7 must-read books for public speakers

Whether you’re interested in identifying your audience, marketing yourself online or good old-fashioned speaking advice, this list has it all.

The pile of books by my desk was starting to block the fire escape, so it was time to read them and glean insights for public speakers and communicators.

Here are seven books you may find helpful:

1. “Absolute Value: What really influences customers in the age of (nearly) perfect information by Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen

The authors of “Absolute Value” want you to understand that the Internet has near-perfect information about you and your business. You’d better start paying attention to what others are saying about you. Also, you’d better turn out a good product.

Of course this idea is not new, but I like these authors’ mnemonic device, POM: “P” is an individual’s prior beliefs about something, “O” is what other people are saying and “M” stands for those poor, increasingly irrelevant marketers.

The book reinforces the idea that professional public speakers, like anyone else offering a service, need a strong line of “O” to create a sustainable business.

2. “Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 influential women reflect on what they got out of getting it wrong edited by Jessica Bacal

This is a wonderful book. Its advice about failure is refreshing; it’s real, hard-won and useful. The book even has a chapter for public speakers.

The book showcases 25 successful women, and gives them a forum to talk about the mistakes they’ve made—especially early in their careers. These are smart, successful women, so they made fewer mistakes as they went on. I’m envious; I keep making the same mistakes over again.

What’s great about this book is that the women actually talk about their mistakes, and not just the usual, “Isn’t wonderful how that mistake turned out to be a genius move in disguise?” There’s a lot to learn here, including the idea that if you’re nervous giving a speech, “The most important thing to remember is that people don’t come to watch you fail. Care more about the subject than your ego.” Brilliant!

3. “The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets Oil by Christine Bader

Is it possible to work inside a company like BP and have a desire to make the world a better place? Christine Bader believes it is, or at least was, when John Browne was BP’s CEO. Under Tony Hayward, there was the Deepwater Horizon spill and a pull back from alternative energy. It wasn’t so easy to be a corporate idealist during that time.

Bader’s story raises some fascinating questions about the extent to which you have to be sympathetic with the story’s hero to listen to the tale. I found myself debating Bader’s position—that there was good work to be done from the inside—at every turn. It was hard to believe her sincerity. I also wondered why she didn’t quit. Eventually she did. Now she’s working for a non-profit organization on corporate responsibility, as well as raising twins.

Her TEDx talk is similar: She’s poised, confident and not authentic enough to grab you the way a speaker should these days.

4. “The Essentials of Persuasive Public Speaking by Sims Wyeth

This is a fun collection of one-liners, each with a supporting paragraph or two. Each one-liner is a pithy insight into public speaking. You won’t learn much if you’re already a good speaker, but you will find some reinforcement of the beliefs you already hold.

If you’re new to public speaking, you’ll find the book full of worthwhile chestnuts to ponder. From “Suspend their disbelief” and “All value is perceived value,” to “Introduce your witch” and “Narrow your focus,” all of the advice is good, sound wisdom.

5. “Audience: Marketing in the age of subscribers, fans & followers by Jeffrey K. Rohrs

In this book, the author asks, “How do you reach your audience in a digital world?” He answers this question with a useful taxonomy of subscribers, fans and followers, and seekers, amplifiers and joiners.

First attract a proprietary audience, he says, a community of people who know your stuff and are interested in it. Next, divide that audience into types: seekers, amplifiers and joiners. Then you can further divide your joiners into subscribers, fans and followers. Each has different interests and needs, so you need to cater to them differently. To help you do that, Rohrs discusses websites, email, social media, blogs, mobile apps, SMS, podcasts and a bevy of other ways to reach your people.

All of this is useful, especially if you’re a public speaker just starting out and trying to determine how to reach people who will hire you to speak. If you have some experience in the online world, all of this will seem a bit obvious, but Rohrs’ systematic approach to the Internet jungle will help most people learn something.

6. “High-Impact Consulting: How clients and consultants can work together to achieve extraordinary results by Robert H. Schaffer

Schaffer puts his finger on a painful problem that has hurt businesses and their consultants since the two got together: There’s a difference between diagnosing a problem and doing something about it.

Schaffer identifies five fatal flaws of conventional consulting: defining the project in the consultant’s terms, ignoring client readiness, being too grandiose, being too hands-off and consultants doing more work than the clients. Instead, you need to define the project in terms of client results, realistically assess the client’s capability, tackle projects in manageable bites, develop a working partnership, and get the client to do most of the work.

The book is a cautionary tale for public speakers who advocate change. Speakers need to remember Schaffer’s five points, and create a speech that talks about the issues in the audience’s terms. They need to meet the audience’s ability to handle change, break information into digestible bits (especially since speeches are such inefficient ways to absorb information), get to know your audience and turn the audience loose on the problem rather than doing all the work for them.

7. “Pendulum: How Past Generations Shape Our Present and Predict our Future by Roy H. Williams and Michael R. Drew

Williams and Drew argue that history goes in 40-year cycles, each with a 20-year upswing and downswing.

First there’s a “me” cycle, and then a “we” cycle. “Me” cycles demand freedom of expression, applaud personal liberty, believe in the individual, dream big dreams and value decisiveness, leadership and heroes.

“We” cycles demand conformity, applaud personal responsibility, believe in the herd, want a better world and value small actions, teams, humility and sense of purpose. We’re in the midst of a “we” cycle upswing, the authors argue, until 2023. Then we will commence the downswing.

The value for public speakers: People change, so don’t market to generations—market to the cycle. Right now you should pitch your speeches to cater to a “we” cycle. You might argue that the whole motive behind TED is the “we” idea of trying to make the world a better place.

The book is a difficult read because all the typographic efforts to make it interesting only make it hard to get through, but the idea is worth pondering.

A version of this article originally appeared on Public Words.


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