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Book review: Confessions of a Public Speaker

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confessions of a public speaker book coverScott Berkun, author of the hugely popular project management book Making Things Happen: Mastering Project Management, has written a new book.

Confessions of a Public Speaker is about Berkun’s life on the road as a speaker, and it is full of tips for people who have to give presentations. OK, as a project manager you probably don’t find yourself in front of lecture halls full of people all hanging off your every word, but you will have to address groups of stakeholders, and your project team, or perhaps an internal conference where you give a corporate briefing on your project status. This book will make you better at doing that.

Berkun does spend time writing about the practicalities of addressing conference-sized rooms — the use of remote controls, a countdown monitor, using all the features of PowerPoint to their best advantage — but there is a key message throughout the book, which is relevant even if you are addressing a group of just one person. Think about what you are going to say. He writes:

Even for many smart people working on a presentation, they’re so seduced by style that they lose the substance. They worry about slide templates, images, movies, fonts, clothes, hair, and the rest, forgetting to do the harder and more important work of thinking deeply about what points they want to make. The problem with most bad presentations I see is not the speaking, the slides, the visuals, or any of the things people obsess about. Instead, it’s the lack of thinking.

Whether you are on the podium at a project management conference or just in a meeting room talking to your project team at a kick off meeting, there is no excuse for not having done the prep. What is the message you are trying to get across? And if it is a “proper” presentation, practice in advance.

Audiences, Berkun explains, don’t take kindly to speakers who don’t seem to know which order their slides come in, drop their notes, apologize for not knowing what they are talking about or any other behavior which makes them look unpracticed and sloppy.

If the speaker didn’t spend any time investing in doing this presentation, why should the audience invest time listening?

Berkun also explains coping strategies to deal with the multitude of problems that can hit a public speaker — hecklers, being late, feeling ill, losing your presentation on the way to the venue and so on. He offers practical strategies around all these problems, and you get the feeling he has lived through them all himself.

He writes with an easy style that you will recognize from Making Things Happen — he’s personable and charismatic, which makes following (and remembering) his points easy. After you’ve read Confessions you’ll want to see him speak in person.

The book ends with some great anecdotes from professional and non-professional speakers, talking about their worse public speaking engagement. If you think you had a horrendous time, just be grateful you weren’t the law professor flown to Georgia to “attend” a conference only to find out that he was the star attraction and expected to deliver a lecture on comparing three different national constitutions and explaining their significance to Georgia. Or the guy who set the projector on fire.

Project managers often hide behind their desks or laptops. But we should be out there, talking about our roles and our projects. Confessions of a Public Speaker will help you do that, so next time you are asked to speak to a group, say yes, and enjoy it!

A version of this review first appeared on PMTips.net.

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