Article Category: Speaker Habits

How to get Useful Feedback: A Speaker’s Guide


how-to-feedback-speakerLet’s start with three truths about feedback:

  1. Most of the feedback you receive as a speaker is not very useful.
  2. Useful feedback is hard to find and uncomfortable to receive.
  3. To reach your potential as a speaker, you require substantial feedback.

These truths present a few conundrums:

  • If most feedback is useless, how and where do you find useful feedback?
  • If receiving feedback is uncomfortable, why would you want to seek it? How do you get in the right frame of mind to accept it?

In this article, we define useful feedback, describe how and where to collect it, and discuss how to adopt a mindset which embraces honest feedback.

Definitions… What is Useful Feedback?

Feedback includes any information you receive about yourself as a speaker, or about any specific speech or presentation. It might be non-verbal or verbal, spoken or written. It might be brief; it might be extensive.

Useful feedback is any feedback you receive which helps you improve your speaking skills, whether it be your writing, delivery, visual design, or anything else.

While comments like “good speech” and “well done” are encouraging and nice to hear, they do not really help you improve.

Positive feedback is any feedback which reinforces something you’ve said or done. For example:

The stories you told at the beginning and end of your presentation really drove home the message for me.

Negative feedback is any feedback which opposes or criticizes something you’ve said or done. For example:

I got lost when you were explaining the steps of the process, and this left me confused during your subsequent demonstration.

Remember that useful feedback includes both positive feedback and negative feedback.

Modes of Capturing Feedback

Okay, so where do we find feedback? And, more importantly, how do we filter out the useless bits and get more useful feedback?

1. Observe non-verbal feedback during your presentation.

There is a wealth of useful feedback staring right back at you every time you speak. For example:

  • Does your audience look confused?
    You’re either speaking too fast, speaking at the wrong level, or lacking in clarity.
  • Does your audience look bored?
    You’re not providing enough value, perhaps repeating something they already know.
  • Does your audience look excited?
    Keep doing more of whatever it is you’re doing.
  • Are they nodding their heads?
    They are accepting your message because they have experienced it.
  • Are they leaving the room?
    That’s not good!
Want to learn more?
To improve your eye contact, read Simple Secrets to Improve Your Eye Contact.

So, if this feedback is written on the faces of your audience members, how can you collect more of it? Improve your eye contact. The less time you spend looking in your notes, your slides, or the EXIT sign at the back of the room, the better chance you will have to perceive the feedback your audience is constantly sending to you.

I know of a few speakers that aim a video recorder at the audience so that they can review the video at a later time. While this doesn’t replace good eye contact, it can augment the information you collect.

2. Pay attention to questions during your presentation.

Each time you receive a question, ask yourself what it says about your presentation. For example:

  • Is the question asking about topics on the periphery of yours, perhaps seeking more depth or breadth than you offer?
    Perhaps this is an opportunity to reshape your content, or add to your speaking portfolio.
  • Does the question indicate confusion?
    Perhaps you need to rewind and clarify.
  • Does the question indicate opposition to your ideas?
    Perhaps you need to add more persuasive elements.

Real-time feedback like this is raw, but offers a bounty of insights if you pay attention.

3. Gather intelligence before, after, or during breaks.

When I teach courses lasting several hours, some of the most useful feedback I receive is during the breaks. Audience members share thoughts that they were reluctant to share during the session itself (because they did not want to “disrupt” the course). I am frequently able to leverage this information after the break by saying something like “During the break, I was asked about… and so I’d like to clarify on the topic for a bit…”

Or, when I teach courses that span several days, the 15 minutes just prior to the start of each day (after the first) are a goldmine for feedback. I regularly gain insights about what worked well in previous sessions, or about topics where there is still confusion. During that time, I avoid fidgeting with technology or any other presentation materials so that I am “available” to receive this feedback.

4. Solicit feedback one-on-one.

The quality of one-on-one feedback is superior to any other feedback you receive.

Many people are reluctant to give you critical feedback in a group setting for a few reasons:

  1. They do not want to hurt your feelings.
  2. They do not want to risk embarrassment by admitting that they were confused.
  3. They are not confident in their critique of you, and don’t want to risk being “wrong”.

So, remove this barrier whenever possible, and follow up with an audience member privately. The quality of one-on-one feedback is superior to any other feedback you receive.

