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Book Review: Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun

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When standing onstage, about to begin your speech, do not picture your audience naked.

This unconventional piece of advice, as well as other tips, are included in Scott Berkun's Confessions of a Public Speaker. Half memoir, half instruction, with just a dash of comedy, the book advises new and experienced speakers on how to prepare a speech, how to become comfortable in front of an audience, and how to give an engaging presentation.

Berkun exudes the "regular guy" persona, someone who is giving you advice while bonding over a couple of beers. His humorous, casual tone puts the reader at ease, stressing that you do not have to be the perfect speaker to make a respectable presentation. In addition, he draws from his extensive experience as a presenter to describe his best — and worst — speaking engagements First-time speakers should find these stories comforting, and more experienced presenters will find his recommendations on computer remotes and how to wear a clip-on microphone useful. The last chapter includes anecdotes about his colleagues' most embarrassing public speaking moments, appropriately titled "You Can't Do Worse Than This."

Confessions' main strength comes with the suggested ways to handle the unexpected, such as if your laptop freezes, you have forgotten your slides, or your host has informed you that you must cut your 30 minute presentation to 10 minutes (right before you take the stage). Only have five people in the audience? Berkun discusses ways to make the most out of such a situation. Overall, he advises practicing until you know the subject well, and being flexible enough to alter your presentation to fit the situation.

Less successful is his treatment of teaching — he discusses qualities of an effective educator, and decries lecturing. However, he cites little research as to teaching theory. Admittedly I'm biased, as I earned a doctorate in instructional technology and spent many years studying theory. As a former teacher, I found myself bristling at such statements as "most teachers focus on their lesson plans … the teacher is the center of the universe," and "focusing on facts and knowledge makes it as for the teacher to stay in control and at the center of the universe." Is it fair to characterize the majority of educators as wanting to be all-powerful and dominating students? On what is he basing these opinions?

Berkun also seems to contradict himself in other sections; while he correctly cites ethos (reputation), logos (organization of material), and pathos (emotion) as critical rhetorical strategies, he seemingly dismisses ethos' importance earlier in the book. "If they chose to be in the audience after just reading the talk title, description, and your bio, they think you are plenty credible," he writes. "Don't waste your time giving your resume or telling the back story." However, he stresses further on that speaker reputation is important to the audience. Obviously some middle ground needs to be reached.

In general, his wit and conversational style of writing make Confessions of a Public Speaker an enjoyable read. It should be noted that he does use strong language at some points in the book. His tips on coping with difficult situations would benefit any speaker, and would make novice presenters feel they could handle any mishaps. Even those who will conduct seminars and interviews for television will find helpful pointers. Confessions of a Public Speaker makes a valuable addition to anyone's presentation tool kit.

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About Kit O'Toole

  • Joann

    Helpful review! The title of the book intrigued me, and I was thinking of recommending it to a friend who teaches speech communication, but the review helped me decide to look elsewhere.