Book Review: Confessions Of A Public Speaker

There are two things I’m pretty damn sure of:

1) Most people are afraid of public speaking.
2) I fall into the category of “most people”.

That’s right, I have a confession to make: I’m afraid of public speaking!

Confessions Of A Public Speaker, written by Scott Berkun, is laced with insights about speaking — it’s partly autobiographical and entirely useful. Near the beginning of the book Berkun reminds readers that if they’re interested in the world of ideas, and want to help traffic them, then there is no escaping writing or speaking. I’m a person who wants to traffic ideas, so this applies to me. I’m very comfortable writing and not so comfortable speaking.

Writing and speaking, however, are two completely different skill sets, so I don’t find this fact to be abnormal. Strangely, many people assume that those who write well also speak well. Why should good writers be any more likely to be good speakers than good dancers though?

Arthur Krystal wrote about this issue in his essay “When Writers Speak” (included in The Best American Essays 2010). “Like most writers,” Krystal wrote, “I seem to be smarter in print than in person.” My thoughts exactly. Writing protects me from saying something really, really stupid or illogical, well most of the time anyway.

Despite my anxieties about public speaking, I’ve actually done a fair amount of public speaking in both academic and business settings already. Perhaps I’m some sort of emotional masochist, but I always seem to find pleasure in the anxious thrill that comes when actually presenting. Strange as it may be, I’m more afraid of thinking about presenting and first getting up on stage than I am actually presenting. Once I start presenting, the butterflies usually go away.

Anyway, speaking is a life skill that I would really like to excel at, which is why I decided to read this book. As I alluded to, I actually like presenting, well at least as long as at least two conditions are met: 1) I know what I’m talking about and 2) I’m interested in what I’m talking about. If these conditions aren’t met, it’s a waste of both my time and the audience’s time — any presentation worth giving is worth preparing for.

What I particularly liked about this book was Berkun’s no bullshit approach. In the book, Berkun touches on something important that many public speaking gurus often fail to acknowledge, i.e., “No amount of training will make a man with two brain cells seem anything but dumb, as the problem is not his ability to speak, it’s his inability to think. It’s rarely said, but some people will never be good public speakers. Unless they find someone to do their thinking for them, they only have, at best, half the tools they need.” In other words, before worrying about speaking, always make sure have something interesting and intelligent to say first.

In his essay “Writing and Speaking” Paul Graham noted something very important that is tangentially related to Berkun’s point, i.e., good writing is rooted in good thinking, while good speaking needn’t necessarily be. [1] A good speaker who is motivating and passionate can often convince people of silly things despite glaring logical inconsistencies, a good writer doesn’t have this luxury. Graham makes this point as follows: “As you decrease the intelligence of the audience, being a good speaker is increasingly a matter of being a good bullshitter.” There is undoubetdly some truth to that claim, I’m just not sure how much.

Anyway, thinking about speaking and speaking about thinking are two of life’s great joys. Business people and teachers of all kinds will surely benefit greatly from the insights contained within this book.


[1] Like Paul Graham, if given the choice, I’d rather be a good thinker and a poor speaker than a poor thinker and good speaker. See his essay “Writing And Speaking”


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