1 April 2012

Confessions of a public speaker – Scott Berkun


They don’t judge you: they don’t care

When I’m up there speaking, I remind myself of the last time I was in row 25 of the auditorium, or in the corner of a boardroom, or back in some stupid class in high school, desperately trying not to daydream or fall asleep. Most people listening to presentations around the world right now are hoping their speakers will end soon. That’s all they want. They’re not judging as much as you think, because they don’t care as much as you think. Knowing this helps enormously.

Mistakes and perfection

I know I make small mistakes all the time. There’s no way not to. Besides, when performing, perfection is boring. Tyler Durden, the quasi-hero from the film Fight Club, said to stop being perfect because obsessing about perfection stops you from growing. You stop taking chances, which means you stop learning. I don’t want to be perfect. I want be useful, I want to be good, and I want to sound like myself. Trying to be perfect gets in the way of all three.

Know that your response to a mistake defines the audience’s response. If I respond to spilling water on my pants as if it were the sinking of the Titanic, the audience will see it, and me, as a tragedy. But if I’m cool, or better yet, find it funny, the audience will do the same.

Perception of your speech by the audience

As Dale Carnegie wrote in Public Speaking for Success:

Good speakers usually find when they finish that there have been four versions of the speech: the one they delivered, the one they prepared, the one the newspapers say was delivered, and the one on the way home they wish they had delivered.

Mark Twain, who made most of his income from speaking, not writing, said, “There are two types of speakers: those that are nervous and those that are liars.”

In his excellent book Brain Rules (Pear Press), Dr. John Medina points out that it is very difficult for the body to distinguish between states of arousal and states of anxiety:

Many of the same mechanisms that cause you to shrink in horror from a predator are also used when you are having sex—or even while you are consuming your Thanksgiving dinner. To your body, saber-toothed tigers and orgasms and turkey gravy look remarkably similar. An aroused physiological state is characteristic of both stress and pleasure.

Assuming he’s right, why would this be? In both cases, it’s because your body has prepared energy for you to use. The body doesn’t care whether it’s for good reasons or bad, it just knows it must prepare for something to happen. If you pretend to have no fears of public speaking, you deny yourself the natural energy your body is giving you. Anxiety creates a kind of energy you can use, just as excitement does.


The challenge for event organizers, who have limited budgets and tough timelines, is to manage the three unavoidable criteria for picking people to talk at their events. They must find speakers who are:

  • Famous or credible for a relevant topic
  • Good at speaking
  • Available

Two out of three is often the best they can do. It’s common to see good speakers who don’t have much to say, as well as experts who are brilliant but boring.

Speaking fees

I’m paid to speak at one venue instead of speaking at another. When demand outweighs supply, there are fees to be paid ($5,000 on average).


Can you guess what most people who are worried about their presentations refuse to do? Practice.

The most pragmatic reason for practice is that it allows me to safely make mistakes and correct them before anyone ever sees it. It’s possible I’m not a better public speaker than anyone else—I’m just better at catching and fixing problems.

Webcam practice

Keep in mind that a webcam is a tool orators and speakers throughout history would have loved to have had. It’s simple, fast, cheap, and private. You can get instant feedback from people nearby or far away, making it easier than ever to experience what it’s like to be in your own audience.

Preparation before the talk

As a rule, I go to the gym the morning before a talk, with the goal of releasing any extra nervous energy before I get on stage. It’s the only way I’ve found to naturally turn down those fear responses and lower the odds they’ll fire. Other ways to reduce physical stress include:

  • Getting to the venue early so you don’t have to rush
  • Doing tech and sound rehearsal well before your start time
  • Walking around the stage so your body feels safe in the room
  • Sitting in the audience so you have a physical sense of what they will see
  • Eating early enough so you won’t be hungry, but not right before your talk
  • Talking to some people in the audience before you start (if it suits you), so it’s no longer made up of strangers (friends are less likely to try to eat you)

Taking responsibility for the crowd means showing up to the room early enough to at least hear the previous speaker.

Always make a pass through the restroom before you go on and check yourself in the mirror.

Sign-up sheet

Have a sign-up sheet for your talk. Most conferences do this by default. You should always know how many are registered. Drop-off rates for lectures are high, usually around 50%.

