As a minister, teaching and preaching occupies a lot of my time. How much time? I don’t know exactly. But a rough estimation would be that I spent around 100 hours last year either teaching or preaching. Almost every talk I give is unique; I almost never reuse my material. So in addition to that 100 hours, another 600 to 800 hours were spent preparing for teaching and preaching. So I spent 700-900 hours last year preparing to give a speech or actually giving a speech.
Ministers probably spend more time giving and preparing to give public speeches than professional speakers do. Since it is an important element of my job, I know that I need to make sure I’m always trying to improve. So I try to read several books on preaching each year. Rarely, though, do I read a book that is about general public speaking rather than specifically preaching.
But I stumbled across the blog of Scott Berkun, a professional speaker and writer, and I was impressed with what I read. So I ordered his book Confessions of a Public Speaker on my Kindle. I read it in a couple of sittings. Scott is an entertaining writer. And I learned much from the book, even if it is wasn’t written with ministers and preachers in mind.
A Quick Summary
Confessions of a Public Speaker is Berkun’s advice on being a public speaker. It covers a wide range of topics, from preparation and pacing to overcoming the fears of public speaking and earning a living as a professional speaker. The book is very practical, though it’s not dry. He weaves his advice in with stories from his own experience. This makes for a quick and entertaining read.
Advice I Found Helpful
For me, the value in Berkun’s book was in bits and pieces of advice he gave. Of course, that’s what you’d expect in this type of book. But rather than summarize the helpful points, I thought my readers would be most helped if I just quoted what I considered to be the most helpful pieces of advice. (Since I read this on my Kindle and the Kindle version of the book didn’t have page numbers, I gave the Kindle location instead.)
On the fears of speaking in public:
“Most people listening to presentations around the world right now are hoping their speakers will end soon. That’s all they want. They’re not judging as much as you think, because they don’t care as much as you think. Knowing this helps enormously.” (Location 214)
“It’s the mistakes you make before you even say a word that matter more. These include the mistakes of not having an interesting opinion, of not thinking clearly about your points, and of not planning ways to make those points relevant to your audience. Those are the ones that make the difference. If you can figure out how to get those right, not much else will matter.” (Location 308)
On working on the thoughts you’re expressing and not your visuals:
“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.” (Location 1141)
On the value of practicing your talks:
“To create a similar advantage, I, like George Carlin or Chris Rock, practice my material. It’s the only way I learn how to get from one point to another, or to tell each story or fact in the best way to set up the next one. And when I say I practice, I mean I stand up at my desk, imagine an audience around me, and present exactly as if it were the real thing. If I plan to do something in the presentation, I practice it. But I don’t practice to make perfect, and I don’t memorize. If I did either, I’d sound like a robot, or worse, like a person trying very hard to say things in an exact, specific, and entirely unnatural style, which people can spot a mile away. My intent is simply to know my material so well that I’m very comfortable with it. Confidence, not perfection, is the goal.” (Location 460)
“The most pragmatic reason for practice is that it allows me to safely make mistakes and correct them before anyone ever sees it. It’s possible I’m not a better public speaker than anyone else—I’m just better at catching and fixing problems.” (Location 471)
“When I practice, especially with a draft of new material, I run into many issues. And when I stumble or get confused, I stop and make a choice: Can I make this work if I try it again? Does this slide or the previous one need to change? Can a photograph and a story replace all this text? Is there a better lead-in to this point from the previous point? Will things improve if I just rip this point/slide/idea out completely? I repeat this process until I can get through the entire talk without making major mistakes.” (Location 473)
“Remember: if you’re too lazy to practice, expect your audience to be too lazy to follow.” (Location 1578)
“And if they give you an hour of their time to talk to them, they expect you to be confident in what you say and do.” (Location 1630)
On being insightful rather than comprehensive:
“Good lectures are never comprehensive because it’s the wrong format to do so. I might as well read the dictionary to someone for six hours—it would be just as ineffective. People really want insight. They want an angle. A good speaker or teacher finds it for them.” (Location 1247)
On how to decide if a prop or slide is needed:
“Unless slides are essential and the clearest, simplest way to make your point (which they almost never are), use fewer of them. If a prop does not support your point, it has wasted your audience’s time.” (Location 2952)
On how to be interesting:
“The easiest way to be interesting is to be honest. People rarely say what they truly feel, yet this is what audiences desire most.” (Location 2604)
On building and releasing tension in your talk:
“The simplest kind of tension to build and then release is the one I mentioned before: problem and solution.” (Location 1677)
On an easy and effective way to get good feedback:
“You have nothing to lose by asking a student the simple question, ‘How could I have made this lesson more effective for you?’” (Location 2442)
On the way to get a difficult and inattentive audience’s attention:
“Here’s a deal. I’d like you to give me your undivided attention for five minutes. If after five minutes you’re bored, you think I’m an idiot, or you’d rather browse the Web than listen, you’re free to do so. In fact, I won’t mind if you get up and leave after five minutes. But for the first 300 seconds, please give me your undivided attention.” (Location 3047)
What I Didn’t Like
There wasn’t much about this book I didn’t like. I do wish that the book had been more comprehensive. Berkun’s advice was helpful, but it felt like an appetizer rather than the full meal. For example, he talks about creating tension in your talk and having a good rhythm in it. But he didn’t explain much about either of those two concepts. I was left wanting more.
But, to be fair, Berkun didn’t intend his book to be comprehensive. It’s just that Berkun is such an insightful an entertaining writer about public speaking, I wanted more rather than less of the book.
Would I Recommend It to Other Ministers?
Yes. I would recommend it to people who want to be better public speakers. But be aware that you still need to read more comprehensive books. This alone won’t be very helpful to you, I think. And you probably won’t find any value in keeping it for a reference as you write talks. You’ll want other books for that.
Still, it is an entertaining read, and most ministers and preachers would find something of value in it. If we just took to heart his encouragements to avoid wasting time on visuals when our thinking needs work, I think more sermons and lessons would be bearable. If we were do think clearly about our topics and practice our sermons and lessons, more people might actually look forward to our lessons and sermons.