Thursday, April 7, 2011

Finding Feedback

Finding Forrester is one of my favorite films, despite the fact it isn't necessarily a great movie.

Jamal Wallace is an inner city kid with great basketball skills and a great mind to go with them, as well as a penchant for writing. He's spent his formative years polishing his basketball skills, while mostly dabbling as a writer, just enough to impress his teachers. His notebook ends up in the hands of William Forrester, a reclusive author famous for a single book written in the 50's. He eventually gets it back, marked up with writer's unsolicited, no-holds barred feedback. As you might expect, eventually the two become friends, and Jamal ends up working under the tutelage of his famous friend, transforming into a polished and professional quality writer himself along the way. (There's a lot more to this movie - but you'll just have to rent it for yourself.)

As speakers, finding the right feedback - feedback that doesn't either fill our heads with delusional opinions of our greatness (which seems to be the modus operandi of the American Idol judges this year) or blast our speeches with such ferocity that we run underground wondering if it will ever be safe to speak again - is a tremendous challenge.

Toastmasters tend to take feedback for granted - each speech gets evaluated in written and verbal forms, and they have a group of people around them to give them additional comments on a regular basis. The level of this feedback will vary from group to group, and in the vacuum of the club, it may not take long for the feedback to plateau.

Other types of feedback we receive can be equally treacherous. Feedback from our Supervisors can be weighted towards whether or not we said what they wanted us to say. Our co-workers are often more concerned with being entertained, or entertaining themselves as they tell you how you did.

Meeting planners will provide feedback of sorts - but it will still be weighted towards whether or not you met their expectations of message delivery vs. speaking skills.

Finding out whether or not you are delivering for the people you are speaking for is important, of course. Just don't confuse it for top-level speaking feedback. You may be delivering the message they want, but they won't always know if you are delivering it as effectively as possible. As long as they get the pizza, in other words, they don't care if it comes from Domino's or Beau Jo's Mountain Pies.

Since it's unlikely you live next to, say, Harper Lee or Truman Capote, lets look at some other ways for you to seek out feedback you can use to keep you on your game:

A. Sift the Status Quo - accept all the feedback you are currently getting, regardless of the source or the intent, and actively qualify each piece. Just because Bob wants you to use animation in your PowerPoint doesn't mean its a good idea (99.9 percent of the time, its not). Just because you hate Mary, it doesn't mean she's wrong when she asy it annoys her when you run your hand through your beard when you speak, no matter how nasty she is when you overhear her telling John how much she hates you in the breakroom.

B. Allocate Your Resources - before you speak, ask someone you know will be there to watch evaluate you on specific aspects of your speaking afterwards. People are much better at offering valuable feedback when they have been readied before-hand, and they will typically be a bit pumped up about themselves that you asked for their opinion.

C. Record Yourself - If I haven't said this enough over the years, let me say it again. Watch/listen to yourself, and ask others to review it as well, again asking for specific feedback. Even if all you do is hit record on your smart phone an leave it near you during your presentation, you'll get a valuable recording. Just remember to turn off your ringer!

D. Read - It's not coaching per se, but there are some tremendous speaking books available that cover the art of effective speaking. Soon, I'll be adding my own to the mix as well, so feel free to start saving your 19.95 for that in the next few months. In the meantime, I recommend Nancy Duarte's Resonate and Jerry Weissman's The Power Presenter as good starter material - look for something each week or each day you can work on, or incorporate into your present speaking.

E. Join Toastmasters - if you're not in a group, shop around and find a group with people who will challenge you. If you are already in a club, consider joining a second, and exposing yourself to new opinions.

F. Hire a Coach - someone who you respect, who is succeeding on a level beyond your own. I wrote a post in 2009 that covers many points that are important in considering who you hire, including location, experience, and costs. If you'd rather avoid the hassle of finding a coach, just hire me - I still have a spot or two available for one to one coaching, no matter where you live.

If you're not looking for feedback, you're dabbling. Unless your life story is being written by the producers of feel-good movies, you need to go out and start Finding Feedback that will help you Speak & Deliver in ways you may not even be considering right now. Right now you may be getting by on talent alone, or you may just be surrounded by people who are willing to accept any old pizza. No matter how much you've spoken in the past, or how many people tell you how awesome you are, their is another level of effectiveness you can reach.  Don't you, and your audiences, deserve for you to get there?


  1. Darn it, Rich, you just had to go and mention Beau Jo's! Now I have a sudden urge to rush back to Colorado and sit down to a Mountain Pie. Way to ruin my day! Good article, though. I'd add one more point about feedback. Not every audience (or club) member is able to offer useful constructive criticism, but anyone can say "Your speech made me {feel/think} ______." Often when we get comments like that, if it's not the response we're striving for, we tend to disregard it. "Oh, she obviously missed the part where I said..." A serious speaker will instead ask himself whether he did or said something that got in the way of the intended message. I'm not saying you want to change your speech based on every comment you hear, but DO think about those genuine responses - especially as you review your recorded audio or video - and see if they can help you see yourself through your audience's eyes.

  2. Hey Rich!
    Great post.
    I'd love to read a post from you about some of the books that you've read that have influenced you most.


  3. I always seem to get the best feedback from the quiet person in the corner who is the best listener. But I have to ask.



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