Lessons from 50+ books on public speaking

by Scott | 7/8/2009

The first draft of the book is done, and to help get there I read over 50 books on public speaking. Many popular ones, old and new, as well as books by preachers, teachers, salesmen, infomercial stars, and professors. What did I learn?

  • 50% or more of the advice is the same.  Dale Carnegie got much of it right 50 years ago in Public Speaking for success (one of the best I read – I’m surprised too). And he hits the same points Aristotle and Cicero talked about nearly 2000 years before.  You can throw a dart at a stack of these books and get much the same advice.  It goes like this: know your audience, be concise and practice. If you can remember that you are well on your way. Problem is this takes work and discipline, which is harder to do than buying books. Knowing and doing are not the same thing. Joining toastmasters, where you practice, is likely one of the best things you can do.
  • Rhetoric is boring. Many of these books have several chapters on rhetoric, or the construction of arguments. This is good stuff, but it’s oh so boring. Even chapters in these books about passion (ethos) are boring.  It’s the common academic trap of people writing for comprehensiveness rather than for pragmatics. Thank you for arguing, by Heinrichs, was the best of the bunch in that respect.
  • Standard books might be the wrong way to learn this. As great as Stanislavski’s An Actor Prepare’s is (he’s the guy who originated method acting), can you be a great actor from reading it? Not unless you do a lot of acting after you read it. I’d say 30-40% of the books have nearly the same textbook structure of chapters and content. At least An Actor Prepare’s is an intimate personal read. Many books on speaking are shallow and stay on the surfaces of things, never touching on why people fail even after they’re read these books.
  • There are many fancy methods and tricks that play on people’s interests to make this seem simple. No surprise here, but books with titles like power speaking, magic presenting, instant persuasion, extreme lecturing, etc. mostly just rehash Carnegie’s advice, and do it poorly. Performing, which is what speaking always is, resists being boiled down.
  • Lecturing has been well researched it’s just no one knows about it.  There is so much misinformation about what works or doesn’t in public speaking. One magnificent gem is the book What’s the use of Lectures? In all my interviews and chats I haven’t found anyone who’s heard of this book despite how amazing it is. It’s on the dry side, but it’s a summary of all the research that has been done on lectures and what makes them work well or not. No myths. No voodoo. Just good advice based on actual research.
  • 20-30% of the books focus on one tool or specific type of speaking. There are piles of books just about PowerPoint, many about Keynote, and tons about pitching, or teaching, or doing seminars. And they mostly strike at the branches, rather than the roots. If you get the core dynamics of style, attention and making points, it’s not hard to move from one form to another. And books about software, in the guise of books about speaking mostly promote slideuments, something Garr Reynolds rightfully fights against.

So what am I doing differently in the new book?

  • There is a real person here. It’s titled Confessions of a public speaker (it’s listed on amazon now, for pre-order – not final cover art).  The set up is this: I’m going to be completely honest with you. I have license, via the title, to call bullshit on myths, and legends that get in the way of speaking better, and to tell you useful things some are too polite to mention.  I can share the messed up things that happen backstage, what speakers really think of their audiences, etc.
  • I’m telling real stories. Many books take on a “I’m a perfect speaker” tone that doesn’t help people learn. I know I’m far from perfect, as my speaking experiences over the last 15 years, which include many embarrassing, comical, and occasionally criminal behavior. I learned the very hard way and I’d love for you to do better. I also have stories from other veteran speakers, teachers, and professors who were happy to share their honest thoughts about all this.
  • Like my other books, it’s fun, direct and honest.  I’m always trying to write books I wish someone had given me when I started. The book is looking to be ~250 pages, which is a sweet spot for a solid, interesting, learn-able, memorable narrative.

I’m in crunch mode now for the second draft, but I’ll be posting more details as I can. Meanwhile there’s some good links to check out above.

