Feedback A Critical Step In Learning

by Speaking Tips | December 8, 2003

Progress assessment is a critical step in any kind of learning journey.  Public speaking involves acquiring knowledge and skills plus other intangibles such as gaining confidence, developing a persona and finding your inner voice. Skilled feedback validates your natural talents, recognizes your efforts and neutralizes your tendency to be overly self-critical. It lets you know when a simple course correction, like changing the order of ideas, can make your message more powerful.

Feedback Versus Criticism

Feedback is positive and constructive input. It aims to give an honest appraisal of how well your speech communicated your ideas. It affirms what the evaluator perceives as effective and often comments on how the speech architecture supports the speech objectives and audience's interests. It encourages growth in new areas such as adding humor or props. It may alert the speaker to distracting mannerisms (nose scratching, key jiggling, foot tapping). It validates the speaker's strengths and enriches self-knowledge by epitomizing the speaker's natural style.

Good feedback assumes there is always room for improvement and not aimed at achieving perfection. It should be encouraging, instructive and insightful. In addition to being a vital step in presentations, it has broad applications in employee/management relationships such as orientation, briefings, training, motivation, and performance evaluations.

By contrast, criticism is censorious in nature, often discrediting the person as well as their effort. It stress errors and faultfinding. It omits any reference to what was done well and provides no guidance on how to improve. Criticism is "gotcha" in nature and effectively undermines a person's confidence.

Obtaining Feedback

Many people prefer to ask colleagues, friends or family members for input on speeches they are about to give. This is treacherous and can put you in a vulnerable position because co-workers, acquaintances and family are unlikely to have the listening skills required for feedback. They may lack free time or have difficulty understanding your presentation objectives and distinguishing between an effective presentation and one that is not. Frequently responses will be colored by personal bias towards you resulting in empty praise or attempts to discredit your efforts, leaving you feeling discouraged and, perhaps, angry.

Where can you find reliable feedback to gage your presentation efforts? As we've said elsewhere, we strongly recommend joining your local Toastmasters club. Toastmaster International founder Ralph Smedly observed "Ours is the only organization I know that is dedicated to the individual. We work together to bring out the best in each of us and then we apply our skills to help others." Implicit in this philosophy is the notion that presentation styles are unique to each person. Thus members learn to "put themselves" into their speeches and appreciate that effective presentations are colored by personal talents, passions and reservoirs of experience.

Toastmaster members prepare speeches from a series of manuals.  Each assignment is focused on a specific objective.  Immediately after the delivery, another member evaluates the performance.  Did the speaker meet the objectives? (Speaking and evaluating assignments are rotated so members learn to both give and receive feedback.) Members also sometimes practice forthcoming presentations to an outside audience to get feedback on their delivery, content and organization before the real event. Members consider the constructive and supportive system of feedback input to be the most valuable part of the Toastmaster program.

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