The Public Speaking Circuit in the Digital Age

By Neal Comment

One of the great things about writing for GalleyCat over the last four years is the opportunities that have come up to speak about the publishing industry at conferences like Tools of Change and BookExpo America, as well as teaching workshops about the online world. So far, I’ve enjoyed my public speaking learning curve, but I’m still well aware of how much room there is for improvement, which is why I was glad to see two new books from Scott Berkun and Cliff Atkinson.


Scott Berkun was one of the more engaging presenters at last February’s Tools of Change—people were actually ditching the panels they’d originally selected when they read on Twitter how awesome he was doing. And Confessions of a Public Speaker is a lot like that talk: It’s got plenty of meat to it, but it’s also loaded with personality. Berkun draws upon his own best and worst experiences to help readers understand “the science of not boring people,” as he calls it in one chapter, and to work your way through even the most adverse conditions. If nothing else, you’ll learn that even the top public speakers have their flops, but of course there’s a lot more to Confessions than that; I’ve already begun incorporating some of “the little things that pros do” into my own practice.

I mentioned that people found out about Berkun’s TOC presentation through Twitter—that’s an important illustration of what Cliff Atkinson is talking about in The Backchannel. Atkinson looks at how Twitter and other real-time social media tools have affected conference speeches and panels by making it possible for audience members to comment on what’s being said, not just to other attendees but to anybody else in the world who’s following along. After running through the upsides and downsides of that, Atkinson offers some useful advice on how to play to the backchannel. Basically, the argument goes something like this: If you know you’re going to get tweeted, how can you break down the themes of your presentation to their most tweet-friendly, and up the odds that what people say about your presentation is what you’d hoped they’d say? I’m not 100% sold on all the suggestions—the idea of taking “Twitter breaks” in the middle of presentations to answer questions and gauge audience satisfaction is one I’m still grappling with—but Atkinson does a great job of discussing the reality of what Twitter has done to conferences (especially tech-oriented conferences) in the last year or so, and it’s something I’ll be thinking about this week when I’m sitting in the audience at’s eBook Summit, watching everybody speak.