  • Do some research. How many people showed up to the last lecture that took place at this venue? Are there good reasons to assume your material will draw a larger crowd?
  • Promote yourself. Two things have to happen to have a big crowd: interested people need to be made aware of your talk, and then they need incentive to come.
  • If there aren’t many people, drop your prepared slide deck. Odds are slim that it will go over well with a small group. Switch to informal mode, and start the session by making a list of questions.

Being videotaped

If you’re smart, you will treat your cameramen well. They can do all kinds of things to make you look or sound stupid, so get on their good side. Ask their names, ask their advice, and treat them like people, not servants. When you’re preparing, craft your material and slides with the web audience in mind. You’re projecting not just to the back row in the room, but to the people who will watch on a tiny window on a computer monitor.

The lesson I learned from this is that any time you are videotaped or recorded live without an audience, whether it’s for TV or the Web, it’s far worse being in an empty room than a tough room.

The secret to speaking to an audience without one actually present is to forget the studio and ignore the camera. Go to a place in your mind where you remember the last time you spoke to a live, friendly, interested group, and match that style of behavior and enthusiasm. Speak as if that same audience is listening, and you’ll be fine. Great hosts help you do this by feeding you energy and support, or even a softball question or two.

Videotaping conditions

  • You can let organizers know you don’t like being videotaped, or set other conditions, early on. Professional speakers often have info sheets they give prospective venues that list their requirements or things they won’t do.
  • If they insist on video or audio recording, demand a Creative Commons license so you can reuse that recording yourself. This will allow them to do what they wish with the recording, but also gives you the right to post the video on your website or to YouTube, or to sell it. It’s quite fair to ask for this: you get a professional recording you can reuse, and they get the right to film you at all.

Credibility comes from the host

Credibility comes from the host. If the host says, “This is an expert on X,” people will believe it. People are willing to assume credibility based on how and by whom the speaker was introduced. If Dr. Fox gave the same lecture on a random street corner, without the endorsement of a major professional conference or a well-respected member of a community, he’d be ignored.


  • Your appearance, manner, posture, and attitude matter. Every audience expects certain superficial things, and if you deliver them, the rest of your job is easier.
  • Enthusiasm matters.

Dress shirts are the best, most reliable way to clip on these microphones. On a sweater or T-shirt, the lapel mike will pinch the fabric, which is easy to notice.

You should always run the wire for the microphone under your shirt, instead of letting it dangle over. There are two reasons for this. First, leaving it out looks bad and is distracting. Second, if you talk with your hands as I do, that dangling cable is just asking for trouble.

If you are on stage, you can assume you don’t need a name tag. People know who you are. You’re the one with the microphone. A badge is distracting and can get caught in your hands.

Speaking rooms

Theatre style

But if you’re invited to give a lecture and get a choice of rooms, ask for the one that’s most theater-like. Even if it’s smaller, even if it’s farther away, the room will score you extra points.

Crowd size doesn’t matter: density does

I realized that the crowd size is irrelevant—what matters is having a dense crowd. If ever you face a sparsely populated audience, do whatever you have to do to get them to move together. You want to create a packed crowd located as close as possible to the front of the room.

If you pack them together, at least they’ll know they’re not the only losers who decided to come hear you. They are now losers with loser friends, which—all things considered—is much better than being a loser without any friends at all. They are, in fact, your losers, so you should treat them well.

It doesn’t matter where you are or how scared the crowd suspects you might be, if you have the mike and explain the situation with a smile, when you ask them nicely to stand up and move forward, they will. Make it a game. Offer a prize to the person who gets up first. Ask the audience members if they need more exercise today, and when they all raise their hands (people who go to lectures and conferences always crave exercise), tell them you have just the thing for them to do.

Give stuff away to fill the front row

I often bring books to give away during Q&A, but if the front is empty, I offer a free book to anyone who is willing to move to the front.

If you don’t have books of your own, nothing stops you from buying good books someone else wrote on the topic you’re speaking about and giving those away ($100 is money well spent if it cuts your nerves and loosens up the crowd). The effect will be the same. Do not give away ugly swag and junk. If you offer cheap things that no one wants, your front row will remain empty, and you are stuck with piles of unpopular items you couldn’t even give away.