21 Responses to “Lessons from 50+ books on public speaking”

  1. Terry Bleizeffer Says:

    Are you going to cover teleconference presenting? I give presentations as a regular part of my job (I’m doing one in a couple hours, in fact), and 95% of them are done over the phone while screen-sharing charts (or, even worse, where everyone has their own copy of the charts, so I can’t even be sure that they are looking at the right chart!). Much of the advice I see on “public speaking” assumes co-location — it discusses your physical presence and how to gauge crowd reactions — but isn’t presenting to 100 people on a telecon considered “public speaking”? It sure feels public when I’m doing it. While I’m sure much of the advice on public speaking can be applied to telecons, I’d be surprised if there wasn’t some telecon-specific advice as well.

  2. Marti Says:

    This was very helpful, Scott! I’m a cheapskate, work for a non-profit, and don’t get paid, directly, for stuff I write. I think this tempts me to cut corners on doing thorough background reading: I can’t buy 50 books. How much do you buy (vs. borrow?) to do this kind of research?

  3. Scott Says:

    Hi Terry:

    Good question. Right now it’s not called out as a seperate chapter or anything but I’ll see about working it into the book.

    Of course if I don’t/can’t I can definitely write about it here on the blog.

  4. Scott Says:

    Marti: I wouldn’t buy 50 books either. In fact I wouldn’t have read 50 books on the subject unless I was writing a book on the subject myself :)

    That Carnegie book was excellent, and it’s easy to pick up cheap I’d start there.

    Of course Libraries are great resources and most libraries carry at least a few books on the subject.

  5. scottberkun.com » The new book: confessions of a public speaker Says:

    [...] Lessons from 50+ books on public speaking – some highlights from all my research, plus news of my book’s goals, the title and other details [...]

  6. Celeste Combs Says:

    I love your perspective ‘there is a real person here’! I learned something amazing about speaking over the last few months: allowing emotions in front of an audience is okay. Ha! I used to feel so ashamed to shed even a small tear.

    A few weeks ago, I was speaking to an audience of 60-70 people. I was sharing a story about my work raising funds as a board member for non-profit Technology Access Foundation.

    Speaking from a place of commitment and passion, I broke down crying in front of the audience, boy did they perk up! Their listening pristine. And, so much so, that I had them all in tears (of joy) at the end. I got a standing ovation and learned that having clear message, practicing does make a difference! But, relating to them as a real person made a big impact and left the audience inspired.

    I so look forward to your book! Thank you real person!

  7. Marti Says:

    Let me clarify: while I’m interested in your topic and will look for several of the books you recommend, I’m wondering if you find it necessary, in writing something book length, to have those 50 books or a good number of them in your possession to highlight, fold down pages, refer to during draft #3, etc. Did YOU buy 50 books in the process of researching, to write yours?

  8. Scott Says:

    I bought many of them – I’d have to go and check but I’d say ~30. Others I found in the library, borrowed from friends.

    But yes, I find I reading heavily on the subject I’m writing about is a big part of the process. It refines my own thinking, gives me the benefit of other people’s, and helps me find things to write about I don’t think others have covered well before.

    I get tremendous confidence from reading since reading fuels my thinking.

  9. Peter Graves Says:

    More title to consider useful if not on your list =>

    Talking to the Top – Ray Anthony (check bookbuyers)
    Inspire any Audience – Tony Jeary
    Selling the Wheel – Howard Stevens ****
    The 5 Paths to Persuasion – Miller and Williams ****
    Career Warfare – D’Alessandro

  10. Mike Nitabach Says:

    I am excellent public speaker, and I have never read single book about public speaking. I just ordered yours, Scott. If it messes me up, I’m coming looking for you!! HAHAHAH!

  11. Jurgen Appelo Says:

    Stop distracting yourself and get that book finished and published. I’m waiting impatiently, because I need it really, really soon! :-)

  12. Scott Says:

    Thanks Jurgen! I’m on it!

  13. Scott Rarden Says:

    I haven’t done any public speaking for years, and when I did it was in junior high and high school. When I spoke then it was for one reason — to get scholarships! And what did you have to do? Figure out who you were going to be talking to, and practice, practice, practice. Practice alone, practice in front of family, practice in front of a mirror, practice while waiting for the bus. Even did some practicing with the local toastmasters group — you are right, they were rigorous in their speech rules and a great place to learn.

