Book review: "Confessions of a public speaker" by Scott Berkun

Resources



Introduction


A couple of weeks ago I was giving a presentation on Reactive Extensions at VBUG 4Thought spring conference, and there was an O’Reilly stand. I picked up CLR via C# 3rd edition (I now have all three editions, which is kinda crazy) and I happened to spot this book too.


I’ve been doing a reasonable amount of public speaking recently, with more to come in the near future (and local preaching roughly once a month), so I figure it would probably be a good idea to find out how to actually do it properly instead of bumbling along in the way I’ve been doing so far. This looked as good a starting point as any.


It’s been a while since I’ve had a lot of time for reading, unfortunately – C# in Depth is still sucking my time – but this is a quick read, and I finished it on the plane today. I should point out that I’m currently flying to Seattle for meetings in the Google Kirkland office. The book itself is in the overhead locker, so obviously I could reach it down – but I’d rather not. Surely a book like this should at least largely be judged by the impression it makes on the reader; if I couldn’t find enough to talk about when I only finished it a few hours ago, that would be a bad sign. It does mean that I’m not going to be as concrete in my notes as I would usually be – but that’s probably reasonably appropriate for a non-technical book anyway.


Content


The book covers various different topics, from preparation to delivery and evaluation. The book is clearly divided into chapters – but a lot of the time the topics seem to leak into chapters other than the ones you might expect them to crop up in. If this were a technical book, I would view that as a bad thing – but here, it just worked. In some ways the book mirrors an actual presentation in terms of fluidity, narration and imagery. Sometimes this is explicitly mentioned, but often in retrospect and never in a self-aggrandising manner.


Although steps for designing your overall talk are examined, there’s little guidance on how to design slides themselves: that’s delegated to other books. (I’m reasonably happy with my slide style at the moment, and as it’s somewhat uncommon, it may well not benefit much from “conventional wisdom” – there are plenty of bigger picture things I want to concentrate on improving first, anyway.)


There are suggestions for audience activity – from moving people to the front to make an underpopulated venue feel more friendly, to trying to make the audience actively use what they’ve been told for a better learning experience. While I’d like to think I’m a pretty friendly speaker, I could definitely improve here.


While there are some mentions of financial matters, there’s no discussion of getting an agent involved, or what kind of events are likely to be the most lucrative and so on. There is the recommendation that you either need to be famous or an expert to make money – which sounds like very good advice to me. I have no particular desire to go into this for money (and I think I have to speak for free under my current contract with Google) so this was fine by me.


Anecdotes abound: they’re part of the coverage of pretty much every topic. At the end there’s a whole section of gaffes made by Scott and other speakers, as a sort of “you think you’ve had it bad?” form of encouragement. There’s never a sense of the stories being inserted with a crowbar, fortunately – that’s a trait which usually annoys me intensely in sermons.


Evaluation


As you can probably tell already, I liked the book a lot. Scott is a good writer, and I strongly suspect he’s a great presenter too – I’ll be looking out for his name in conferences I’m going to, with the hope of hearing him first hand.


The real trick is actually applying the book to my own speaking though. It would be hard to miss one central point where I fail badly: practising. I simply don’t go through the whole “talking in the living room” thing. For a couple of talks I’ve gone through a dry-run at Google first as a small-scale tech talk, but usually I just put the slides (and code) together, make sure I know roughly what I’m going to say on each topic, and wing it. Assuming the book is accurate, this puts me firmly in the same camp as most speakers – which is somewhat reassuring, but doesn’t actually make my talks any better.


So, I’m going to try it. I’m expecting it to be hugely painful, but I’ll give it a go. I feel I somehow owe Scott that much – even though he makes it very clear that he expects most readers not to bother. Possibly putting it as a sort of challenge to exceed expectations is a deliberate ploy. More seriously, he convincingly makes the point that I owe the audience that much. We’ll see how it goes.


There are plenty of other aspects of the book which I expect to put to good use – particularly in terms of approaching the relevant topic to start with, writing down a big list of possible points, and whittling it down. I’m not going to promise to write a follow-up post trying to work out what’s helped and what hasn’t… I know perfectly well that I’d be unlikely to get round to writing it.


Conclusion


If you speak in public (which includes “internal” talks at work) I can heartily recommend this book as an entertaining and potentially incredibly helpful read.


We’ll see what happens next…