7 Books For Becoming an Exceptional Public Speaker (Plus 7 Tips)

Oli Gardner
7 books — playlists for bookworms
11 min readNov 20, 2014


Everyone is scared of public speaking. I get it. I said no to every request I got for 5 years, until I got guilted into my first gig. And if I’d sucked as much as I’d imagined (we all think we can’t be public speakers), I would have happily packed it in.

But I was awesome.

That’s not self-congratulatory bullshit, it’s the truth. And here’s the real truth. I always knew I’d be good at it. I was just too scared to step up and prove it.

I needed this list of 7 books.

If you can find the mustard to step up and do your first gig, you will be significantly more splendid than A) your current self, and B) virtually everybody else, if you read this collection en route to doing so.

At the end of the day, if you care about being exceptional, this is how you’ll get there at a massively accelerated pace.

Read on, and hit me up any time @oligardner if you fancy talking about this stuff.

NOTE: If you don’t like reading books, jump to the end to read my 7 quick tips to become a better speaker.

1. Understanding What Makes a Great Talk Great

Jeremy Donovan

This is one of the best books I’ve ever read. On any subject. I’ve leant it to several people and don’t have it with me right now which is a shame, because I’d love to grab a few choice parts for you << that sounds creepy.

You know those small sticky things you use to mark an important place in a book? This book had almost as many of those as it did pages. It’s that good.

The best part of the book is that it teaches you how to understand a great talk, and the different types of format and structure that go into one. The author analyzed thousands of hours of TED talks to figure out his hypotheses for a great talk. Part of that being the use of ascending and descending story arcs that lead your audience on an emotionally charged journey.

My favourite structure was one where instead of saying: Idea, example, idea, example, you tell a story first that demonstrates the pain, then you explain your idea to solve it, then you back that up with an example of it being solved. It’s brilliant, and much more engaging to watch than someone who just runs through point after point in the traditional manner.

In essence, you don’t know you are in the midst of “a point” until you’ve already experienced the world in which it needs to be used.


Buy “How to Deliver a TED Talk on Amazon (affiliate link)

2. The Art Of Presentation Flow

Nancy Duarte

There are some elements in Nancy’s book that are similar to Jeremey’s observations, specifically the Sparkline (below). A Sparkline is a visual representation of the pulse of your presentation, and it really gets to the heart of how a talk should be structured.

Nancy explores The Hero’s Journey, The Freytag Pyramid, and many other storyline structures, and uses awesome visual representations of how to piece them together. It’s a beautiful book.

To really get a great sense of how brilliant her approach is, you should watch this 9 minute video: http://vimeo.com/15737166.

Here’s how I design my presentations on our 20ft whiteboard wall in the Unbounce office:

It’s based on a combo of the structure I learned in Jeremey Donovan’s book and the Sparkline. It’s a constant movement from what is to what could be — creating a gap between perspectives that is as dramatic as possible — and back again, ordered in the manner I described in #1 where you talk about the pain before the pain relief.

Hot topic. Whenever I show someone that photo, they see the blue smiley faces and say “You design humour into your talk?” Fuck yes. They aren’t jokes. They are opportunities for humour that I’ve recognized. Once you recognize such an opportunity, you can design an experience that highlights the opportunity and encourages an entertaining moment based upon it.

Design is everything.

Buy Resonate on Amazon (affiliate link)

3. Being Prepared for Disaster

Scott Berkun

Scott Berkun’s book was really interesting to read when I was first getting started as a speaker back in April. Essentially it’s a series of stories from the road, both good and bad.

The real value comes from the baaaaaad parts. Such as being in a room that could hold hundreds of people at a multi-track event, only to find that all but 5 people went to watch “the other guy”. That’s the brutal reality of choice — and why I personally hate multi-track events (I’m not alone in the speaking community in this regard).

I’ve had my fair share of scenarios in my travels thus far and I think I’ve dealt with them better than I otherwise would have because I read about Scott’s ordeals ahead of time.

There is so much to learn from another speaker’s experiences, so I’d encourage you to look at this book from that perspective — to help you build some preparedness for the shit that will go wrong in your future.

