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

Why you should re-consider using your smart phone for speaking notes

We use our phones for everything, from alarms to metronomes. Referring to your phone while you are giving a talk is one thing I recommend you don’t do.

1. When you walk on stage with your mobile phone, you look like you are – walking on stage with your mobile phone
You know your phone is your notes system, and your audience will probably work it out pretty quickly, but they don’t know this the moment you walk on stage. First impressions are made the instant you appear on stage so a phone in the hand may signal unprofessional, or that you can’t put your technology down.

2. Looking at a small screen narrows your gaze
If your audience is tech savvy and phones-for-notes the norm, there is still an issue that will distance you. Each time you glance down at your phone for your notes, your eyesight narrows. Think about what happens when you look at a work screen then lift your gaze to the horizon – it takes a moment for your eyes to readjust. To have a good connection with your audience you need to be able to take them in, to include them all in your awareness. When your visual field (and therefore attention) narrows, so too does your ability to hold the attention of every person in that room.

3. You hold a phone lower than paper notes
When speakers look at mobile phones, my observations is that they bend their neck considerably, closing themselves off to the audience. We tend to hold paper notes higher, giving more open body language.

4. You’re swiping when you should be engaging
Most screens are pretty small, so you’ll generally need to swipe up and down to follow your notes. This means your eyes are away from your audience for longer. It also means you are doing more than looking at your devide – you are interacting with it when you could be attending to your audience.

5. Mobile phones take our brains into another zone
When was the last time you used your phone just for the task you intended and didn’t find yourself checking four other apps while you were there? Habits are hard to break, so you may find a moment on stage where – despite your best intentions – your brain has thought about what else you could do on your phone. It may be a nano-second but it’s enough to break your flow and lose your audience.


Rachael has been a facilitator, speaker and speaker coach for over 10 years. She coached two TEDx Perth speakers to standing ovation and has helped numerous graduates and executives prepare talks and panel appearances that raise their professional presence. Email to find out more.

Be a better speaker – listen closely to your audience

Nothing taught me more about public speaking and facilitation than studying clown. Ironically, clown is a practice that involves very little talking.

In clown, we listen closely to how we are feeling because we know the audience will pick it up. It’s vulnerable, but also the key to wrapping the audience around your little finger.

This step in listening – first to ourselves and then the audience – is possible after ‘getting comfortable with being uncomfortable’, which I covered in the last post.

‘Fake it until you make it’ only takes you so far
What I learned in clown about listening goes against much of the advice I see given to public speakers. If the clown ever fakes something (which she often does) she let’s the audience in on it. This brings the audience in to the show – think engagement. Faking it, by contrast, sets up a divide.

Listeners know when you’re genuine
While starting with a smile can work magic, actively covering up your discomfort on stage can look a little weird. It’s like trying to convince a good friend you’re fine when you’re not: either your friend will pick up your true mood, or interpret your behaviour as a sign you aren’t happy to see them.

Tune into your audience
If you’re trying desperately to look tough and happy when you’re very, very nervous, you’ll get tied up in your own thoughts. Get comfortable with the discomfort, and then turn your attention to your audience.

Break down the fourth wall and let the magic happen
The fourth wall is the imaginary line between actors and audience in a stage production. Clowns break down that wall, by being part of the audience and vice versa. Develop your skill of listening to bring your audience past that wall. They’ll get more out of the talk, and you will feel it.

Delve more into this topic in one-on-one speaker coaching with Rachael West. Email to find out more.

Be a better speaker – get comfortable with being uncomfortable

I’m yet to coach a speaker who isn’t worried they will forget what they’re saying. I personally don’t think it’s a massive problem if you do forget your words – or fall off the stage for that matter. The audience will get over it.

But if you are worried you will do something stupid, you can end up doing some weird stuff on stage.

Now, one argument says you should stand up straight and smile and no one will know you’re shaking inside. It’s not a bad tool to have up your sleeve. But I’ve found a more powerful option:

Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Imagine this scenario:
You forget your words mid-talk.
You pause and it feels awkward.
Half a second passes. For you, it feels like an hour.
You still haven’t said anything.
You don’t want the audience to suspect you’re uncomfortable so you try to mask your panic and push on.
In a bid to stay composed you talk faster to fill the gap.

In fact, this can happen when you haven’t forgotten your words. It can happen when you’re worried you will.

Instead, get comfortable with the uncomfortable. It’s normal. But most importantly, the moments where you are comfortable with uncomfortable are the moments you can listen to your audience, playfully feed off their energy and deliver a really engaging talk. Not just one where you look confident.

Delve more into this topic through speaker coaching. Get in touch at

Be a better speaker – the power of stillness and natural movement when you speak

Given the choice, do you choose to speak behind a lectern, or do you like a lapel mic so you can roam free? I choose the lapel, but recommend new speakers I coach do whichever they find most comfortable.

Sometimes, speakers who normally prefer the protection of the lectern challenge themselves to use a microphone. We then do some work on how they move on stage.

Standing on the open stage lets the audience see you. This is powerful.

It also raises the sometimes awkward question, “But what do I do with my body?”

I encourage speakers to allow natural movement.*

To find your natural movement, and its full power, first root yourself first in stillness. The stillness I am talking about is not contrived, and it’s not the clasp-my-hands-tightly-behind-your-back-so-I-don’t-do-something-stupid kind.

Rather, stillness is relaxed and open. It says to the crowd, “I am here for you, dear audience” (I quote my clown teacher, Rick Allen).

“What I have to say is important and I want you to hear it.”

When you find that presence and physical stillness, you force emotion into your voice, and expression into your face (in a good way!). Many conferences are so large these days that speakers are projected onto a large screen, making it even more potent for your audience.

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*Pacing, on the other hand, is often distracting for the audience and – in my experience – a sign the speaker is not totally comfortable.