[Scott Berkun] How “Trying” Improves Your Performance

Readers of this blog know that the body of emerging research by people like Carol Dweck from Stanford or Angela Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvannia show that trying, self discipline, and constant learning – rather than simply going to the right schools, having a high IQ, or having the right credentials – is what drives performance over the mid-to-long haul.

While I have a hunch that most everyone wants to look good, people who lead and work in organizations (as well as exec and team coaching consultants like me) get paid at the proverbial end of the day to perform. And hiring people who perform is tied to hiring people who have the will, mental wiring, and aptitude to try, try, and try.

If proof of the pudding is in the eating, then proof of talent is in the doing and seeing. Tonight I’ll get to see Scott Berkun in action as he gives a talk at Adaptive Path in San Francisco. Berkun is a writer and speaker. Scott may well be one of the best cases of “Exhibit A” in the dialog about “trying” versus “pedigree” that I can cite.

Scott’s bio notes that he grew up the Queens borough of New York City. While I suspect it’s an OK place, I also suspect that Queens is not exactly Menlo Park, Ross, or Pacific Heights. He attended Carnegie Mellon, and later worked at Microsoft. Good CS school, and a chance to work at Microsoft at an earlier time in its evolution. And while he doesn’t carry a B-school degree from the “right” or any school for that matter, he also did not hold a senior role at Microsoft. Berkun notes someplace that the only time he was in private with Bill Gates was in an elevator and Gates ignored him.

Berkun does not have, as they say, great physical gifts. While his wife, partner, or any special friend might disagree, he does not carry the sort of physical stature, heft, or voice that says “look at me” when he speaks. Dan Pink, another writer and speaker, has those props: you can see them on display at TED here. What is this “right” look for a speaker? Taller, deeper voiced, and a newscaster vocal cadence: Pink has them all [Disclosure: I serve as trustee of a non-profit retained Dan to speak earlier this year], Berkun has little of those qualities.

Yet, Scott Berkun’s public speaking works well when you define it by whether he effectively conveys information in an engaging manner. How does he do it? Read his latest book Confessions of a Public Speaker and you’ll find out. And a someone who leads and designs large group sessions, Berkun’s book has a number of helpful thoughts, including several about TV broadcasting that were new for me.

Berkun has written three good books as well: all of them are well crafted, well written, and readable. Since he did not go to any of those schools that are the “right” schools for aspiring literary types, how did he do it? Here’s how:

“Writing a good book, compared to a bad one, involves one thing. Work. No one wants to hear this, but if you take two books off any shelf, I’ll bet my pants the author of the better book worked harder than the author of the other one. Call it effort, study, practice, whatever. Sure there are tricks here and there, but really writing is a kind of work.”

So here’s the punchline: not much in the way of “right” credentials or schooling, no great physical gifts, and no apparent connections (I don’t think he’s the secret son of somebody like Rupert Murdoch). And yet, Scott Berkun writes good, accessible, funny, and very helpful books. His speaking is good: he effectively presents and engages audiences.

How does he do it? Lots of work, and lots of apparently relentless trying.

And tonight I’ll get a chance to see him live in San Francisco at 6 PM at Adaptive Path at 363 Brannan Street.

Updated Wednesday night, December 9th – Saw Berkun in person. He was good, particularly with this 30-something crowd of mostly design engineers. He gave a very good talk, and did a great job of distilling what’s in his book to 35 minutes of fast-paced presentation.