Buy Confessions of a Public Speaker on Amazon (affiliate link)

4. Developing New Angles For Your Stories

Rolf Dobelli

This book has nothing directly to do with public speaking. I’m including it because it’s really, really good at helping you create higher quality storylines for your talking points.

The book contains 99 explanations of psychology concepts, each of which will make you think a little differently about your own experiences.

What I love is that I was able to relate many of the concepts to things I was trying to communicate, and armed with this new found terminology and anecdotal backup I am better able to tell my story in a way that resonates in a meaningful manner.

Buy The Art of Thinking Clearly on Amazon (affiliate link)

5. Breaking Down The Experience

Carmine Gallo

This book seems to be rocketing up the business book bestseller lists. It has better branding and design than Jeremey’s above (#1), and probably better marketing too — Carmine has written another speaking book about the secrets of Steve Job’s presentations — so he’s a known entity to publishers.

While it wasn’t as valuable to me as #1, it does approach things in a different way. There is gold in this book. Half way though (page 113) Carmine talks about novelty which is hugely important in your talks.

Obviously, not everyone can get up and scream “I JUST DISCOVERED A NEW INSECT!!!!!” New things just aren’t that easy to come by. What you can do is make sure your spin/take/theory of a familiar topic is A) fresh B) insightful, C) thought provoking, D) interesting, and by extension new.

Buy Talk Like TED on Amazon (affiliate link)

6. Organization

Atul Gawande

I loved this book. Some of the stories about how checklists have literally changed the world (B-17 bomber flight checklist, empowering surgical nurses to overrule surgeons) are really interesting. After reading it I used a checklist on a big landing page template design project and it saved our asses. Sounds obvious — use checklists — but when you read the rationale behind doing it right it’s a great motivator to actually do it.

What’s this got to do with public speaking?

There are a ton of things you can do as a speaker to help ensure you consistently do a great job — I’ll mention a few in my 7 tips at the end. The keyword here is consistently. Using a checklist guarantees consistency.

Buy The Checklist Manifesto on Amazon (affiliate link)

7. Accelerating Your Craft

Josh Kaufman

A simple premise: Josh describes a process for rapid skill acquisition that you can easily combine with a checklist to quickly accelerate your ability to give an excellent talk.

Part of the process is setting a minimum viable skill level that you want to achieve, doing research to break the skill into subskills, getting any equipment you need and doing periods of focused practice.

It’s a perfect approach for getting good at speaking.

Buy The First 20 Hours on Amazon (affiliate link)

7 Speaking Tips From Me

In line with the idea of rapid skill acquisition, here are 7 things that I’ve identified as significantly impacting the quality of my talks that I’ve learned along the way.

You should also check out Be the Keynote which is everything you need to become an exceptional public speaker and virtual presenter.

Be the Keynote

1. Daydream before you practice — Visualize

This is something you can and should do all the time if you want to be a great speaker. Walk through your presentation in your head, imagining the gestures and movements you’ll make, memorizing the order of your slides and the reaction from the audience based on each point. This will build your motions into a form of muscle memory so that when it comes time to speak, you’ll start to embody your visualized self. It really helps you remember what’s coming up next in your talk. Try it. It works.

2. Be a pro

I can’t shout this one loudly enough. Sadly some conference organizers don’t put enough emphasis on the speaker experience — this is a shame as a bad one can translate directly into a shitty attendee experience, so unfortunately (or fortunately depending on how you look at it) you sometimes have to take matters into your own hands.

If the contrast on the screen is shitty, work with the location staff to close curtains, or turn off the row of lights directly above the screen. If it means I’m not nicely lit, I’m okay with that as long as the slides look awesome for the people watching.

If you have a habit of turning your head to gesture or point at a screen while talking through a point, you will often move out of direct range of a lapel mic. If there is a choice of mic and you have a tendency to dance around, choose the kind that sits in front of your mouth.

Show up early and walk the stage. This will help you add a higher level of visualization for your internal-brain-practice-daydreaming. You’ll be able to feel yourself on this stage.