Room adjustments

There are many similar adjustments a speaker can make to a room. Turn up the lights if it feels like you’re in a cave. Ask for a wireless microphone or bring your own if you hate being tied to the lectern. If you spot someone stuck behind a pole or standing in the back, offer him a seat near the front that he might not have noticed was empty. Always travel with a remote for your laptop so you can move to a better spot if the lectern was placed in some stupid back corner of the stage. Ask the crowd if they’re too cold or too warm, and then, on the mike, ask the organizers to do something about it (even if they can’t, you look great by being the only speaker to give a shit about how the audience is feeling).

Big events often place a countdown timer up front next to the confidence monitor. Some of these clocks also have three lights—red, yellow, and green—to indicate how much time is left. Green is how you start, yellow means one or five minutes remain, and red means you’re done.

The Logitech Cordless Presenter. Its only downside is it’s so big it’s hard to hide even in my large hands, but everything else is done right. It has a built-in timer that will vibrate as an alarm, letting you know when you’re running out of time.

Expectations of the audience

As you plan your talk, start with the goal of satisfying the things listed below. People come because


  1. Want to learn something
  2. Wish to be inspired
  3. Hope to be entertained
  4. Have a need they hope you will satisfy
  5. Desire to meet other people interested in the subject
  6. Seek a positive experience they can share with others
  7. Are forced to be there by their bosses, parents, professors, or spouses
  8. Have been handcuffed to their chairs and haven’t left the room for days

Only a fool can talk for an hour and completely miss them all. Many talks hit one or two of these at least by accident. However, a thoughtful speaker—a speaker without extraordinary eloquence or magic powers but who cares deeply about giving the audience something of use—can talk for 30 minutes, nail most of the first six, and end early, setting everyone free and having satisfied all of those in attendance (including those in the room for reasons seven and eight).

Think about the message

The problem with most bad presentations I see is not the speaking, the slides, the visuals, or any of the things people obsess about. Instead, it’s the lack of thinking.

This means the difference between you and JFK or Martin Luther King has less to do with your ability to speak—a skill all of us use hundreds of times every day—than it does the ability to think and refine rough ideas into clear ones. Making a point, teaching a lesson, or conveying a feeling to others first requires thinking, lots and lots of thinking, before the speaking ever happens.

To prepare well, you must do four things:

  1. Take a strong position in the title. All talks and presentations have a point of view, and you need to know what yours is. If you don’t know enough about the topic to have an opinion, solve that problem before you make your presentation. Even saying, “Here are five things I like” is a strong position, in that there are an infinite number of things you did not choose.
  2. Think carefully about your specific audience. Know why they are there, what their needs are, what background knowledge they have, the pet theories they believe in, and how they hope their world will be different after your lecture is over.
  3. Make your specific points as concise as possible. If it takes 10 minutes to explain what your point is, something is very wrong. Points are claims. Arguments are what you do to support your points. Every point should be compressed into a single, tight, interesting sentence. The arguments might be long, but no one should ever be confused as to what your point is while you are arguing it.
  4. Know the likely counterarguments from an intelligent, expert audience. If you do not know the intelligent counterarguments to each of your points, your points cannot be good.

Examples of boring presentation titles - and how to fix them

Status presentations, where people give updates on their work, are a tragedy because everyone hates how boring everyone else’s is, but refuses to do something smarter in their own presentations. If you call yours something like, “The good, the bad, and what we’re doing about it,” the conciseness of your presentation and the value of the meetings in general would improve dramatically.

Say I agree to give a lecture entitled “Creativity for beginners.” I have already set myself up to fail. How can I possibly say everything a beginner needs to know about creativity? And why would the audience care to know everything? A better title would be, “How to be creative in doing boring work” or “Green eggs and brainstorming: how to learn creativity from reading Dr. Seuss.” Even if I used a worn-out, beaten-to-death generic title like, “Instant creativity in five minutes a day,” from the moment I started working on the presentation, I would know what the value is for the audience.

Naming a talk “<Insert thing here> 101” in the hopes of making it attractive, denies how boring most 101 courses in the history of the universe have been for students. Take a simple title like, “The five biggest questions and answers you have about X.” 

