The best way to become a better presenter or public speaker is, like any learnable skill, by simply doing it. A lot. Over and over.
Then go back and do it again.
But in between all those moments when you’re practicing and presenting and getting better, there are a lot of great reads out there to help you get new insights and new perspectives which you can put into practice. Whether that’s the importance of story, how to design clear and compelling slides, the need for rehearsal, or ways to boost your confidence, here are five of my top books to help you become a better presenter.
I always recommend these books to students who take the Business Presentation course at GLOBIS. These books have all taught me something to help me become a better presenter and public speaker. Presentation and public speaking are skills that we should be constantly re-learning by seeing diverse styles and techniques, and adding new tools to our presentation arsenal.
So if anyone ever tells you that they’re already good enough at presenting and don’t need to learn anything new, give them a friendly pat on the back and then recommend these books to them. We can always get better.
Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds
“Like a Japanese bento, great slide presentations contain appropriate content arranged in the most efficient, graceful manner without superfluous decoration.” – Garr Reynolds, Presentation Zen
If you only read one book on this list, make it this one. Everything you need to become a better presenter is in here. Other books go deeper on some topics, but this revolutionary book changed a lot of people’s attitudes towards presentations. Like the title says, adopt a Zen mentality to your presentations–minimalism, simplicity, and awareness are key not only to success in your slide design (less is more) but also in your messages and how you deliver your presentations.
Keep a “beginner’s mind,” putting the audience first and foremost, and thinking about your own creativity are key themes in the book. Where you design your presentations (hint – not in the office) can have a huge impact on the final product.
Garr Reynolds has lived in Nara for over a decade and has been inspired by Japan’s nature, culture, product design and more. One of my key takeaways from the book was the importance of being aware of your surroundings and being inspired by them, then incorporating that inspiration into your own presentations.
Resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences by Nancy Duarte
“All of us are born with a dream to make the world a better place. Learning to communicate that dream is what will make the world a better place.” – Nancy Duarte, Resonate
Why do we love hearing stories, and how can you incorporate that into your business presentations to hook your audience and grab their attention? Nancy Duarte’s book gives us great insights into the structure of great speeches and stories, showing what they have in common.
She shows how to bring that into your own presentations to create visual messages that will resonate with your audience, that will engage them. Connecting with the audience is the key to a successful speech or presentation, and Duarte does a great job showing how to bring storytelling into your presentations to inform, persuade, and inspire others. That’s something all business people need to do.
Nancy Duarte runs a design firm in the US and her work has had huge impact–she designed the slides used in An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore’s celebrated climate change documentary.
The Storyteller’s Secret, by Carmine Gallo
“You cannot inspire unless you’re inspired yourself. The secret to mastering the art of storytelling is to first dig deep and identify your true passion, your calling.” – Carmine Gallo, The Storyteller’s Secret
Telling stories with emotion and passion is central to human communication and persuasion. Yet so many of us don’t include them in our presentations, or we see emotion and stories as not appropriate for a business presentation. But those that do will be much more effective. Carmine Gallo’s book does an excellent job of explaining why storytelling works, the science behind storytelling, and how it’s a part of humanity’s evolutionary history.
The book gives a lot of examples of how storytelling has helped others succeed. Storytellers who inspire and who educate, like Winston Churchill, Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. He interviews CEOs like Richard Branson and venture capitalists like Ben Horowitz who all agree on the importance of stories when they are listening to a pitch or proposal.
I once asked Carmine for some suggestions about something I hear a lot in Japan when talking about the importance of storytelling; “Oh, here in Japan we’re not very good at storytelling and showing strong emotions in presentations.” How to respond to that? His advice was to tell people to think about the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Bid presentation. He devotes most of a chapter in the book to how Japan used storytelling in its presentation in Buenos Aires to wow the Olympic Bid committee with a passionate, emotional story-driven pitch and win the Olympics.
Japan can do an incredible job of storytelling.
TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking, by Chris Anderson
“Presentation literacy isn’t an optional extra for the few. It’s a core skill for the twenty-first century.” – Chris Anderson, TED Talks
Chris Anderson has led the TED organization since 2001 and was key in getting TED talks put online in 2006. In this book, he not only tells the story of the TED Talk phenomena, he also digs deep into what makes a good talk and what makes a good presentation–the authenticity, ideas, structure, stories, and passion in delivery that have made TED talks so successful.
And he is a firm believer that giving a TED or TEDx talk is not something out of reach for any of us. He repeatedly makes the point that anyone who has an “idea worth sharing” can give a powerful and inspiring talk on it.
The tone of the book is incredibly positive, even when he shares stories of TED Talk failures (the surprising things you won’t see in TED videos) and what can be learned from that. It’s full of stories and advice given by TED speaker coaches and some of the most famous TED speakers–Sir Ken Robinson, Dan Pink, Salman Khan, and others. They give insight into what goes on in the mind of TED speakers and behind the scenes.
A great read for anyone who wants their ideas to inspire others.
Confessions of a Public Speaker, by Scott Berkun
“It’s the mistakes you make before you even say a word that matter more. These include the mistakes of not having an interesting opinion, of not thinking clearly about your points, and of not planning ways to make those points relevant to your audience.” – Scott Berkun, Confessions of a Public Speaker
Definitely the funniest book on the list, Berkun has a lot of fascinating stories to tell about presentations and speeches he’s given – the good, the bad, and what can be learned from all of them. He does a great job of sharing the positive attitude he takes towards the audience when public speaking – respect them, treat them well by preparing, and they will repay you with their attention.
Berkun also makes good points about how we, as public speakers, are often our worst critics. We often worry too much about making mistakes, inflate small mistakes, or worry about the wrong things (see the quote above). Mistakes will happen, we will always be nervous to some extent, but the key is to prepare well, learn how to relax before presentations and see any mistakes as learning opportunities. Then, move on.
This book is guaranteed to raise anyone’s confidence about public speaking.