.


Those are the three main points I took from the book, and found them to be infinitely useful. There’s much more to the book, however; something for everyone, I expect. And the writing is colloquial, and often entertaining.

There’s an argument to be made that I was less worried when it came to give my Istanbul presentation in part because it was such an odyssey to get there, but Berkun’s book has truly made me a better speaker, or at least I hope so, and I know it has made me feel more comfortable in doing public speaking. As I write this review and look back over my notes on “Confessions of a Public Speaker”, it’s a good reminder for me to revisit these notes when I go to do my next presentations in November and December. The audiences will be happy that I did.