Lessons from 50+ books on public speaking
July 8, 2009
My book Confessions of a Public Speaker is published and doing well – but to write it well I did much research. Here’s what I learned from reading more that 50 books on public speaking:
- 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 taught 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. The problem is this takes effort, more effort 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.
- You can’t learn a skill by reading alone. My book makes fun of this in several places as I do want you to be a better speaker. But public speaking is a skill and the only way you get better at any skill is to do it, not just read about it. You’d never expect to be a good guitar player just by reading about it, yet somehow for things that scare us that’s exactly why we buy and read books. We’re hoping to dodge a bullet. Books can help but only if you practice.
- 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.
what am I doing What’s different in my book?
- There is a real person here. It’s titled Confessions of a public speaker for a reason. I’m completely honest with you. I have license, via the title, to call bullshit on myths, and legends that get in the way 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 tell 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 write books I wish someone had given me when I started.
You can read free samples of Confessions of a Public Speaker here: