This post was previously published on the absolutely fantastic P Cubed Presentations site – the brain child of TTI faculty member Ross Fisher. His site is dedicated to lifting the quality of presentations to the point that we no longer go to a conference and see just a handful of great talks, but rather the entire program is stellar. Ross has inspired many of us to develop our skills and tap into our inner design minds to deliver better content to deserving attendees.
Recently, a friend approached me to discuss some feedback he had gotten after a national level lecture. This was his first large lecture in front of a room of about 300 and he was quite proud of his work afterwards. But when he approached me he appeared crushed. He showed me a list of about 15-20 comments – mostly positive, mind you – that had been sent to him. Amongst them, there was one that stuck out to him:
“The speaker wasted my time.”
That was it. In 5 words, this attendee had destroyed the self-confidence of a young speaker and crushed his spirit. His question to me was simply, “What do I do now?”
Getting feedback on a talk can be incredibly valuable. It is one of the most effective routes to improving our delivery, content analysis, and performance. However, useful feedback must be clear, specific, and actionable. Some good examples that I’ve received?
“Sometimes your hands are distracting. Can you try to control your movements more?”
“You’re pacing so much I can’t keep you in the camera shot.”
Clear, specific, and actionable.
Negative feedback, though, is typically fairly worthless. Take the original comment: “The speaker wasted my time.” There’s nothing actionable here that the speaker can do to directly improve their performance. Was the attendee simply too much of an expert with respect to the content? Did the speaker run over on time, thus keeping the disgruntled attendee from coffee or the bathroom? Did the attendee disagree with the content analysis? There’s absolutely no way to know.
So, as my friend asked, “What do I do now?”
First, realize that when you give a talk, someone will always hate what you said and respond in this fashion. And the larger the room, the more of these comments you’ll get. Mel Herbert told me years ago that if everyone agrees with what you said, you’re not saying anything important. If we are to push the boundaries of knowledge and explore difficult topics, we will get some upset folks. Good on us.
Second, the negative comments will uniformly be overrepresented in the feedback you receive. People who are upset with what you say are far more likely to write a feedback card than those who agree with you and are even more likely to fill out the freehand comments. If you present to 200 people and get 2 negative remarks, there probably aren’t many more than that.
Third, the people who write these comments typically aren’t upset with what you said but rather with something else unrelated to you. Maybe they had a fight with their significant other before they came to the conference. Maybe their coffee was cold or burned. Maybe they skipped breakfast. I find it hard to believe that anyone who has ever created and given a talk, and who understands the time and effort that goes into preparing a talk, would ever purposely leave a malicious remark. (As an aside to attendees – be kind.)
But none of this answers the question of “What do I do now?” The truth is, there’s no easy answer here. A single remark like this can feel devastating and rationalizing it doesn’t necessarily move you past it. Nevertheless, here’s what I told my friend:
Take the comment as a challenge. Use it to spur you on to improve your skills; not to deviate from your path. Realize that what you are doing is important and challenging and that may be why you got this response. Keep pushing and don’t stop.
Get tough. You will get this type of response every time you give a talk. It may not look exactly like this but the sentiment and it’s effect on you will be the same.
Don’t let your confidence or your will be so greatly affected by one person or one thought.
Foster better feedback. Make your own feedback form that gives you useful information. I distribute index cards and ask people to write down specific messages that they will take away from the talk.
In the end, it’s unlikely that any of my specific advice made my friend feel better or will make you feel better when this happens. What probably helped the most was simply commiserating – sharing the fact that we all get feedback like this, that it’s not about you personally, and to remember to keep your head up and keep doing what you’re doing. The sting ebbs with time but I can’t say it ever goes away completely.
We can’t control the responses of others. What we can attempt to control is our response and how deeply it affects us.