How to more effectively use feedback to develop your new presentation

Do you rehearse new talks in front of a test audience? Even if your guinea pigs offer no feedback whatsoever, practicing with real people can reveal a heap of things to improve. (The final version of my TEDx talk was nothing like my first live run.)

There are, of course, risks to a preview. One significant risk is that you get feedback you’re not able to deal with. This could be because you don’t have time to implement the suggestions, or because it makes you doubt everything you’re doing. After seeing two speakers recently become distressed by feedback from well-meaning friends and colleagues, I’d like to offer tips to help you use comments from a test audience strategically and effectively.

1. People like to be helpful. Sometimes too helpful.

Most people love to be asked for their opinion. So be prepared that if you ask for their opinion, they may well tell you things. Lots of things. That may or may not be relevant. It’s up to you to guide the discussion so you get what you need.

2. Know why you want feedback.

Before you present to your test audience, reflect on what you want feedback for, and how much you can handle. For example, do you want the audience to be honest if they hate your content? If the talk is in 2 hours perhaps all you want is reassurance and a hug.

3. Give your test audience some context.

As a speaker coach, I know that critiquing a ready-made talk is difficult: it’s much easier to build a good house from the foundations up, than fix a completed building if the plans are shabby. (Engineering metaphors begin!) Speakers looking for last-minute feedback will often say to me, “Rachael, give me any feedback you like. I’m really open.” You can probably imagine the problems with this! It’s a bit like if I asked you what colour I should paint my house, without telling you that I hate white walls, my lounge room gets no sunlight, and I want to feel like a rockstar after work.

4. At minimum, tell your test audience who the talk is for and what you want to achieve.

Getting specific about the feedback you want will also help avoid comments that are too vague to be useful. (“That was great, Lionel,” is encouraging but you can’t do much with it.) The first thing I do with speakers I’m coaching is a strategic inquiry into all elements that will influence its effectiveness, including audience, business trajectory and professional aspirations. They aren’t allowed to think about writing their talk before this is done. Your test audience needs some of this context. Here’s an example: “Imagine you are a group of early career IT professionals who hate public speaking. My aim is that you understand how a strategic and embodied approach to communication will give you better project results.”

5. Ignore solutions. Look for root cause. (Engineering metaphor #2!)

To help you decide which suggestions to implement, do a bit of root cause analysis. There may be more to the feedback than is first apparent. As example, one of my speakers recently tested a talk for a technical product on some colleagues. They told him he shouldn’t talk so much about himself. My speaker’s first reaction was to re-write his talk: he removed the personal story and focused solely on technical features of his product. This new version was, unsurprisingly, dry. When I encouraged him to get to the bottom of why they thought he should talk less about himself, he found that his colleagues were worried that the audience (who would be from outside the company) would want to know more technical details. With this in mind, we were able to appropriately add technical elements, without losing the benefits of storytelling.

6. When you follow a strategic approach to speaking, what at first feels like a major overhaul can often be solved with a simple tweak

When a suggestion makes you feel like you need to re-write your entire talk, ask your audience, “Why do you say that?” Remember that only you have full context for the long term impact you want your presentation to have. It’s up to you to own the process for getting the result you intend.

Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach, facilitator and social entrepreneur. Sign up to the blog via the link on this page for insights on speaking for long term impact.

Photo credit: Fauxels

How to develop a Speaking Product and raise your industry profile

A speaking product is a repeatable presentation on a valuable topic, that you can take to conferences and events. A good speaking product will help to raise your profile as a business leader, by giving you exposure to new audiences, and positioning you as an expert.
Here are three tips to help you identify your personal speaking product:

1. Your speaking product is unique to you.

Identifying your unique speaking product takes a bit of detective work. It probably won’t be the first thing you think of, and may not even be directly related to your job description. Your speaking product is more likely to reflect the unique way you think about the world or your role. For example, as a speaker coach, when I’m asked to talk at conferences, it might seem obvious to give (say) five top tips for public speaking. But plenty of others can cover this. I need to find out what I offer that is different.

2. Dive beneath the surface to understand what you really care about.

To tune into your speaking product, reflect on your personal values and identify how they show up in your work. One of my values is that we learn to move, speak and make choices in alignment with what we believe in. I want my audience to know, not just that a good talk can be career and life-changing, but that there is a method to doing it well so their idea grows. Rather than “How to be a more confident speaker” which has limited longevity, one of my key topics is “How to use speaking products so the thing you most want to see happen in the world, does”.

