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Training the Butterflies: Interview with Scott Berkun

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Everyone has seen it happen. An otherwise accomplished person walks on stage at a conference, and subsequently one or more of the following occur: The microphone breaks, the speaker punctuates every sentence with “ummm,” he starts running out of time, whispers so quietly not even the front row can hear him, the technology breaks down, he fumbles at an impossible question, or forgets everything and stands on stage in terrifying silence. And everything falls to pieces.

Issue № 301

There are certifiably good reasons to fear public speaking, but Scott Berkun, author and professional speaker, points out that at least, “we can’t say that public speaking is scarier than death.” That’s why it’s curious that public speaking is often listed with some of the worst human fears—along with sickness, death, elevators, heights, and snakes. But the truth is: No one has ever died (directly anyway) from giving a talk. In Berkun’s latest feat, a book titled Confessions of a Public Speaker, he untangles this fear for anyone who expects audiences to listen.

Naked audiences

It’s one of the most important things we do—communicating our ideas to others. People with great ideas are expected to present those ideas whether in small rooms of two or on stages for thousands of people. And Berkun found through first-hand experience that he wasn’t doing a particularly good job of it. Beginning at age 24 with a talk to 200 engineers and managers at Microsoft, he brings together personal experience (“most of the bad stuff has happened to me”), disasters and successes from colleagues, and research from more than 50 books on public speaking to present wildly pragmatic advice on communicating to audiences.

Training the butterflies

Part of the issue, as it happens, is the audience. And Berkun’s book helps us understand that our brains—when looking out on a mass of humans staring back at us—make it impossible to stop fearing what it knows to be a bad situation: We’re standing alone in open territory without a weapon. There’s primal wiring, a fear-response system, that tells us that chances are good we’ll be attacked and eaten alive. On stage! Berkun assures us that the fears people try so desperately to shut off are a good thing. Throughout the book, he assures us that fear is natural and common in speakers novice through expert. As Edward R. Murrow assures, “The best speakers know enough to be scared…the only difference between the pros and the novices is that the pros have trained the butterflies to fly in formation.”

It’s only common sense

This Don’t-Make-Me-Think for public speaking is packed with common-sense advice and practical guides—information that most are perhaps too polite or too nervous to have chronicled. For example, Don’t be boring—if you are, the worst you’ll do is meet expectations, is so obvious you may wonder why you hadn’t reassured yourself backstage with this thought earlier. Arrive early to sit in your audience’s chair is such a good idea you wish that you, as a user-centered design person, had thought of it yourself. Find ways to get honest feedback from people after the talk is an often-forgotten aspect of public speaking. The list of pragmatic advice is as varied as it is useful.

It begins with practice. Not surprisingly, Berkun suggests rehearsing material; in hotel rooms, or at home, do the entire presentation out loud. He emphasizes that the goal isn’t memorization—it’s confidence. By the time a speaker presents to an audience in real time, the practice has made it possible to “improvise and respond to unexpected things”—hecklers, tough questions, bored audiences, and equipment failures—all of which will happen. (You’ve been warned.)

Berkun also emphasizes the importance of meeting an audience’s expectations—and that includes playing and looking the part on stage. You’ve probably never gone to see a lecture to hear someone apologize. But often, you watch speakers walk on stage, fumble with slides, and the first thing they do is apologize for sound, lighting, for not being more prepared. Berkun suggests that regardless of what happens, speakers need to play the part—be confident rather than admitting confusion over their own equipment.

Further, half of a speaker’s audience is sitting in the middle of the room, and the rest of the room farther away still. How well can they even see the speaker, Berkun asks. A speaker has to be a bigger, louder version of who he or she is, and even behave more aggressively. “Be a passionate, interested, fully present version of you. That’s who your audience came to hear.”

Bad things happen to good people

But no matter how much you prepare, bad things happen. And it’s comforting to know they happen to good people. The book ends with a chapter of disaster stories, compiled because “you can’t do worse than this,”—the title of the chapter. Not even the most careful planning can prevent mishaps and fiascos. With the help of Berkun, we’ll know what to expect and to persevere with grace.

But what else does he know? I continued this conversation directly with Berkun:

Even with perfect timing, sometimes bad things happen. Audiences want a speaker to do well, but there’s a point at which things go wrong for all kinds of reasons, and the speaker loses the audience’s confidence, a moment called “eating the microphone.”

There’s another chapter in the book that’s all about disasters, and countermoves for handling or avoiding them. If you know your audience, have thought hard about your points, and practiced enough to create a strong rhythm, when something goes wrong all you need to do is skip a beat. No one cares if you make five points instead of six. Just move on. Can’t find the word? Forget it. Slide looks weird? Apologize and move on. Really, no one cares. Go on with the show and your audience will too. Don’t try to salvage, in real time, something that’s clearly broken. It’s not worth the trouble. Know your five main points even if the power goes out. Don’t be afraid of silence. Take a breath, take a moment, collect yourself, and move on. A nice solid pause is an easy way to regain the attention of any audience. Silence has more power than people think.