You can rip off any of the following titles and be well on your way to a stronger presentation:

  • The top five problems you have with <insert thing here> and how to solve them
  • Why <insert thing here> sucks and what we can do about it
  • Mistakes I made in <insert thing here> and what I learned
  • The most frequently asked questions and brilliant answers about <insert thing here>
  • The truth about <insert thing here> and how it can help you
  • Smart shortcuts and clever tricks only experts know about <insert thing here>
  • The five reasons you win by giving me <insert thing here>
  • Why <insert thing here> will change your life forever, for free, right now

Making your point(s)

With enough effort, you’ll settle down to a list of five strong, interesting, reasonably aligned points, as well as a bunch of weird, mangled, half-baked stuff. If there’s a cliff in quality between the good stuff and the half-baked, draw a line to make it clear. In effect, by working hard on a clear, strong, well-reasoned outline, I’ve already built three versions of the talk:

  • an elevator pitch (the title),
  • a five-minute version (saying each point and a brief summary),
  • and the full version (with slides, movies, and whatever else strengthens each point).

I can still give them a good lecture by providing an easy-to-follow rhythm. I can say, “I have 30 minutes to talk to you, and five points to make. I will spend five minutes on each point and save the remaining time for any questions.” That takes about 10 seconds to say, but for that small price I continue to own the attention of the room because they know the plan. They know the pace.

How to make a point

  1. Logos: Logic
  2. Ethos: Character
  3. Pathos: Emotion

With this list in mind, you have the basic time-tested toolkit for making a point. Any pitch you make, story you tell, or question you ask uses one of these three elements, and often more than one at the same time. Good presentations hinge on sorting out which approaches will work best with your particular audience.

You can watch these two speeches online at http://bit.ly/ahouse-otter (http://goo.gl/rgZES if previous link doesn’t work) and http://bit.ly/ahouse-blutto. For greatest effect, read Thank You for Arguing first, and note every rhetorical device used and abused in both speeches.

You can change the point you are making simply by changing which word you emphasize.

Different kinds of emphasis: repeating words, pausing, gesturing with his hands, or even speaking with a whisper.

Use silence. If what you are saying is interesting or persuasive, they will need some moments between your sentences and your points to digest. Also, many people take notes, even if just mental notes, and they need time to do that. Filling the space with ummms denies their brains that chance. If you listen to stand-up comedians, about 20–30% of their time on the microphone is spent in silence, often just to let the audience laugh and enjoy the last thing said, or to provide a pacing break to set up the next thing they want to say.

Take an interesting angle from the beginning

If you choose your topic and opinion, pick something interesting. Take a stand. Force a point of view into the title, and let it grow into the points you make. Even if your topic is only interesting to you, if you express your passion well, the audience will want to follow simply because of your enthusiasm.

Vivid, real-life examples and stories

The best way to direct attention is to talk about situations (another word for a story) that the audience cares about. Then they have two reasons to be interested: the situation and who it’s happening to. It’s one thing to say, “Here’s line 5 of the new tax code.” That’s just a boring fact, floating in space, encouraging people to put their attention elsewhere. It’s quite another to say, “80% of you in the audience confused line 5 with line 6 on your last tax return, which cost you $500. Here’s how to not make that mistake.”

Create transitions: create tension, and release it

I’m convinced I could know half as much on a subject as my audience, yet still amaze, surprise, and entertain them by how I weave my stories together. This makes the transitions between slides critically important. I have to know what’s coming next and set up what I say on the current slide to make the following pay off.

Doing this well depends on how much I practice. I can’t remember the transitions between points or how one story will best tie in to the next unless I’ve rehearsed and learned how to do it. Often I throw away a great idea because I can’t figure out how to get smoothly into it from the previous story, or get from that great idea into the next story. Also, invest in software like PowerPoint or Keynote (or Google Presentation), which have presenter modes that allow you to see the next slide on your laptop only.

The simplest kind of tension to build and then release is the one I mentioned before: problem and solution. If your talk consists of several problems important to the audience, and you promise to

release the tension created by those problems by solving each one, you’ll score big.

Other kinds of tension can be created by the premise of the talk. Your subject could be, “Why no one should go to school.”

Patterns of tension and release can simultaneously be used to establish a rhythm. The top-10 list, popularized on David Letterman’s late-night talk show, is one system for both generating an easy rhythm and creating various levels of tension and release. As the list is read and descends closer to #1, the audience’s anticipation is building the whole time as to what the top answer will be.


Slides are dangerous. There are so many ways to annoy an audience with slides. Ugly, overloaded, confusing slide decks are common despite how little knowledge they convey, and how much they distract speakers from making their points.

Use visuals and pictures to support the points you want to make. If you put notes in your slides so

you don’t feel scared, do it in a way that does not annoy your audience. Or instead, have an outline that surfaces in your talk, or bring simple notes on stage with you.