3. Ask your colleagues what you do that they think is special.

Many professionals I coach for industry conferences say, “I don’t know why I was chosen. I’m not special.” They feel they are just ordinary people doing an ordinary job. If you have similar concerns, ask others what they see in you. Then dig deeper to find out what you offer that is worthwhile and valuable. Often, this will be more related to the “how” than the “what”. For example, when I coached an engineer to speak at a 1000-person conference on gender diversity, he initially didn’t think he had done anything special – so we asked his colleagues. Their words revealed just how impactful this engineer’s work had been to improving diversity in a very traditionally male sector. We were then able to articulate this so all 1000 people at the conference could learn too.

 

Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach, facilitator and social entrepreneur. She loves helping engineers, scientists and people with something important to tell the world, craft a meaningful, engaging presentation they can use again and again to help their field shine. Email rachael@rachaelwest.com.au to learn more.

 

**Image credit: Henderson Graphics for TEDx Bunbury 2017

What is the one thing that makes a great talk?

A gentleman asked me this question at an event and I was surprised I had an answer:

You have to care.

If you care about the people you are speaking to, you will develop something they find useful. If you care about your topic, you’ll find stories and information that bring your idea to life. If you care about the enduring value of your work, you will fine tune your delivery as your speaking engagements energise your work in a virtuous cycle.

Here’s an example of how caring changed delivery.

An HR team asked me to help them develop a more exciting safety and governance workshop for their supervisors. They lamented, “Our supervisors aren’t engaged. They see this training as something they just have to do.”

I asked: “What for you, the trainers, is interesting about the material?”

They said they found it dry and boring.

It’s no surprise their teams also found it boring.

Once I helped the team uncover what they found valuable about their content, they became enthusiastic. Their delivery was more creative and they came up with a convincing value proposition for their audience.

It takes work to translate caring to excellent execution. But if you care, you’ll have the energy, motivation and curiosity to do it.

So, when you are offered an opportunity to speak in 2019, ask yourself: “What do I care about, and how do I deliver to make it happen?”

Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach, facilitator and social entrepreneur. She loves helping engineers, scientists and people with something important to tell the world, craft a meaningful, engaging presentation they can use again and again to help their field shine. Email rachael@rachaelwest.com.au to learn more.

Do you say “um” too much when you speak? It might be because you’re nervous.

It was the night before TEDx Perth 2013. Speakers I had coached were at UWA’s Octagon Theatre for dress rehearsal.

You probably know that TEDx speakers put in incredible effort to develop these talks. The audience thinks they are hearing someone speak eloquently off the cuff, but that’s thanks to weeks of careful preparation and rehearsal.

A sports psychologist I worked with that year was one of these speakers. He had worked very hard and produced incredible content about the mind of professional athletes. But he said ‘um’ every 10 seconds.

Literally.

This was the night before kick-off.

Overnight, Martin Hagger coached himself out of Um. His talk has been viewed over one million times.

We say um to fill what we think is uncomfortable silence.

I see speakers say “um” after a joke, something controversial or very personal. It happens in formal settings and everyday conversation. “Um” is an attempt to avoid silence. If a joke lands poorly and we keep talking, perhaps the audience won’t be able to tell that no one laughed. (Now that I’ve pointed it out you will start to see it everywhere too!)

As the speaker, a pause feels unfathomably long.

For the audience it’s breathing space.

When you say something profound, the nano-second afterwards can feel like a chasm. You’ve just given away something deeply personal: what if they don’t respond? Almost every speaker I work with is scared they will forget their words and they will be shamed. So, at the slightest hint of pause, they keep talking. But actually, the quarter second you are silent, is barely enough for your audience to take in what you are saying.

By saying um we take away the audience’s opportunity to digest our words.

Ironically, when you say “Um” and keep talking, you make it really hard for the audience to respond, with laughter or even just an internal “Aha” moment. Did you know that getting a laugh is often less about what you say, and more about timing?

Cue your audience to your respond

Think about a circus show where the performer makes a flourish, or holds a pose. You know it’s time to applaud. When you’ve been holding your breath throughout a moment of suspense and the performer finally releases the tension – you can’t help but belly laugh with the breath out.

Um is never just about Um

Training yourself out of um is more than just not saying it. It’s coming to terms with the awkwardness of silence, and the fear you won’t be taken seriously The good thing is, you can work through it and train yourself out of um overnight. Good luck!

Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach, facilitator and social entrepreneur. She loves helping engineers, scientists and people with something important to tell the world, craft a meaningful, engaging presentation they can use again and again to help their field shine. Email rachael@rachaelwest.com.au to learn more.

Be a good audience member, not just a good speaker

I’m a speaker coach. This means I mostly focus on what you do that helps you connect with, and communicate to, an audience. But talks are about sharing ideas, and your role in the audience is as important as the work of the speaker.

The speaker is there for you

Picture an auditorium. Every audience member is seated five minutes before the event starts. Phones are off, each person settled comfortably into their seats, and they watch the stage in anticipation. An esteemed speaker enters from stage left – they see an interested audience. The speaker feels the attentive energy of their listeners.

Your presence at an event matters.

Compare to this more common scenario: a large room in a corporate office, where a lunch and learn is about to start. Two colleagues are speaking for the first time about an important project they have been working hard on. Three quarters of attendees are seated by 12pm, lunches in lap. The speakers notice three key people are yet to arrive so they start late.

Your energy fuels the speakers to give a better talk

Our two speakers open with a nerdy joke (they’ve never spoken publicly before) and warm into what turns out to be a captivating story. Their colleagues realise the topic is important, and pertinent. They are fueled by their audience’s energy.

When you listen, the idea is heard.

Then, someone walks in. They enter quietly, sit in the back corner – and check email.

Attention shifts from the speakers, to the disruption. This means that the careful holding space speakers have cultivated with their opening, is lost and the audience isn’t quite listening.

The person who came late doesn’t even realise.

When you take action, that idea grows

We communicate to share ideas. We give talks because we want someone to do something – and we attend talks because we want to learn. Checking email during a presentation seems quiet, but everyone feels it, and you obviously can’t fully absorb what the speaker is saying. This means you are unlikely to do anything differently in your work or life as a result – which is the whole reason you are there.

Next time you attend an event, take a moment to consider the time your speaker has invested in preparing this talk, for you. Notice the time you are giving up to be there. And imagine how your listening, together with the speaker’s speaking, allows this wonderful idea to grow.

Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach, facilitator and social entrepreneur. She loves helping engineers, scientists and people with something important to tell the world, craft a meaningful, engaging presentation they can use again and again to help their field shine. For assistance with your next conference or panel appearance email rachael@rachaelwest.com.au.

Photo by Monica Silvestre.

If you have to use your mobile phone for speaking notes here are four things you should do

When you give a presentation, do you rely on your memory, or written prompts to keep you on track? In Why you should re-consider using your smart phone for speaking notes I explain why I don’t recommend you use a mobile phone to store your speaking prompts.

If, however, you absolutely must use your smart phone for notes, here are four things you should do:

1. Make sure your mobile phone is turned off, and in airplane mode.

It should be obvious why you’d silence your device on stage. But is airplane mode necessary? Answer: Absolutely. The nano-second of distraction when a notification appears on your screen is enough to lose your audience.

2. Don’t hold your phone in your hand when you walk on stage.

Nothing shouts social media addiction like a phone you can’t put down. The moment you walk in front of your audience, you want to give the impression you are ready for them. Keep your phone in your pocket until you need it* or, carry it with other props, such as a book or folder, so it looks like official speaking apparatus.

3. Tell your audience you’ll be using your phone for notes.

Help the crowd see your mobile phone as a boring, basic note keeping device, rather than the multi-media attention-grabber it is for most of us – simply by explaining what you will use it for. I occasionally use my phone as a clock when I deliver training; my go-to explanation: “I’m just using this to keep time”.

4. After referring to your phone, look up and take in the whole room.

In Why you should re-consider using your smart phone for speaking notes I explain that your gaze narrows when you look at your phone. This has a detrimental effect on your ability to engage the audience. If you do just one thing after reading this article, I would love it to be that after every glance at speaking notes on your phone, you look up, breathe in, and see your whole audience – before you start to speak.

*Hint: Aim to be note-free for your introduction. At minimum, you should be able to say your first line without a prompt.

Rachael West is a strategic speaker coach, facilitator and social entrepreneur. She loves helping engineers, scientists and people with something important to tell the world, craft a meaningful, engaging presentation they can use again and again to help their field grow. For information on coaching or workshops email rachael@rachaelwest.com.au.