Dealing with a Negative Speaker Evaluation

A speaker evaluation is important to all speakers who sincerely want to improve their craft. As a speaker, I get lots of gifts.  The crystal clock (that got tossed in my carry-on and security picked up as a “dense object”).  Pencil sets.  Gift cards.  Coffee mugs.  Key rings.  They are all appreciated (though not all used or kept).  But the best gift I could ever receive as a speaker is…

Feedback.  Feedback for public speakers

If we were talking microphones, feedback is bad.  (squeeeeeeaaaallll!!!).  But if we’re talking about speakers (who want to get better), feedback is good.  Very good.  Even… Vital. 

I remember clearly the moment when I discovered that feedback is what makes a speaker become great.   

A speaker had been invited to a weekly group I was a part of.  The purpose of our group was to make each other better. It was (and still is) a great model, a safe place to get vital feedback, and a ton of fun and learning for everyone involved.  As one of the few speech coaches in the group, I regularly gave formal, written feedback to all of our speakers.  And I did this day, with a guest speaker who came to share with us.  I stood in line, handed him my written feedback, and explained what and why I had given it.  Later I received an email from him: “If you ever give me feedback again, I will wad it up in front of you and throw it in your face.  I have no idea what emotion he was trying to spark in me, but he can be assured he will never receive feedback from me again.  But, sadly, he is probably as good as he’s going to get as a speaker (and come to think of it, I’ve not seen him on the speaker circuit much, even though he is an expert who had much good to say). 

This colleague (it’s a pain to even call him that) missed the best opportunity he had that day for improvement.  Not knowing if you are good or bad is a terrible place to be.  No feedback is worse than bad feedback. 

How should you handle negative feedback on a speaker evaluation? I had a friend today share that he had received a bad evaluation from one member of the audience.  One.  The temptation is to dismiss it.  Outlier.  Had an agenda.  Jealous egotistical expert who wishes he was on the stage instead of you.  And all that might be true.  But to dismiss an honest opinion on a speaker evaluation is dangerous.  But it also hurts and bothers us.  No one likes to be told he was bad.   

Let’s change the question.  A growth mindset sees criticism (the pessimist’s term for feedback) as an opportunity to get better.  What can you learn from it?   

Three metrics to help you deal with a negative speaker evaluation:

  1. Did they identify themselves?  An anonymous evaluation is worth almost nothing in my book.  People who take such potshots really lose some credibility.  If you’re willing to sign your name, I’ll read and ponder everything you have to say. And I’ll probably call you to talk about it to make sure I understand what I need to do for improvement.   
  2. Were they specific? If they say things like, “The speaker was a joke.” Or “The speaker wasn’t very interesting,” then I really don’t have a lot to go on.  If they name a phrase or identify a behavior, now we’ve got something to change.  The more specific the feedback, the more useful it becomes. 
  3. Did they offer anything positive, or a way to improve?  If all they say is what they didn’t like, even if it was specific, it’s hard to know if there was a way to satisfy the listener.  Some people just aren’t going to like anything.  If they say, “If you had… then I’ve again got something that can make me better. 

But the absolute worst feedback you can receive as a speaker is the one almost everyone loves to get.  It’s the vague, “I loved your speech.” Or “Nice talk today.”  Without specifics, I don’t know why it was nice.  They may be just being nice.  They may have liked that you finished early.  They may have liked a specific story.  They might have liked your pretty slides or even your outfit or hair.  But without any specifics, I’m left to just bask in my greatness, and I’ll never be any better.  The worst part is most speakers hear this TEN TIMES more than they get honest feedback, and they begin to believe it.  The more you talk, the more you’ll hear “Nice job” and the more you’ll get stuck in your ways.  It may, in fact, be good.  But I’d rather know WHAT was good (and bad) than to just feel good. 

If you see me speak and tell me, “I liked your talk!” you can expect me to ask you, “What did you like about it?”  The conversation we then have will help both of us.  I’ll find out your needs and how I helped meet them, and you’ll be able to give me actionable information on how to connect with future audiences.  And, if I’m good and you’re honest, maybe you’ll even tell me how I could be better.  That would be the best gift of all. 

Ask yourself this question as a speaker, “Do I want the audience to like me (i.e. hear great things about how I did), or do I want to get better?  If the former, you should take some time to really think about why you are speaking.  If the latter, then solid, concrete, truthful feedback is the best possible gift a speaker can receive.

Mindset Book by Carol Dweck

I HIGHLY recommend Carol Dweck’s Mindset book – a MUST READ for anyone who wants to excel at anything.

Related Post:  Handling a Bad Review
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This article was published in the August 2017 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.