How to Handle a Bad Review After Your Speech or Presentation

“How do I handle a bad review after my speech or presentation?” is a question I often get. As a trainer/speaker, I receive thousands of reviews. The questions vary, but the purpose is usually the same: provide the event host with feedback and justification.  Mostly justification.

How to Handle a Bad Review and Negative Feedback

When I was in the corporate world, some of my trainer peers would laugh at negative comments and make fun of the students.  Sometimes they would post the negative comments to their office door, almost as a badge of honor.  I saw horrible evaluations regularly dismissed as “outliers.”  Other trainers would ask the students to give them 5-star reviews as they passed out the sheets, saying their boss used them in their annual review (I never did this, and it makes me wonder why the organization even bothered to have evaluations).  I read every one, especially if someone took the time to write in actual words instead of filling in a bubble.

Before the corporate world, I was a college instructor (in the days of paper evaluations – now ratemyprofessors.com and other websites handle the reviews, with a LOT more candid responses).  After I turned in grades, I would get to look at the evaluations.  Students would frequently take parting shots at me (and my peers).  I always suspected there was a high correlation of grades with ratings (lower grades = lower responses).  That thought made me discount them a little, because there was likely an agenda with every note.

I have two thoughts about how to handle a bad review, evaluations, and feedback.

First, most feedback is essentially useless, because the people giving it don’t know what good feedback is, and the people asking for it don’t know how to find the information they need.  A rating system of “How did you like the speaker?” is particularly useless.  How is a 4 different from a 5?  If someone rates 10 questions with the highest marks, does that really mean you were great?  Or that the participant didn’t want to think about your impact or insult you?  Either is likely. And different cultures and people might feel the same but give a different number.  How is that helpful?

When asking for feedback, getting down to specifics is key.

  • WHAT was good about the speaker?
  • HOW could the seminar be improved?
  • What would have made this talk/class better?
  • What would you say to someone considering taking this course?
  • What was the BEST thing about this course/talk?
  • What did you like LEAST?
  • What would you do to make it more effective?
  • What was your most valuable insight or takeaway?

Those written responses are gold, and our classes are full of new or improved features that previous students were kind enough to suggest.

My second thought is about the proper response to reviews.  Negative reviews hurt. At a recent keynote, I got 75 responses out of about 225 people in the audience.  One was negative.  Very negative.  I can still quote the exact words used to condemn me.  When I shared with my inner circle, they comforted me with phrases like “he had issues” or “you’re better than that, just ignore it.”  But should I ignore it?

I see feedback as a great gift.

One client asked me after a workshop, “Alan, if I have an employee who is habitually late, or stinks, or produces poor work, I meet with them and correct it.  But if someone gives a bad presentation, we ignore it, or even tell them they did a great job.  It seems to be normal to do this. Why?”  I can’t say for sure, but I think it’s because feedback to a speaker/teacher is so personal.  It’s not just calculus, or world history, or public speaking, it’s a HUMAN that is teaching us.

The question to ask in even considering evaluations is this: What would I change if I knew the truth about my teaching?  Would I change the content?  The exercises?  My delivery?  The time of the class or speech?  If you aren’t willing to implement those basic changes, then I would suggest you not bother with evaluations at all.

If you really want to know the truth, you are unlikely to get it from students or attendees in a hurry to exit.  Instead, find a trusted advisor or coach who will review your skills in comparison with your goals and the audience’s needs.  Then ask better questions of the attendees.  Follow up with them by seeking them out directly, rather than resorting to an online survey or piece of paper.

Most presenters are likely to resemble a quote Jack Nicholson made in the movie A Few Good Men, “You can’t handle the truth!”  But those that do are on their way to greatness.  I have found that the willingness to accept criticism – also called the gift of feedback – is the most correlating factor in someone becoming a good communicator/teacher.

In her excellent book Mindset, Carol Dweck outlines two major outlooks that determine human achievement and behavior:  A fixed mindset and a growth mindset.  Alex Vermeer summarizes the mindsets perfectly:  “Having a fixed mindset creates an urgency to prove yourself over and over — criticism is seen as an attack on your character, and to be avoided.  Having a growth mindset encourages learning and effort. If you truly believe you can improve at something, you will be much more driven to learn and practice. Criticism is seen as valuable feedback and openly embraced. The hallmark of the growth mindset is the passion for sticking with it, especially when things are not going well.

Communication matters.  What are you saying?

This article was published in the May 2016 edition of our monthly speaking tips email, Communication Matters.  Have speaking tips like these delivered straight to your inbox every month. Sign up today and receive our FREE download, “Twelve Tips that will Save You from Making a Bad Presentation.”  You can unsubscribe at any time.