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  • alyssaabarton

Authentic Speaking & Storytelling

On Friday October 19, I attended a workshop in Seattle on Public Speaking and Authentic Storytelling with author and speaking coach Scott Berkun ( Why? Well because I’m nervous about public speaking, I want to improve at it, and I’ve been given a nudge professionally to improve my communication skills. The result? I was told I’m a great speaker and should speak in public more often! 😂

Seriously, though, this workshop was very useful because attendees actually had to get up and speak in public to a group of 15 participants and our sarcastic and engaging coach, Scott Berkun. We got to speak 4 or 5 times total, which I felt was a good amount for a group workshop, and got feedback from the coach and from our peers using Scott’s Speaking Feedback and Critique Guide:

The session opened up with a group discussion about the traits of good and bad public speaking. This was useful to put things into context. We then moved into the first speaking block, where each participant had to get up and speak for 2 minutes or less – either a prepared text, or something made up at the workshop or on the fly. We were encouraged to use text we haven't spoken before.

Scott gave feedback to speakers based on the Feedback Critique worksheet and then opened it up for other attendees to comment on everyone's performance. After everyone had a chance to present and receive feedback, we broke into small groups of three or four to workshop our presentations. We practiced speaking our 2 minute speeches either 2 or 3 more times in the small groups, giving each other peer feedback using Scott’s Feedback Critique. At the end, we closed out the day by a final round of presentations in front of the whole “class” again, so we could gauge the amount of improvement made from the beginning of the day.

Good speakers bring people in, clearly express their message, demonstrate passion and use storytelling to build a sense of shared experience and connection with the audience, and appear relaxed. Poor speakers demonstrate the opposite – they may speak in monotone, not make eye contact with the audience, seem unprepared, engage in distracting behavior, use filler sounds like “um,” “like,” or “uh,” speak too quickly, softly or loudly, or not get to their point fast enough – or ever. We crystalized these down into three main characteristics you need to be a good public speaker: energy, authenticity, and attention.

Scott says that there are two types of issues folks may experience as public speakers: performance and substance issues. He argues that substance is far more important than performance. To determine if the substance of your talk is appropriate and will be well received, you must ask yourself: why is your audience in the room? Are they getting what they came here for? Set the stakes early on by explaining what problem you will solve for your audience, what is your value proposition, or what the audience will learn.

No one needs an “FYI” speech – though you might find yourself in that position at work. Rather, to make a speech or talk meaningful, explain why your listeners should care and then deliver. Your speech or talk should be summarizable in a one-liner or title that demonstrates the point and substance you’ll deliver.

A big takeaway for me was that good speakers can deliver excellent 30 to 60 second speeches or pitches. If you can master a 30 second speech, you can master a 5 minute, 10 minute, or 45 minute speech just as effectively! The trick is to organize your speech into segments of time with a theme or bullet for each segment.

I brought my laptop with a wealth of potential material available to me to the workshop – stories, blogs, works both in progress and completed. I also had just delivered 2 minutes of public testimony two days before on the issue of Orca Recovery which I could have used for the workshop. But Scott said that the best thing we could do would be to come up with something totally new – even if we stood up and started speaking randomly off the top of our heads. So during the morning session, I whipped up a story with the theme: “Don’t feel pressured to identify your dream job early in life – whatever path you take can ultimately lead you there.” The story was based off of my experience discovering at 28 that I wanted to practice environmental law or policy.

I delivered my speech and was given only positive feedback – no constructive criticism! I set the stakes early on, didn’t use filler sounds, effectively used pauses and dramatic body language, I included two moments of power, ended where I started and my volume was good.

Bored with a perfect score, I decided to come up with a second story during the small group sessions to ensure I got some constructive feedback. My theme was: “while I generally agree that life’s about the journey and not the destination, and that you should enjoy the ride in life, some things in life – like the time I climbed Mount St. Helens – are just tedious and painful and must be endured to get to the reward at the end.” This tactic proved useful. With the second story, my group identified areas of “fluff” details that I could trim to keep the talk below 2 minutes; I was given feedback that I was “over-acting” and could be more authentic, but also that I could try to use tone more effectively to express the monotony of the hike.

Delivering the performance before the full audience again at the end of the day resulted in more praise that I’m a great public speaker and should consider doing this more often. But another revelation came to me at the end of the day: I speak very well on my feet when I don’t have notes, but that's not how I approach work. When speaking at work, whether for a staff meeting, Committee meeting, or giving public presentations with slides or giving public testimony: I tend to show up with a script in hand. A full script is a crutch and also a burden. What I learned is that with a script, you become distracted and disengaged from the audience. You look down more and might skip sentences or words, making it more likely that you'll stumble when you make a mistake - making it obvious to the audience that you're nervous. Or worse - you might look unprepared.

Speaking without a script forced me to push back my nervousness and focus on the subject matter to ensure the story was told completely, hitting the important pieces. It also ensure that my eyes stayed on the audience, and allowed me to be more conscious of my body language and movements. Lesson learned: don’t speak from a script!!!

Final lesson learned: speaking about your life experiences is a lot easier than covering a technical topic, but the same rules apply. Break the subject down into digestible segments, use language appropriate for your audience, and if you get a question you don't know -admit it. You can - and should - admit when you're not an expert and if need be, offer to follow up on a question later.

Scott also hit a few other really important tidbits, which you can learn more about in his book, Confessions of a Public Speaker. Disclaimer: I haven't read the entire book yet. Scott gave out a copy at the workshop, and emphasized that Chapters 2 and 5 are gold. We even read some sections during the workshop. But, leafing through reveals the book to be as entertaining and humorous as Scott himself, and packed full of relatable stories and lessons.

  • “As you plan to talk, start with the goal of satisfying the things listed below. People come [to hear you] because they:

  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.” P. 58

  • “To prepare well, you must do four things:

  1. Take a strong position in the title

  2. Think carefully about your specific audience

  3. Make your specific points as concise as possible

  4. Know the likely counterarguments from an intelligent, expert audience.” P. 61

  • “The simplest way to [draw attention to things that illustrate your point] is by telling stories…All communication has a narrative: a beginning, a middle, and an end. The best way to direct attention is to talk about situations (another word for a story) that the audience cares about…As Annette Simmons wrote in The Story Factor:

You can entice, inspire, cajole, stimulate, or fascinate but you cannot make anyone listen to anything. Embracing this fact up-front lets us focus on what we can do. We want to create curiosity. We want to catch and hold someone’s attention…Influence is a function of grabbing someone’s attention, connecting to what they already feel is important, and linking that feeling to whatever you want them to see, do, or feel. It is easier if you let your story land first, and then draw the circle of meaning/connection around it using what you see and hear in the responses of your listeners.” Pp. 87

All in all, if you need to improve your public speaking and story-telling skills, check out what Scott has to offer at

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