I confess. I am not a trained reviewer. I have reviewed a few texts for biomedical journals, but that hardly qualifies. However, I am going to share my thoughts on Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun (@berkun). I hope writing this review forces me to think holistically about the value of the resource. And, since there is a constant stream of books being published, perhaps the review will even help someone else with their decision making process.
Most of what I blog about is informatics-centric, but I am a faculty member and thus responsible for the holy trinity of teaching, research, and service. So the questions: what makes a good teacher AND what makes a good lecturer, are both worth posing. To that end I have made a more concerted effort to explore aspects of educational theory, visual design, etc. over the last 18 months. I began with a couple primers (e.g. Presentation Zen, slide:ology) and recently picked up some other ‘classics’ and a few hot off the press.
Confessions is the first book in my latest batch and its author sets the tone pretty early on. He appears to be a happy renegade of sorts and uses fierce injections of humor to keep the reader engaged and interested. It is at the opposite end of the spectrum from a traditional ‘how to’ book as it is narrative in nature and pulls considerably from Berkun’s own experiences. Maybe because I have a traditionalist streak, the opening almost seemed like he was trying a bit too hard to be a from-the-hip maverick. I briefly found myself wondering when the snappy stories would end and it would yield some value. Well, I had a classic ‘good things come to those who wait’ moment, and did not have to wait very long at all. Once I opened my eyes a bit, I realized that his very attitude towards speaking was of as much value as the instructional pieces. Some of the advice, like how to approach dealing with mistakes you make during presentations or the requisite amount of practicing, seem pretty intuitive. However, as Berkun himself points out, seeing something you already know in print or hearing it from an external expert can lend enough weight to prompt you to finally process and implement.
The book is definitely not limited to reinforcing previous lessons (un)learned. It presents pragmatic pieces such as a solid four step method of preparation to avoid eating the microphone. Berkun also focuses on crafting a proper title moreso than I have seen from many other experts in the field. One thing I particularly like about Confessions is that it touches on seemingly mundane items that can make a big difference in the presentation and the presenter’s confidence. There are clear, practical examples and recommendations for the ideal way to position a lavalier microphone, manage audience distribution in a lecture hall, and use confidence monitors and teleprompters. There are also some nice cameos by science in discussing the power of silence to combat the dreaded ‘ums’, the impact of interference on retention, on-stage fight or flight, and the Dr Fox study.
The most compelling thing I can say is that I am completely certain that I got my $16.49 worth of knowledge, new approaches, and which existing ideas merit revisiting for public speaking. Confessions of a Public Speaker reads in a very animated style making it accessible without sacrificing quality content or value. I believe there is at least one pearl in the book for any novice to intermediate speaker (or teacher/professor). The outwardly lighthearted approach does not detract in the least from its value. Instead, it reinforces the sincerity of the author who believes communication skills are vital…and admits that while the lecture arena is not the ideal way to teach – gives plenty of tips on how to improve there.