Printout and post-it notes

  • Have a printout of your slides with you. Worst case, you can use this as your notes.
  • When I speak without slides, I often use one folded Post-it note, listing my five points.


Always end early

  • People want to leave early, but when those same people get the microphone, they run late. Don’t be like them. Always plan and practice to end early. Never plan to use the full time given.
  • The average person speaks 2–3 words per second.
  • Plan to have 20–30% of your time slot for Q&A. If you run over, you can eat some of that Q&A time.
  • Ask your host to warn you when there are 15 minutes remaining, or whatever is one-third of your total time. If you are being cut short:
  • Ask the host to explain to the audience that it’s not your fault. You’ll get extra sympathy for this.
  • Don’t get lost. If you can’t get through the material, put it aside and focus on your audience. If you have three sections left and only time for one, let the audience vote on which section it should be.
  • Quality is always more important than quantity. Don’t cram or rush. Always be willing to abandon material so the material you have time for can be done well.
  • Offer to provide the slides on your website for any material you did not get to.
  • Offer to come back again to cover the remaining material and answer any follow-up questions people have.

On stage performance

Be bigger than you are

  • Speak louder, take stronger positions, and behave more aggressively than you would in an ordinary conversation. These are the rules of performing.
  • A common mistake people make is to shrink onstage. They become overly polite and cautious. They speak softly, don’t tell stories, and never smile. They become completely, devastatingly neutral.
  • I’m not suggesting you should be phony. Don’t act like a game-show host or a cheerleader. Instead, be a passionate, interested, fully present version of you.

Get the audience involved

  • Ask for a show of hands. Not sure how experienced your audience is? Ask them, “Who here has been in their current profession for less than five years?” Suddenly, you’ll know much more about the crowd. They can’t gauge the response, so make sure to describe what you see: “OK, looks like about 70% of you. Great.” During your talk, you can also use the audience to get feedback about your pace. Ask, “How many of you think I’m going too slow?”, followed by, “How many think I’m going too fast?” You now have real-time data and can adjust accordingly.
  • Ask trivia and let people shout out answers. The stupidest thing for a speaker to ask his audience is, “Any questions on what I just said?” This sounds threatening. “Anyone here know who invented cheesecake?” Then give out prizes, decent things like copies of your book, items you know are popular with the crowd, or $10 gift certificates to Starbucks. The audience attention level will definitely rise.
  • Give them a problem to solve. If you know of interesting, challenging problems related to your topic, pose them to your audience. Pick problems small enough that they can be solved in 30–60 seconds. For a lecture on travel smarts, ask, “What would you do if someone stole your wallet while you were on vacation?” Or, in a talk about cooking, “How would you recover from burning all the steaks for your six dinner guests due to arrive in 20 minutes?” Be specific, be dramatic, and choose questions that have clear, direct answers, and you’ll get responses from the room. Ask them to work with their neighbors or in small groups. Always give slightly less time than they need to add some fun pressure.

Allow participants to ask questions

The good news is, he’ll nearly always give the power back to you. Sometimes, he’ll give you even more power in the form of his attention and positive energy. And even if no one answers the questions you’re asking, more people will be listening to the silence in the room than were listening to you talking before the room went silent.

Never be afraid to enforce the rules you know the room wants you to follow. When in doubt, ask the room for a show of hands: “Should we continue with this topic or move on?” If they vote to move on, that’s what you should do. When you enforce a popular rule, you re-engage everyone who supports that rule. You restore your power and earn the audience’s respect. So, don’t hesitate to cut off a blowhard, silence the guy on his cell phone, and interrupt the table having a private but distracting conversation. As long as you are polite and direct, you’ll be a hero.

It’s just a question of doing it at the right level for the environment you’re in. One trick is to study what the user experience is like for people on the other end of whatever medium you’re in. For example, if you’re presenting via video conference, make sure you’ve sat in as an observer on someone else’s.

Set the rules

Set the rules for how the audience can interact with you. If you want questions held until the end, say so; or, if you’re OK with them at any time, let the audience know. Also set boundaries for Twitter and event chat rooms. I always give out my email address so everyone in the room has an outlet to say things they’re not sure are appropriate during the lecture.

You can ask people to close their laptops. Don’t demand it—respect their right to do what they like, especially if they are paying to be in the room. But you can tell them you think you’ll do a better job if you have the room’s undivided attention.

