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How to Use Feedback to Advantage
By Chris King

Recently, a young woman who will be giving a 90 minute seminar at a regional conference on a rather dry and technical topic asked a group of us to preview her seminar. She told us that we were to give her honest critiques along with any tips on ways she could improve her presentation. The group of people, who all have a great deal of respect for her, gave her many suggestions and comments - some laudatory, but more on how to change her program and delivery. A few weeks later, she presented her updated presentation at another meeting I attended. I was delighted to observe that she had incorporated the suggestions, erased her distracting habits, enlivened her topic and achieved a powerful, useful and interesting presentation. As so few tend to do, she had listened to us, taken our feedback and used it to her advantage. In this article I will investigate the various ways to receive feedback and then take advantage of the parts you can use.

The first step is to ask the right person and/or people for feedback. When we choose the person and/or people we want to give us feedback, we should look for those whom we trust and respect, those who have enough experience to give us useful suggestions and then tell them what we expect and want from them. Personally, I feel that asking for honest feedback is one of the hardest tasks we can perform. There is always the fear of harsh criticism - which none of us welcome - and finding out that we are not as good as we think we are or want to be. I give Jacci - the young woman I described in the first paragraph - a lot of credit, not only for asking for our critiques, but also for being willing to follow our suggestions. She made us all comfortable about being honest and constructive in our feedback. Most of the group knows her well, has heard her present before and wants her to succeed. She told us she wanted us to be "tough" and she meant it. We all shared and learned from the feedback ourselves and were proud when we witnessed her follow-up presentation.

When we receive feedback, whether asked for or not, we must decide what is valid and useful. Oftentimes, when we have given a presentation, members of the audience rush up for one of the following reasons:

  • To tell us how much they enjoyed and gained from our presentation.
  • To ask a question about something we addressed or didn't address.
  • To tell us about a part of our presentation or something we did that they particularly liked or
  • To tell us something we did incorrectly, left out or were mistaken about.

All of the above types of feedback are important, not only because they make us feel good or bad, but also because they can show us what areas of our speaking are strong and can be used to our advantage and what areas we need to examine and work on. We must ask ourselves, however, if we can honestly agree with the feedback and then if the suggestions are feasible. We should never try to change so much that we become uncomfortable or not ourselves. We do need to maintain our uniqueness, even if it "ruffles a few feathers."

How about the evaluation sheets that audience members are often asked to fill out? Other presenters and I have mixed emotions about these kinds of evaluations. First of all, let me say that if we receive 100 great evaluations and two that are poor and/or degrading evaluations, we tend to focus on the two (it is human nature). I know speakers that throw a whole stack of evaluations in the waste basket without even looking at them. They feel that most of the time, the sheets are destructive and useless. It is up to you, but I suggest that you be prepared to realize that there may be bizarre criticisms like, "I hate your haircut," and "Who do you think you are, anyway?" A well-known speaker whom I respect a great deal when asked about evaluations, said, "Take what you feel is constructive and worth changing (usually a technique or skill), but forget what attacks you as a person (your character, style or uniqueness)." I find that if the same comment is repeated often, this is something that I should work on improving.

What are other ways to receive feedback? I often mention Toastmasters. It doesn't matter what level of speaking we have achieved, we will receive helpful evaluations on a regular basis if we join a Toastmasters club. Every speech we give will have an evaluator assigned. Just be sure to tell him or her what areas to focus on, and how tough you want your evaluation to be. You will also learn a huge amount by doing evaluations yourself. There are also advanced clubs available where you will have the opportunity to work at a more intense level with tougher evaluations.

When should we give feedback? I am happy to give feedback when asked by someone like Jacci, who is serious about improving and knows me well enough to trust me - she visits this site often, so knows my opinions. I would never give any kind of critical feedback, unless asked to, and I also hesitate to give feedback to some others who ask for it. These are the people who do not really want to follow any kind of advice and will also take the defensive and argue with you about your feedback. I feel that I am not helping them and am only gaining an enemy for the time and effort expended. That is why I am so impressed with Jacci, because she put the feedback to advantage and reached a whole new plateau in her presentation skills.

So, remember, ask for feedback only when you want it and plan to use it. Pick your evaluators wisely and thank them by improving. Then, they will know that they haven't wasted their time and expertise, and they will be proud.

As always, I love to hear from you, so send me your FEEDBACK - about Feedback!

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