If your audience spans more than one demographic group, solicit feedback from at least one person in each group to ensure that you receive balanced information. For example, if your audience is a mix of “experts” and “novices”, seek feedback from one person in each group to get a well-rounded picture.

5. Create a custom feedback form.

Avoid generic, multiple-choice feedback forms. You’ve seen those, right? They are popular at conferences, and consist of a series of 5-10 questions, all on a single page, encouraging audience members to circle their choices, e.g.

What value did you receive from this session? (circle one)

1. Very Low — 2. Low — 3. Average — 4. High — 5. Very High — Undecided

The biggest weakness with multiple choice feedback forms is that they provide very little in the way of actionable feedback.

What does it mean when you are told that the audience scored you with an average of 3.4? Absolutely nothing. To make these even remotely useful, you would need to have the complete set of data.

  • How did numbers compare from speaker to speaker?
  • Was 3.4 the highest of the day, or the lowest?
  • How many audience members completed the survey?
  • Were the scores relatively consistent (lots of 3’s and 4’s), or were the scores wildly divergent (lots of 1’s and 5’s)?

The biggest weakness with multiple choice feedback forms is that they provide very little in the way of actionable feedback.

Instead, design a short, custom feedback form for your audience. Ask open-ended questions to solicit useful feedback about your strengths and weaknesses.

For example, to determine the elements which resonated the most with your audience, you might ask something like:

What is the most valuable thing you learned during today’s session?

Conversely, to learn about elements of your presentation that need to be addressed (either by fixing them or eliminating them), you might ask:

How could this session have been more valuable for you? What specific change(s) would you recommend that the speaker make?

I am often surprised by the responses to both of these questions. The lesson? Your strengths and weaknesses are not always what you believe them to be.

6. Utilize other channels. Be creative.

While the strategies above are commonly available to you, they are not an exhaustive list of ways to gather feedback. Other modes include:

  • Telephone
  • Email
  • Social media

Developing a Healthy Mindset to Feedback

Collecting all the feedback in the world doesn’t help at all if you don’t leverage it to improve yourself. How do you do this?

1. Be open to feedback, even if it isn’t what you hoped to hear.

Nobody likes to be criticized, but the most successful people I know understand that the only path to improvement includes a wealth of feedback, both positive and negative.

I have a colleague who routinely asks “Do you have any feedback for me?” She’s incredibly bright and talented, but she also recognizes that she has much to learn (as we all do). Even when I’m delivering negative feedback, her body language is open and inviting; she is eager to soak up advice. She never gets defensive or discouraged. Most importantly, she channels the feedback into self-improvement.

Cherish all feedback you receive, as demonstrated recently by Mel Sherwood on Twitter:

2. Say that you want feedback.

Be direct. Tell your audience that you appreciate feedback.

Amazingly, this simple act seems to give audience members “permission” to deliver feedback to you when they might otherwise have hesitated.

I plant this seed at the beginning of all courses that I teach, saying something like:

Your feedback is important to me. Throughout the course, please let me know what works for you and what doesn’t. I’m eager to continually improve the course and, in fact, this course has been improved several times based on feedback received from previous students.

3. Be proactive. Take ownership of the feedback process.

Don’t allow feedback to be a one-way stream of information from the audience to you; turn it into a conversation instead.

If you are passive, the feedback you receive won’t necessarily be tied to your areas of interest.

Don’t hesitate to ask for feedback on specific areas that you are concerned about. For example:

  • You’ve just modified a long-running presentation/course that you deliver, and you’re curious about whether the new material “works”.
  • You’re trying a new technique, and you are wondering if it is effective.
  • You’re speaking to an audience with a different demographic than you normally speak to, and you would like to know if your terminology/visuals/anecdotes still resonate.

Don’t allow feedback to be a one-way stream of information from the audience to you; turn it into a conversation instead.

4. Honest feedback is more important than nice feedback.

When asked for feedback, many people initially offer what they consider to be “nice” or “gentle” feedback. Their intentions are good; they want to be encouraging and supportive, and not hurt your feelings. Nice feedback is, however, not terribly useful.

Encourage them to “be brutally honest”. The feedback you receive will be deeper, more specific, and more actionable. Skills improvement via feedback requires honest feedback.

When you find someone who gives you detailed, meaningful feedback and constructive criticism, hold on tight to them (figuratively, not literally). Cherish them. Return to them often. Add them to your list of mentors.