  • Sometimes I say the following: “Here’s a deal. I’d like you to give me your undivided attention for five minutes. If after five minutes you’re bored, you think I’m an idiot, or you’d rather browse the Web than listen, you’re free to do so. In fact, I won’t mind if you get up and leave after five minutes. But for the first 300 seconds, please give me your undivided attention.” Most people close their laptops.
  • Keep in mind that some people take notes on their laptops. They might be live blogging or tweeting what you’re saying, vastly increasing your audience beyond the room. An open laptop doesn’t always mean you’re being ignored.

Go with the flow. Have Twitter open on your laptop, project it on the screen, and take a moment midway through your talk to review comments and questions.

Ask the host to monitor Twitter or the event chat room as a way to get the best questions and comments from the back channel into your presentation. Let the audience know this is happening and how they can send a question to the host.

One guy won’t stop asking questions

How to prevent:

  • The general rule is that people raise their hands with questions, and you pick who gets to speak. If you keep calling on the same person, whose fault is it?
  • If people are yelling out questions or comments, ask them to first raise their hands.

How to respond:

  • Realize the audience hates these people. They’re annoying and often come off as teacher’s pets, which no one likes. The sooner you quiet them down, the happier the audience will be with you.
  • Just because a question is asked does not mean you are obligated to answer. Ask the audience, “How many people are interested in this question?” If only a fraction of the audience raises their hands, tell the asker to come up afterward and you’ll answer then.
  • During a break, talk to the person in private. Thank him for his contributions, but ask him to hold off on asking more questions so others can have a chance to contribute. Give him your email as an alternative way to ask questions.

There is a rambling question that makes no sense and takes three minutes to ask

  • Realize the audience hates these people, too. They didn’t come to the session to hear someone’s rambling, poorly formed pseudo-question. If someone is 30 seconds into a question, and you think he’s going nowhere, you’re the only one in the room who can do anything about it.
  • If you do cut him off, remind him of your email address and mention that longer questions are fine—just not in real time.
  • Sometimes people want to make a point of their own, which is more than fine, provided it’s short. Same advice as above applies in this case.

You are asked an impossible question

  • Learn to say three words: “I don’t know.” They are easy to say. You will not die instantly if you say them.
  • Write down the question or ask someone to email it to you, and promise you’ll post an answer to your blog.
  • Offer the question to the audience. Maybe you’re not the only one who can’t answer the question.


  • The best filler material is to ask people what they hope to learn. Or ask people who have been in their current job for fewer than five years to raise their hands. They will always be able to answer, and it gives you some useful background data.
  • If it’s a long session, take a break. People like breaks. Rather than force them to watch you struggle with the equipment, give the audience five minutes to get coffee or go to the restroom.

Humor & insight

Humor and insight come from paying attention, not from special talents. After I studied improv, my speaking skills improved dramatically and my attitude about life changed. I can’t recommend taking an improv theater class strongly enough.

The easiest way to be interesting is to be honest

People rarely say what they truly feel, yet this is what audiences desire most. If you can speak a truth most people are afraid to say, you’re a hero. If you’re honest, even if people disagree, they will find you interesting and keep listening. Making connections with people starts by either getting them interested in your ideas or showing how interested you are in theirs. Both happen faster the more honest everyone is. The feedback most speakers need is “Be more honest.” Stop hiding and posturing, and just tell the truth.


We all have pet phrases we use too much, like saying, “This is about,” “So now…,” or “And here we have” to introduce every slide. There are always alternative ways to say the same thing, but first you have to notice which phrases you rely on more than necessary.

Eye contact

Where are your eyes? Rookie speakers look at their shoes, at the same person the entire 60 minutes, or into outer space. At least look at the back of the crowd so that people in the audience will believe you are looking at someone else. The ideal is to look at different parts of the room at different times, paced long enough that it seems natural, even though it never entirely feels that way.

Speaker feedback and surveys

The single most valuable data point is how my scores compare to other speakers. Without it, this feedback is useless. Perhaps my scores are the worst of all scores in the history of presentations at this organization. Or perhaps they’re the best. There is no way to know. And what about the one guy who was very dissatisfied? Was he important?

The most useful feedback conveys what the dissatisfied people wish I had done differently, and what the satisfied people want me to make sure I do next time.

