Honest Feedback for Public Speakers: How to Get It and Give It

Speakers crave useful critiques of their talks yet most people shy away from offering helpful feedback. But good speakers are always looking to fine-tune their craft.

A few minutes into the speech, you notice it. Maybe it's a phrase the speaker keeps repeating, or a podium death-grip making the microphone wobble. Maybe it's a swiveling chair that never stops moving, or the constant twirling of a lock of hair.

These "speaker ticks" are unfortunately the best-kept secrets in public speaking—a secret only the hapless presenter is unaware of. Everybody in the audience probably noticed the distracting tick. But honest feedback is the most endangered species on the speaker frontier.

"Even if you did a terrible job, the host or the moderator won't tell you it was bad. It's rare for them to feel it's their role to give that insight," says Scott Berkun, author of Confessions of a Public Speaker, a behind-the scenes look at his own successful speaking career. "It's especially difficult for executives to get good feedback. Nobody wants to tell them, 'Hey, Joe, you didn't do this or that so well.'"

One way to fill the feedback vacuum, Berkun suggests, is to make your own "Things Not To Do" list of speaker ticks while you're watching someone else's presentation. "Maybe it's someone reading their slides, or never making eye contact," he says. "Use the things you find annoying to make your own checklist."

I moderate about a dozen CIO magazine events every year, which puts me happily in proximity with dozens of good-to-great speakers—most of them CIOs, but many industry experts, consultants and authors, as well. I've found that the best speakers really probe for feedback afterward, so I've eased my way into offering very direct, specific suggestions.

For example, one CIO friend who is outstanding on stage was unwittingly using the phrase "At the end of the day..." multiple times during his talk. Once I pointed it out, he asked me to keep a count during his speech. Afterward he proudly noted only using it twice. Nope, I had to tell him, he actually said it six times. Our speaker ticks are sometimes more ingrained than we realize, but still, this was progress!

Professional speech coaches will often use a video recording of their clients to demonstrate whatever needs improvement. That same technique is highly recommended for a do-it-yourself critique, but the experience can be unnerving if you're not sure how to fix what you see going wrong.

CIO Ramon Baez of Kimberly Clark Corp., had that experience last year when he watched a recording of one of his talks. "I had this tendency to hum on stage when it was quiet, and I had way too much nervous energy going on," he recalls. "It was like watching that Purina Cat Chow commercial, with my legs doing this Tango back and forth."

With his company's support, this already accomplished speaker sought additional training with ExecComm, a New York-based executive coaching firm, where he learned to use "the Arc of Silence" to eliminate nervous humming. "See it, save it, say it" is the mantra for this technique of glancing at your next talking point, taking a second to absorb it and then saying it to the audience. "It's much higher impact, doing it this way," Baez says. "I learned to be purposeful about my pauses."

This kind of fine-tuning is what good-to-great speakers are always willing—actually eager—to do. Keep that in mind the next time you have a chance to offer some helpful, honest feedback. I guarantee you, it will be welcomed.

Maryfran Johnson is editor in chief of CIO magazine. Reach her at mfjohnson@cio.com.

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