5. When you receive generic praise, ask for details.

When initially offered, most praise you receive is generic:

  • “Good job!”
  • “Well done!”
  • “I enjoyed your talk this evening!”
  • “Good presentation at the all-hands meeting!”

In the past, I simply smiled and said something equally generic: “Thank you. I’m glad you liked it.” That was the timid introvert in me, but I was missing out on a glorious opportunity.

Accept praise gratiously, and then drill down for specifics with open-ended questions, e.g.

  • What was your favorite part?
  • Which tip was most useful?
  • Which part resonated most with you?

Replying in this way often opens the flood gates, resulting in a detailed exchange on what the audience member liked most and also what they didn’t.

6. Strike quickly. Memories fade.

No matter how you intend to solicit feedback (e.g. from a group, one-on-one, with a form), do so as soon as you practically can. Memories fade quickly, even for the most astute feedback-provider. The sooner you gather the feedback, the more detailed and accurate it will be.

7. Ignore the most glowing praise and the harshest criticism.

This advice may seem contradictory in light of the advice written earlier in this article. Why should you go to all the trouble of soliciting feedback and then ignore some of it?

Over years of speaking at conferences and teaching courses, I’ve observed a clear pattern. There’s always a fraction of the responses (about 5%) which suggest I’m the best speaker in the world, and there’s always a fraction of the responses (about 5%) which suggest that I’m the worst speaker in the world. Neither of these are true, and I know it.

You’re never as good as everyone tells you when you win, and you’re never as bad as they say when you lose. — Lou Holtz

You should definitely read and consider all the feedback you receive, but be prepared to dismiss the outliers.

Your Turn

What lessons have you learned about gathering useful feedback? What habits have you developed to encourage feedback from your audience?

Please share your advice in the article comments.

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Comments icon6 Comments

  1. Andrew:
    Excellent post. YOu don’t need to start from scratch to create a custom feedback form. Look up The Competent Speaker Speech Evaluation form here:
    http://www.natcom.org/uploadedFiles/Teaching_and_Learning/Assessment_Resources/PDF-Competent_Speaker_Speech_Evaluation_Form_2ndEd.pdf

  2. Gerry says:

    Main take-away:
    6. Strike quickly. Memories fade.
    Agree with: “…be brutally honest”. The feedback you receive will be deeper, more specific…”
    Aim for specifics!
    Re: “I have a colleague who routinely asks “Do you have any feedback for me?”
    I would amend that to say:”I’d like your spontaneous feedback right now re: what you liked most but more importantly what you liked least and how I might improve it.”
    Thanks for providing a vaulable service. As you already know: Better communication is the key to solving personal, professional and world problems;-).

  3. Great tips Andrew! I especially like #5 (in both lists) – “create a custom feedback form,” and “ask for details” about generic praise.

    In fact I’d extend the latter to ask for details when you receive generic CRITICISM, too. Come to think of it, perhaps adapting an idea I heard from Dan Pink would help. It’d go like this:

    Ask how they’d score your session, from 1 to 10 (with 1 being the worst). If they give you a low score but not a 1, ask them why they didn’t give you a 1. And if they don’t give you a 10, ask them what it would take to score just one higher. Either way, they’ll mention what they think you should do more of to improve.

    On the subject of feedback forms, Charles Greene also has some great tips, which I wrote about here. I added my own tips to that, such as using a MIXTURE of multiple-choice and open questions, because the former get much higher response rates, but the latter are far more insightful.

    I hope you find those ideas helpful too.

  4. Ana Azucar says:

    Hi! I’m a student in CST 110-17 at Northern Virginia Community College at Annandale Campus. I would say that I’m guilty with giving basic feedback to people because at the end of a public speaking, I usually say to the speaker “good speech” or “well done” when I have nothing else to say to them. In my opinion I can’t handle feedback because if I hear some of my audience got confused, bored, or they are leaving the room, even if I see nodding heads for disagreements I feel like everything I’m doing is wrong and that’s when my anxiety kicks in. But I feel that if someone close to me gives me honest feedback; that I know it comes from the heart, I know it’s better for me to learn from the experience and make it better for future speeches.

  5. Jaspal Singh says:

    I learnt a lot from this article. I am an aspiring speaker. mainly, I learnt that all feedbacks must be welcomed and that they help us in upgrading our skill.

  6. Harold Eaton says:

    Some interesting articles. As a toastmaster I agree with your suggestions.

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