Here’s some of the real feedback speakers need:

  • How did my presentation compare to the others?
  • What one change would have most improved my presentation?
  • What questions did you expect me to answer that went unanswered?
  • What annoyances did I let get in the way of giving you what you needed?

Better questions to ask attendees include [see the form I created in January 2012]:

  • Was this a good use of your time?
  • Would you recommend this lecture to others?
  • Are you considering doing anything different as a result of this talk?
  • Do you know what to do next to continue learning?
  • Were you inspired or motivated?
  • How likeable did you find the speaker?
  • How substantive did you find the speaker’s material?

Those last two questions sort out the Dr. Fox dilemma of how well liked speakers were versus how much substance attendees felt the speaker offered them. And if you really want to know the value of a speaker, ask the students a week or a month later. A lecture that might have seemed amazing or boring five minutes after it ended could have surprisingly different value for people later on. If the goal is to change people’s behavior in the long term, you have to study the long-term impacts of whatever lectures or courses people are taking.


I’m skeptical about teaching even though I do it for a living. For every good teacher you’ve had in your life, how many bad ones did you suffer through? Would you say the ratio of good to bad is 1 to 5? 1 to 10?

In any moment in any learning environment, where there’s one person “teaching” and a bunch of people “learning,” I’d wager that 5% are asleep and 25% are thinking about sex. Another 30% are daydreaming about something else entirely. Of the remaining 40%, some will be in the wrong room and others will be distracted by text messages or emails. And of the tiny percentage of people truly paying attention, how many will understand what the teacher is saying? How many will remember it the next day? And of those, how many will even try to apply what they learned in their lives?

All successful teachers must consider these four important questions:

  • How many understand?
  • How many will remember later?
  • How many try to apply the lesson in the real world?
  • How many will succeed?

There is some very good news: when it works, teaching is one of the most rewarding experiences there is. Seeing an idea you’ve explained be understood and successfully applied by someone is unlike any other pleasure in life. Even knowing you’ve reached 5 people out of 100 is worth the disappointment of not reaching the other 95. Had you not shown up that day, you’d never have even reached those five.

As Donald A. Bligh advises in his book, What’s the Use of Lectures? (Jossey-Bass):

If you want to teach a behavior skill, at some stage the student should practice it. If you are training athletes to run 100 meters, at some point in that training they should practice running 100 meters…. You might think this principle is obvious. And so it is to ordinary people. But it is quite beyond some of the most intelligent people our educational system has produced.

You should build your lectures so it is possible to ask yourself, at different points during the presentation:

  • Do they know this fact or lesson already?
  • Do they need me to explain this point in a different way?
  • Are they saturated with information and need a break or a laugh?
  • Are they too cocky and need a challenge?

And even if you can’t build those things in, nothing stops you from asking your audience, a few days after the lecture (either through the host or by providing a sign-up sheet at your talk where you collect their email addresses):

  • Do they have any new questions now that they’re back at work?
  • Did they use anything you said? What happened?
  • Is there a topic that now, since they’re back at work/life, they wish you’d covered?
  • Can they suggest ways to make the experience they had with you more active, engaging, or interesting?

Half the time you already know what you need to know

Sometimes people at my talks know much of what I know. In these cases, my value is to remind them of an old idea or put it into a new context. I know I don’t have to have original ideas to have value. Often there’s value in something that’s been said before being said again in a different way, or by someone new who can get away with saying truths insiders can’t. Hearing a message from an outsider often carries more weight than a team of expert insiders. But I can’t say this. If I mention that I’m deliberately telling you things you’ve heard before because you need to hear them again, it would be patronizing. Yet I know old ideas said well have surprising power in a world where everyone obsesses about what’s new.

Full-day seminars are misery for teachers and students

Most of the research points to 9 a.m.–5 p.m., high-volume, short-break, full-day seminars as a bad learning environment. However, that’s what people are used to, so that’s the way it is. There is no research that says you learn more in eight hours of continuous learning than you do in six. In fact, there’s evidence to the contrary. Volume does not equal quality, but we’re trained to buy by volume. Unless it’s highly interactive, has frequent breaks, and is constructed around real-world situations, not much retention is likely to happen. Seminars from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. are exhausting; the result of a great teaching experience should feel energizing. Three 90-minute sessions or four 60-minute sessions, with many breaks, is my preferred way to run a full-day experience.