25 October 2016

tl;dr The talk is given, and inevitably, some well-meaning soul asks you afterwards, "How did it go?" I won't tell you how to answer, but for me, the answer is always, "I have no idea; that's for them to judge, not me."

Quite honestly, part of the reason I say this lies in the simple realization that no matter how you answer, you're either wrong, arrogant, or falsely humble. If the audience thinks the talk went well, but you think it was terrible, you seem either out of touch or affecting a false sense of humility. If you think it went well but the audience thinks it was terrible, you look like an idiot or a douchebag. If you and the audience both think it went well, you run the risk (smaller, perhaps) of seeming arrogant or "overly proud", and if you think it went horribly and the audience agrees with you, you seem out of touch and/or "if you knew it was bad, why didn't you fix it?".

But part of the problem is that sometimes the audience gets more out of the talk than you realize, so even if you didn't get what you wanted out of the talk (your message got lost in the noise of your demos, perhaps, or your demos didn't go as well as you would've liked or any of dozens or other things), the audience may have an entirely different opinion. (Matter of fact, I've had that exact scenario happen to me: gave a talk, every single demo I gave bombed, and still it came back as one of the highest-rated talks I've ever given, because---as one audience member told me later---they loved that I just kept rolling with it, didn't derail the talk trying to force the demos to work, and that "it was nice to see that even industry thought leaders can have a bad day at work!"

Evaluating the evaluations

Which means, then, that your best source of talk-effectiveness lies in the evaluations that a conference will ask the attendees to fill out. Not that this is the best source, but not an always-accurate source; lots of things can interfere with an honest appraisal of your talk:

For all these reasons and more, you need to keep a couple of things in mind when you look at evaluations:

Evaluations are helpful, but they're definitely not the last word.


All that aside, though, it's nearly impossible for a speaker to not judge themselves. It's just too strong a desire, too deeply wired into the human psyche to not want to look in the mirror and say, "How'd I do?" I've been doing talks for twenty years, and I still do it, too, even though I don't always trust my own instincts. (I like to operate from Socrates' position of "All I know is that I know nothing", because then it forces me to look for evidence to confirm or deny my intuitions, rather than letting my intuitions quietly select the evidence that supports them.)

So, in the spirit of trying to get a bit more objective about self-evaluation, here's a list of things to evaluate:

But even here, unless you're recording your talk, your interpretation may be somewhat suspect.

So what's the well-meaning speaker to do?

Brutally honest evaluation

Easy: ask people who know you well---even better if they, too, are speakers---to evaluate your talk. Ask them to be brutally honest: tell you the things they liked, and the things they didn't, in roughly equal amounts. (OK, let's be clear here, it's probably going to be more of a 3-to-1 ratio, heavily favored towards things they didn't like, because it's a lot easier for us as humans to identify the things we don't like more than the things we like. Personally, I'm OK with that, but new speakers may need more in the way of encouragement and support.)

Here's a working checklist for evaluating another speaker, by the way, if you don't have one of your own; you don't have to track all of these, but the savvy speaker will pick a dozen or so specifically on which the evaluator should focus:

There's a ton more that could be added; anybody with a Toastmaster's evaluation sheet could improve this by a large margin, for example. And, if you as a speaker have a particular habit, have somebody keep an eye out for it and give you feedback as to when you do it--or, from the back of the room, flash you a sign when you do the wrong thing (I like having another speaker flip me off when I make a mistake I'm trying to correct; one female speaker took that to mean carte blanche, and she lifted her shirt at me when I turned away from the audience too far).

In particular, though, groom some people close to you to be this brutally-honest audience. Emphasize to them that the goal of their feedback isn't to make you feel good about your talk, but to improve---a good coach needs to be honest about what works and what doesn't. Ideally, this should be a person that will watch more than just one or two of your talks---you want them to get to know you, your style, and learn to recognize your particular weaknesses or crutch issues.

My most recent talk (as of this writing) was the closing keynote at a conference in Warsaw, just last week. My wife came along with me for the show, and she agreed (as she usually does, bless that poor woman's heart) to sit in on the keynote. It went off pretty well---most of the scores (I'm told) were very high, and it was one of the top-three-rated talks of the show. That said, when we got into the taxi to head back to the hotel to drop off stuff and meet up with other speakers for dinner, she gave me a pretty thorough rundown, including "You seemed a little rusty on this one in parts", "I didn't exactly see how some of the ideas came together at the end" and "It felt like in places you were trying to force-fit a joke into place and it didn't come off quite right". This was valuable stuff, and I absolutely love the woman for that.

Groom your critic to give you brutally honest feedback, and you will advance in your speaking skills by leaps and bounds.

Tags: speaking tips