6 presentation tips from a professional speaker

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun speaking at the Web2.0 Expo 2009. Photo by James Duncan Davidson.

Scott Berkun’s book Confessions of a public speaker is full of useful presentation tips. I’ve shamelessly cherry-picked the best presentation tips from his book.

Presentation tip 1: Let go of perfection

If you’d like to be good at something, the first thing to go out the window is the notion of perfection. Every time is I get up to the front of the room, I know I will make mistakes.

I so agree. I get so annoyed by courses, books and  articles that claim to help you deliver the perfect presentation. Not only is there no such thing, that type of thinking will sabotage your efforts to deliver a competent, effective and engaging presentation.

Presentation tip 2: It’s normal to be nervous

For years I was in denial about my public speaking fears. After seeing me speak, when people asked whether I get nervous, I always did the stupid machismo thing. I’d smirk, as if to say, “Who me? Only mere mortals get nervous”. At some level, I’d always known my answer was bullshit.

Scott goes onto cite 17  politicians, performers and other famous people who suffer or suffered from stage fright (the past tense is not because they got over it, but because they’re dead).

I love it that a professional speaker admits to fear of public speaking. One of the steps to overcoming the fear of public speaking, is to realise that it’s a normal and near-universal human reaction. Scott quotes Mark Twain:

“There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.”

Presentation tip 3: Practice, practice, practice… as much as you need to

I stand up at my desk, imagine an audience around me, and present exactly as it were the real thing. If I plan to do something in the presentation, I practice it…I repeat this process until I can get through the entire talk without making major mistakes.

If a professional speaker with hours of speaking experience under his belt, practices, so should you. Note however that Scott doesn’t practice a predetermined number of times – he practices until he can do the talk without major mistakes. That’s a sensible guideline. I was listening to an interview with Alan Weiss about professional speaking. He cited a well-known speaker (though he didn’t name him) who had been giving approximately the same speech for 40 years and claimed to rehearse for 2 hours before every engagement. Alan quipped: “That’s not rehearsal, that’s a learning disability!”

Presentation tip 4: “Good public speaking is based on good private thinking”

Wow. What a line. I underlined this several times. Scott goes on:

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.

This so reflects my philosophy. The content of your speech is the most important thing. Your slides and your delivery style can either sabotage or enhance it. But beautiful slides and dynamic delivery are empty without thoughtful content. My partner, Tony, calls this a “meringue speech”. Chris Witt, is another author who has expressed the ‘Content is King’ philosophy beautifully.

Presentation tip 5: The magic moment of the audience’s full attention

Scott goes against conventional presentation advice:

There is a moment at every movie, symphony, and lecture, right before the show starts, when the entire audience goes silent. All the conversations and rustlings stop, and everyone, at about the same time, falls into quiet anticipation for what is about to happen….And when I’m the speaker, I know that special moment is the only time I will have the entire audience’s full attention.

That’s why you don’t have to grab the audience’s attention at the start. As Scott describes, the challenge is not to get the audience’s attention but to keep it.

Presentation tip 6: Gather objective feedback

When talking to a performer after his performance, most people will say nice, simple, positive things. As a result there are thousands of bad public speakers running around under the impression that they’re doing OK.

Scott also condemns most speaker evaluation forms for being next to useless in giving you feedback that will help you to improve. Scott has three suggestions for gathering more objective feedback:

  1. When someone pays you a compliment about your speech, say “Thanks, but how could I have made it better.”
  2. If speaker evaluations have been gathered, ask the host for the data that shows how you compared to other speakers.
  3. Video yourself:

The golden rule applies: don’t ask people to listen to something you haven’t listened to yourself. Just do it. If its unwatchable, be proud you only inflicted a rotten talk on yourself and not an innocent audience. You can delete the video, you cannot delete an hour of wasted time from people’s lives.

Want more great presentation tips mixed with entertaining anecdotes (and horror stories) about public speaking? Buy Scott’s book.

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  1. Everyone should read this book. It is full of stories and great insights. My favorite lesson from the book is #4 above.

    4. “Good public speaking is based on good private thinking”

    It amazes me that when people have a speech to do and most immediately head to PowerPoint when they should head-out for a long hike. There is nothing like contemplating and exploring the topic in the vastness of your brain. The more the person knows about a topic the longer the hike needs to be (Curse of Knowledge).

    The book is incredible and can’t be boiled down to a list of take aways. It is a much richer experience than that. Read the book.

    • Hi Jeff,

      Great point, although I would add that if it’s a topic you’re an expert in, it’s not always necessary to go for a long hike. What’s necessary is to ask yourself some sharp questions which help you to prioritize what’s important to say to your audience. Olivia

  2. Like Jeff above, I love the ‘private thinking’ point – a presentation or speech without a well thought-out message is actually just someone having a chat (with himself!) for half an hour.

    The *keeping* the audience’s attention is a great point too. The difficulty at the beginning of a presentation is not to make the audience listen to you, but to convince them that listening to you is not going to prove a waste of their time. Persuade them early on that your topic is interesting and relevant to them, or no amount of attention-grabbing media will help you to communicate.

    • Thanks Jessica for your thoughtful comments. Love the way you’ve expressed it “they’re just having a chat with themselves”!


  3. This is a great article. Thanks! This book, “Stage Fright: 40 Stars Tell You How They Beat America’s #1 Fear” has helped a bunch of people beat stage fright. A cognitive psychologist and an actor/successful theatre professor put the book together. The first half covers the cognitive techniques to fight stage fright, and the second half contains interviews about stage fright with celebrities like Robin Williams, Melissa Etheridge and much more: http://howtobeatstagefright.com

    • Hi Annie

      The book sounds interesting and useful for people who suffer from stage fright. Olivia

  4. I am far from a polished, professional speaker but I am called on regularly to speak in a variety of capacities. And from the reviews I get, I have pretty good competency on stage. I am scared to death every time I get ready to get up there. My audience is never able to see it because of the practice and preparation I put into it. I believe it is numbers 1, 2, and 3 for effective presentation.

    • Hi Stevie
      That’s another good point – the audience can rarely see the nervousness that you feel. Although it’s normal to be nervous, it sounds like it would be useful for you to be able to reduce your nervousness somewhat. I recommend investigating Cognitive Behavioral techniques.

  5. Funny that I stumble upon this post on Scott’s book (I just sent you an email about it, sorta). I think it’s an excellent read that offers lots of solid advice. As someone who speakers rather frequently, I loved that it was riddled with real life experiences and advice from the field.

  6. Olivia,
    Your insights into the world of speaking and presentation is invaluable. What I learn from you…for free…is more than its weight in gold. Cheers!

  7. Great article…real points to think about :) thank you…

  8. I’m halfway through this book – it is very readable…I would also agree with the above recommendations to read it. I particularly liked his use of a picture of an audience (what you see) and the picture of a lion (what you think you see)! Great stuff.

  9. Got a big presentation next week, and this looks like something that will surly help me.
    Thanks & great article


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