BOOK REVIEW: Confessions of a public speaker

Review: Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun

By Mike Landrum

On his web site under the link “How to Write a Book,” Scott Berkun says: “a book is just a bunch of writing.” In the case of his new book Confessions of a Public Speaker, he knows what he’s talking about. This is actually the third bunch of writing he’s been able to publish; his first, in 2005, shortly after leaving his job as a project manager for Microsoft, was called The Art of Project Management, and later re-titled Making Things Happen. His second book was titled The Myths of Innovation. These two books and the speaking opportunities they have sparked are the basis for his meteoric career as a speaker for hire.

If you go to his web site, www.scottberkun.com, you’ll no doubt be impressed by his prolific output of essays, the breadth and energy of his thinking and his large appetite for self-promotion. There is also an opportunity to see a video of him speaking at his alma mater, Carnegie-Mellon University, in 2008, on the topic of innovation. This, we can only assume, is the talk that has taken him to corporate and academic audiences around the world and provided the experiences he confesses to in his new book.

It’s telling that he refers to his talks as “lectures” rather than speeches. “Lecture” carries a formal, academic overtone—way different than the energetic, even frantic rhythm that comes across on his video.  Scott is a bright, articulate young guy in his thirties—attractive in an adolescent skinhead-in-bluejeans sort of way. He straddles the fashion fence with an open collar dress shirt in deference to the corporate types he hopes to speak to (for up to $8,000 a pop).

On the video the words, stories and ideas tumble out of him as he paces non-stop, gesticulating with both hands at once—emphasizing everything and nothing. If a book is just a bunch of writing, then isn’t a lecture just a bunch of talking? Well, it’s not quite that bad; while there is very little structure to this lecture it does have a consistent pivot—innovation. And he maintains good rapport with the undergrads in his audience.

In the book, on the other hand, he wanders far and wide. You expect it to be about public speaking but it’s actually about Scott Berkun. That’s the big confession. He doesn’t know enough about speaking (or lecturing) as a skill, a discipline or even a topic to make many original points about it, so he steals from others—or tells us about his experiences as a feckless naïf. In jazz terms he riffs on the song of himself. 

He knows the depth of the bull-whacky that he’s pedaling so he begins with a disclaimer that includes the sentence: “You may not like this.” Yeah. That takes the sting out of the $24.99 asking price. This disclaimer is matched, if not exceeded, by a remarkable two-page closing note titled: “How to help this book: a request.” Here, he thanks us for buying the book and actually reaching page 203, and he tries to enlist us to go forth and market it for him. Could we write a review on Amazon? Put it on Facebook? or “Perhaps Oprah or Jon Stewart owes you a favor …?” Well. He didn’t need to shave his head to be bald faced.

Still, let’s not be hasty. A wise person once said: “don’t be too proud to learn from anybody.” With all this oatmeal, there must be a couple of raisins in here somewhere. 

Here are some of the nuggets I learned from Scott:

•    To prevent wardrobe malfunction remove all nipple piercings.
•    To hold an audience’s attention, don’t be boring.
•    Good lectures are never comprehensive. People only want insight.
•    Swiss Army knives suck at everything.
•    To get an audience involved, ask for a show of hands.
•    What to do if your talk sucks? Practice.
•    Don’t eat the microphone.
•    The more attention you attract, the more money you make.

The real lesson to be learned here is not about speaking but book writing. If you have a bunch of writing but it’s only about half the number of bunches needed to get a decent hardcover $24.99 book—here are some ways to pump it up.

1. Put in a BUNCH of dark, grainy photos of the author taken by friends with their cell phones and then add 3 pages of photo credits at the end.

2. Make one whole chapter titled “Photos you don’t expect to see.” (Ten pages)

3. Make a chapter out of blog posts from speakers about their horror stories (nobody in the audience spoke English! I poured water in my pants pocket onstage) (Eleven pages)

4. Include two bibliographies—lists of real books—one list annotated with your judgments, the other list ranked (also according to your judgments—total: eight pages)

5. Finish up with twenty-three pages that include acknowledgements, index, a completely un-necessary note “about the author” (with large lame photo-joke), a three-page “Colophon” supposedly about the cover photo, type font and paper stock, but it’s actually one last monumentally self-indulgent effort at sophomore humor, and end with a coup de grace—a nearly blank page that says: “This page has intentionally not been left blank.”

It probably doesn’t even cause Berkun discomfort to find his book being called bogus. He told us we might not like it. In his disclaimer at the beginning he mentions making sausage and that’s exactly what he has delivered. You may like this sausage and find it charming and witty. Or you may see it as a flippant pastiche of borrowed scraps and sawdust from researched wisecracks held together by a thin membrane of narcissistic posing and self-promotion. Hi, Oprah?

Mike Landrum is a speaking coach, media trainer and speechwriter based in the Hudson Valley, New York.

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