Interview with Scott Berkun, Author of Confessions of a Public Speaker

November 25, 2009
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Most of us have to speak in a professional setting from time to time but few of us do it well–or at least as well as we’d like. We have all been there before, attending some conference with speakers who put us to sleep more than than they inform or teach us. While exceptions abound, speaking generally seems like something that most of us could do better. I know that I can.

coverTo that end, I recently spoke with my friend, fellow Carnegie Mellon alumnus, and annual basketball teammate Scott Berkun about his excellent new book, Confessions of a Public Speaker. Scott’s essays, books, and talks are very well received. Without getting too gushy, he’s been more than a bit of an inspiration and sounding board to me over the last few years as I’ve started writing books. I finished Confessions last week and can’t recommend it enough. It’s rife with tips, anecdotes, and lessons from Scott’s prolific speaking career.

Phil Simon: You talk to many types of audiences: technical, business, and a mixture. How do you determine the appropriate level of detail for each audience?

Scott Berkun: I find out what I can before I ever show up. It’s easy to ask whoever invited you to speak what the audience



Most of us have to speak in a professional setting from time to time but few of us do it well–or at least as well as we’d like. We have all been there before, attending some conference with speakers who put us to sleep more than than they inform or teach us. While exceptions abound, speaking generally seems like something that most of us could do better. I know that I can.

coverTo that end, I recently spoke with my friend, fellow Carnegie Mellon alumnus, and annual basketball teammate Scott Berkun about his excellent new book, Confessions of a Public Speaker. Scott’s essays, books, and talks are very well received. Without getting too gushy, he’s been more than a bit of an inspiration and sounding board to me over the last few years as I’ve started writing books. I finished Confessions last week and can’t recommend it enough. It’s rife with tips, anecdotes, and lessons from Scott’s prolific speaking career.

Phil Simon: You talk to many types of audiences: technical, business, and a mixture. How do you determine the appropriate level of detail for each audience?

Scott Berkun: I find out what I can before I ever show up. It’s easy to ask whoever invited you to speak what the audience will be like. Also, any description I write for the talk that’s used in promoting it should be clear on who I’m expecting to come. And lastly, good storytelling is a way to make any level of detail interesting. It’s a good place to start with any point: what’s a good story that makes this point, or data, interesting?

PS: As you point out, many speakers rely too much on power point slides. What’s your philosophy?

SB: The slides are not the presentation, you are the presentation. Many people spend hours in PowerPoint forgetting that slides don’t talk. Only the presenter does that. And then when they get up in front of the room they spend all their time explaining the slides, which really no one cares about but them. It should be the other way, where the slides support what the speaker is saying. The best way to use PowerPoint or Keynote is as a prop—it’s to help you make your points. But they’re not great tools for figuring out what you want to say, which is all too often how people use them. Garr Reynolds, author of Presentation Zen, advocates working on paper first, and I agree. Even spending time in an outline makes a big difference. Many talks would actually be much better with no slides at all – the speakers would speak simply and clearly since they have no choice.

PS: How much of your talks are scripted vs. ad-libbed?

SB: I never script anything. I practice to make my material better and to be confident I know it. This gives me the confidence in the moment to diverge and ad-lib, responding to an opportunity presented by the audience. I’d never notice those opportunities without practice. Sometimes there’s a joke or transition I know has to be tight to work and I’ll come close to scripting that, but I always change it in the moment if it feels right and it only feels right if I’ve practiced it many times.

PS: What advice do you have for new speakers?

SB: Get out there. This is a performing skill. You can’t learn how to play guitar or hit .300 for the Yankees from reading a book, and nor can you learn how to speak well from reading mine alone. Toastmasters is an easy way to spend time with other supportive people who want to get better. Or find friends. Or volunteer for opportunities at work. There is no other way. You’ll get better as you do it as you do with anything else, but you have to start somewhere/

PS: What can you do when you start to lose your audience?

SB: If I’ve built my material right, I can skip some chunks of it and get to the Q&A at the end faster. Q&A is totally interactive and makes it easier to figure out what’s going on. The best opener for Q&A is: “What question did you hope I would answer that I haven’t answered yet?” Then, hopefully I’ll hear something that explains why they were bored—perhaps I talked about the wrong stuff. Other reasons are: I’ve spent way too much time on an unimportant thing, my pacing is bad and hard to follow, or my examples and stories don’t match their experience and interest.

PS: What’s the single biggest mistake that most speakers make?

SB: They don’t practice. Having a slide deck is not the same as having practiced delivering a talk using that deck. I practice five to ten times every time I make a new presentation. More if it’s complex. If I seem relaxed, confident or in control, it’s because I’m not afraid of my own material. Most speakers never practice, and end up giving their audiences something that feels like a trial run. It’s the easiest mistake in the world to avoid: get to work.

As soon as you have five or six slides, stand at your desk and imagine an audience. Then give your presentation. You’ll find things that don’t work, you’ll get stuck, and it will feel miserable but this is great. You can make changes, learn better ways to make your points, and then repeat with the next chunk of material.

PS: Did your basketball scoring average really go from over 16 to 1.4 with your knee injury?

SB: Probably worse, as I’ve missed most of the season.

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