Public speaking is thought of as one of the worst human fears, right up there with sickness, death, and fear of heights. What’s to be scared of?

The bar is very low for public speaking. It’s a tragedy here in 2010 that people still regularly fight to stay awake in meetings and conferences all over the world. Technology has not saved us from boring people. Or, perhaps more accurately, from interesting people who become boring when standing in front of a group.

Part of the problem is people worry about the wrong things. They fear they’ll be laughed at or they’ll say something embarrassing, but as I explain in the book those things rarely happen. The most common mistake is not preparing wisely. Most speakers bore their audiences to death by rambling and stumbling through their lazy thinking, problems easy to avoid if you frame the challenges correctly, which was the goal of the book. It’s not that hard to speak well if you think about the challenges in the right way.

There’s no one way to think about it, and everyone has a different way to prepare for giving a talk—from mindmaps to PowerPoint.

Jumping head first into PowerPoint or Keynote sets you up to have too many slides and too little thinking. A presentation should be centered on the key things you will say and how you will say them. Slides should help you say those things, but can almost never say them for you.

The real goal is to be clear, interesting, persuasive, or useful. Having big, fancy slide decks doesn’t ensure any of these things. Being clear, interesting, and all the good stuff happens because of how carefully you’ve thought about your topic. Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and Churchill all did just fine without a single slide. I’m convinced many speakers would do well with less, or no, slides. Without PowerPoint they’d be forced to think clearly, consider their audience, refine their ideas, and use much less time—all godsends given how low the bar currently is.

I strongly recommend working on paper or a whiteboard, any non-digital media where you can work freely. Make a list of the points you want to make, or key ideas/feelings/questions you want your audience to leave with, and develop those first. Then try talking through the best five points you have for five minutes. Don’t think about talking, actually do it. Stand up, and at full volume, cover your points as if that was your entire presentation. When you get stuck, stop and revise. Add notes, make changes, and practice again from the start. Then when it feels good, and you have a clear outline, you’re finally at a place where PowerPoint can be of use to you.

Heads down in PowerPoint, people get so worked up over the construct of “public speaking” they forget about the basic concept of storytelling, which, in an Ignite talk, you point out, we’ve been doing since as long as we’ve been a species. Can you talk about how to find a good story to tell on stage?

The best story is the story of the audience. Why are they there? What do they want to learn? What do they already know? The goal is to match what you say with that they want or need to hear. Form follows function in speaking, too. If you truly understand your audience, you’ll make simpler presentations. Designers should be excellent presenters for this reason, but ironically they’re often quite bad.

I want to talk about pace. In your book, you mention John Medina, who believes that 10 minutes is the max amount of time most people can pay attention to most things. You underscore this study’s importance in setting a pace for talks.

Filmmakers and playwrights talk about beats—that every narrative has rhythms and good performances use the careful timing of events and actions to effectively keep people interested. A lecture is just another kind of media, and people who are good at it use time with great care.

One big mistake speakers make is to count slides instead of minutes. Thirty slides could take an hour, or ten minutes, who knows? Well, the speaker better know. They better have practiced at least a few times so they realize how long it takes them to hit each major beat, or point, in that material, pruning where they go long until it fits a nice, natural, strong rhythm the audience can easily follow. If you have a 30-minute presentation, divide it into four or five chunks of time. Develop your material with this in mind.

We’re all so polite to one another, we never tell each other the truth about talks. How can speakers get people to give honest feedback about a talk?

When someone says “nice job,” say “thanks, but how could it have been better?” Show that it’s safe for them to say something real. Or grab a video camera and watch five minutes of yourself speaking. You can also hire pros like me to coach you. It’s easier than ever to get feedback, but you have to be brave enough, or respect your audience’s time enough, to go get it.

When you watch other people give talks, what’s your biggest pet peeve about others’ public speaking baggage?

I’m extremely sensitive to having my time wasted. If I feel I’d be better served reading their blog, or their book, I’ll get up and leave. If I feel the speaker hasn’t thought hard about their topic, and hasn’t practiced their material at least once, I will get up and leave. People who “ummm” every sentence, use jargon (or invent their own), cowardly hide behind complexity, talk about themselves and their accomplishments endlessly, or who seem to have no idea why the audience is there, also piss me off. Anyone who earnestly shows they care and has clearly put the effort in to be useful keeps my ass in my seat. The surprise is nearly everyone can do this, but few do. Again, the bar is really quite low.

Will the book website be a growing resource, or are you moving on to other things?

There’s tons of stuff not in the book up there already, and the site will be updated now and then, but the main place is scottberkun.com, where I blog regularly on creative thinking, communication, and anything readers ask me to.

Thanks to Scott for the strategies on training butterflies, and for the chance to avoid disasters and recover from mishaps when they happen.

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