3. Get your own gear

Part of being a pro is showing up prepared for things to go wrong. I suggest you buy the following items:

  1. A wireless clicker. I recommend this one: http://www.amazon.com/Logitech-Professional-Presenter-Green-Pointer/dp/B002GHBUTU/ — it‘s nicely weighted, has a laser pointer, and best of all, has a timer on it you can subtly look at, and even gives a gentle vibration when you have 5 minutes and 2 minutes left to go in your talk (you set the length of talk in advance).
  2. An adapter that lets you connect an Apple laptop (if you have one — most speakers do) to the projector. I pretty much always use my own laptop so I can use Keynote (not Powerpoint) with all the weird and wonderful typefaces I use in my decks. http://store.apple.com/ca/product/MB572Z/B/mini-displayport-to-vga-adapter
  3. Your own laptop ☺
  4. A universal power adapter that lets you plug your laptop into the power source in any country. Something like this: http://www.bestbuy.com/site/digipower-world-travel-usb-power-adapter/1306233291.p?id=mp1306233291&skuId=1306233291
  5. A wireless mic setup — I explain why in the next tip — this isn’t for giving conference talks. http://www.ccisolutions.com/StoreFront/product/AT-ATW-2110-E6I.prod

4. Do webinars standing up

Webinars are a great way to practice your material, but we all know that the majority of webinars are boring as fuck. To make your webinars waaaaay better, use your wireless mic and clicker you bought after reading tip 3. This lets you walk around the room as if you are on stage when you’re delivering your webinar presentation. The uplift in energy combined with legit practice will make this more than worth the cash outlay for the equipment.

5. Chase someone

Don’t literally run after someone. Choose another speaker whom you respect and set a goal to outperform her. The easiest way to gauge this is by comparing speaker ratings and reviews. When you get your ratings back from a conference organizer, ask where you sit numerically compared to your target speaker, or at the very least in comparison to all speakers (i.e. were you rated 3rd highest). I’m chasing Rand Fishkin, Wil Reynolds, and most recently Scott Stratten — a fellow Canuck who is a delightful chaos of awesome on stage.

6. Become excellent at delivering 5 things at once

Communication has a lot to do with body language. So when you are visualizing and practicing, try to incorporate 5 things into each point you make: A meaningful facial expression, an appropriate gesture with your arms/hands/legs/feet/chest/head/whatever, a tone that conveys your message of happiness/delight/anger/frustration, adjust your volume to help recapture your audience’s attention — a sudden drop or increase in volume can work wonders and makes your delivery far more dynamic, and finally, timing — try to inject the occasional pregnant pause, it really helps to build tension.

7. Play air guitar after a 6-pack

I mean it. Get a little drunk and rock out to your favourite music. Why? Your showmanship will escalate as you release you inhibitions. Am I suggesting you should go on stage hammered? Of course not. But once you’ve seen where you *can* take things, your eyes will be open to new possibilities.

8. NEW: Watch the one you love watch you

Watching video playback of your speaking gigs is a scary, but essential way to observe what you did right and wrong. I highly recommend it. Even better though, is to watch someone you care about, and respect, as they watch a video playback of your speaking gigs. Ask them to take notes. As you watch them, you’ll see how they react to the parts of your talk that you wanted to get an audience reaction from. Did it happen the way you wanted? You’ll also get a massive amount of insight by watching the note taking they do. Nicole Mintiens is a marketer, an up-and-coming public speaker, and my fiancée. Watching her face light up, or frown, or wince, or take notes, was one of the smartest things I’ve done as a speaker.

If you genuinely give a shit about becoming exceptional, you’ll kill it. These 7 books and tips should help get you there fast.

p.s. Here’s another post I wrote about my journey as a public speaker thus far. It should give you a better perspective of how this all fits into my story.

Good luck out there.


About Oli Gardner

Be the Keynote founder Oli Gardner is on a mission to rescue bad bullet points from the presenters who made them that way. He’s an award-winning public speaker and a veteran of hundreds of speaking engagements. Frequently the top-rated speaker he has developed methods for presentation design and performance that consistently deliver amazing results. Oli has coached many beginner and advanced speakers who have seen accelerated growth in both their speaking skills and their careers.