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MBA Essentials
JUN 25, 2019

5 Books to Make You a Better Presenter and Public Speaker

By Darren Menabney
iStock photo/akindo

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 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. We need to seek out diverse styles and techniques and add 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 has changed a lot of 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, but also to your messages and how you deliver your presentations. 

Keep a “beginner’s mind,” putting the audience first, 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, and product design. A key takeaway from the book is the importance of being aware of your surroundings and being inspired by them, then incorporating that inspiration into your 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 we incorporate that into our business presentations to hook the audience and grab their attention? Nancy Duarte’s book offers great insights into the structure of great speeches and stories, showing what they have in common.

Duarte shows how to create visual messages that will resonate with your audience and 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. 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 stories in our presentations, or even see emotion and stories as inappropriate for a business presentation. The truth is, including emotions and stories makes presentations much more effective. Carmine Gallo’s book does an excellent job 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 storytellers succeed, inspire, and educate, like Winston Churchill, Oprah Winfrey, Elon Musk, and Steve Jobs. Gallo 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 Gallo 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.” Gallo’s advice was to tell people to think about the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Bid presentation in Buenos Aires. His book devotes most of a chapter to how Japan used storytelling to wow the Olympic Bid committee with a passionate, emotional, story-driven pitch and win the Olympics.

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 phenomenon, but 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.

Anderson is a firm believer that giving a TED or TEDx talk is within reach for anyone. 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), he explains what can be learned from them. The book is full of stories and advice from TED speaker coaches and some of the most famous TED speakers themselves – 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.

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 tend to worry too much about making mistakes, inflate small mistakes, or worry about the wrong things. Mistakes will happen, and 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.