    I didn’t practice enough – I lost.

  14. Kirkistan Says:

    I’m a great fan of this blog and your work. I’ve begun to wonder at the relationship between busking and public speaking. Both involve keeping people delighted, though busking has the added complexity of getting money out of people after they’ve heard/seen the spiel.

  15. Research help: Where does “see them naked” come from? | Speaker Confessions Says:

    [...] It hasn’t been referenced in 50+ books I’ve read [...]

  16. Leszek Cyfer Says:

    Have you read “Zen and the Art of motorcycle maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig? He doesn’t write about public speaking, but he explains very well why rhetoric is so boring, and what is the cure for it. Btw. his advice on composition of text is adaptable to speeches too.

  17. Scott Says:

    Leszek: Yes, I’ve read it many times, but not in many years. It used to be one of my favorite books.

    I’ll have to go back and have a look – any parts of the book in particular you’d recommend? (I recall it’s quite rambling – which is why many don’t finish the book)

  18. Leszek Cyfer Says:

    Well, one of the greatest things I remember is a really inspiring fragment where he writes about overcoming the writing “block”, demolishing the barrier that prevents us from being creative.

    As a typical assignment – an essay of 1000 words, a girl in his class wanted to write about history of USA (typical work which would be a compilation of earlier works). Instead he gave her an assignment to write about Bozeman – the city where he was teaching. But she was unable to write anything. So he shrinked it and told her to write about the main street of Bozeman. After a week she came to him in tears – she just couldn’t write anything (I suppose because there were no books in library about the Bozeman’s main street :) ). Now, angry, he told her to write a thousand words essay about the front wall of the opera building on the main street of Bozeman. Starting from the top left stone in the wall.

    Next day she came with over 5 thousand word essay. She said that she have bought a hotdog, sat there and wrote about the first stone, then the second and so on. She just couldn’t stop.

    He took away her blinkers by forcing her to concentrate on small thing – a single stone in the wall – because she simply couldn’t read about it from anywhere – she had to open her eyes and use them.

    Later he was giving his students in the classroom nickels and telling them to write about the coin – for the entire lesson. Some even asked him if they can write about the other side too :) None ever complained and there were no problems with writing.

    There are many more great things from the book – it’s really worth reading and rereading – mine is worn out :)

    His sequel – “Lila. An inquiry into morals” – made much more profound impact on my life and vision than “Zen…”. If you didn’t read this one – just do. I cannot emphasize it more. Simply an eye opener. After Lila, nothing looked to me the same as before.

  19. Laraba Okolo Says:

    sott
    Hello, i am a finial year student of the department of theater and performing arts. Ahmadu Bello university Zaria, kaduna state. Nigeria. Doing a project on “theatrical elements in public speaking and their effectiveness” and your book attracted me. I think it is a must read by all public speakers. people have negleted the power of acting and i think for effective communication, the use of the human body is more than important. it has a voice which although can not be heard, communicates truth. Since it is an ongoing project i pray more grease to your elbow. Keep the good work going on.

  20. Laraba Okolo Says:

    sott
    Hello, i am a finial year student of the department of theater and performing arts. Ahmadu Bello university Zaria, kaduna state. Nigeria. Doing a project on “theatrical elements in public speaking and their effectiveness” and your book attracted me. I think it is a must read by all public speakers. people have negleted the power of acting and i think for effective communication, the use of the human body is more than important. it has a voice which although can not be heard, communicates truth. Since it is an ongoing project i pray more grease to your elbow. Keep the good work going.

  21. DR Says:

    Have you read “Zen and the Art of motorcycle maintenance” by Robert M. Pirsig? He doesn’t write about public speaking, but he explains very well why rhetoric is so boring, and what is the cure for it. Btw. his advice on composition of text is adaptable to speeches too.

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