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

Be a better speaker – be yourself

Quieter types in my speaker workshops are usually a bit nervous. They think I am going to make them be loud and vivacious. But if would be a very boring world if everyone had the same mannerisms on stage.

Being an engaging speaking is less about trying to ‘do’ something, and more about bringing out what they already have. In my Engaging Presentations Workshop, one of the first things we practice is “presence”.

“Presence” starts when you tune in to who you are – in fact how you are – before you’ve said a word.

It can be pretty scary to notice how you feel on stage, what you’re thinking about, and how you move (some of the first things we practice) – which is why most people avoid it.

Most of the time, though, the way you move when you are enthused by what you are talking about (which, quite frankly, you should be if you are going to get up and talk about it in front of lots of people) will be a delight to watch. Lots of people I speaker coach are worried they wave their arms around too much; often because someone once told them they should be perfectly still when speaking.

There’s a power in stillness, but when you are moved to move, and you follow that impulse – your audience will see you.  (Which is, after all, why they are there.)

What to do if you stuff up during a talk

“What advice do you have if you stuff up in the middle of your talk?”

This was a question raised after my “Finding Your Voice workshop at the Local Government Professionals Women’s Forum.

I asked the gent in question if he had a specific situation in mind: there’s a big difference between forgetting your words, and the crowd throwing tomatoes because you’ve said something uninformed or racist.

Turned out he didn’t have a clear example of the kind of mistake he worried he might make. Rather, his question reflected a fear many of us have: that something terribly bad (but as yet unknown) will happen in front of a lot of people.

Take a moment now, to think about how many conference stuff-ups you can recall.

For myself, the few negative memories I have are of speakers who were boring, didn’t prepare, went overtime and wasted the audience’s time. Those who forgot their words, cried, or broke a shoe I tended to find endearing – human. Especially if they handled it with humour and grace.

So, my short answer to the question about what to do if you make a mistake: presuming you have prepared appropriately, your audience really doesn’t mind. In fact, mistakes often yield benefits.

People like to see humans
No one goes to a conference to listen to an automaton. If you say something silly, trip or lose your place, it reminds the audience that you are an ordinary person, just like them. Being relatable is useful if you want other people to think they can do what you’re advising them to.

Caveat: The audience expects you to be ready for the talk!
While you are totally allowed to make mistakes, kindliness towards such errors applies only if you have put some effort into planning your talk. If you’re waffly and mumbly ‘coz you haven’t done the hard yards, your listeners will not be so patient!

If you totally lose it, why not let the audience in on what’s happening.
Did you research your topic, rehearse and do everything you could to ensure the audience would get value from giving up their time to listen to you? Great! Then all you need to do when you lose your spot is say something like, “Hmm…sorry, I seem to have missed a whole chunk. It was really important so if you don’t mind I’m going to go back to it!” Breathe in, and resume when you are ready. It might even get a laugh.

Mistakes can be opportunities
I lost my place in this very workshop! Since I am a speaker coach, I thought I should follow my own advice so, after a moment of internal panic, I paused, said to the audience, “I have completely lost my place”, and looked down at my notes until I worked out where I was. An audience member told me later that she appreciated my approach! “Seeing you confused about your slides and finding your place again was really good. It helped us see the human element”.

Bonus advice: Strategic mistakes
When I used to perform clown shows (modern clown) mistakes we made by accident were often so funny for the audience we would work them in the following night. Perhaps I should make losing my place in this workshop a built-in feature for next time.

If you’re relying on a script so there’s no possibility of making a mistake, you may like to check out How to deliver a presentation without notes

Or read more about speaker coaching for your next conference or professional presentation.

3 (more) tips for more confident, live presentations

Annabel Crabb, Leigh Sales and Jamila Rizvi were just some of the impressive professional speakers headlining this year’s Women in Mining WA Summit. With 800 men and women in the audience (three years ago the summit catered to about 300 predominantly women), the discourse about diversity and inclusion has stepped up a notch. A good speaker can help a good cause immensely, so here are three tips from these experts to help you give better, live presentations about the cause you care about:

1. Remember to connect with your audience
In How to use notes AND look at your audience when you give a presentation I explained how Annabel Crabb uses notes, and looks at her audience. The key to doing this effectively is good preparation. Preparation gives you confidence to take in your audience, rather than vaguely glancing at them before looking down to work out what to say next. If you want a technical word for this, use the clown term “complicité”. It’s the non-verbal connection you develop with your audience.

2. Acknowledge other speakers
Professor Bill Wood is invited annually to WIMWA for his rigorous presentation of data on myths like “merit-based” employment. One thing Bill does that I really admire: He continuously references other speakers. This shows Professor Wood recognises his talk is part of something bigger, that he has respect for the other speakers, and that he is prepared enough to be able to pay attention to everyone else.

3. Take off your high heels
This one comes direct from Jamila Rizvi. I’ve never heard it before but it’s wise counsel. “Nothing like high heels to make you feel unstable,” Jamila said in her conversation with Leigh Sales. If you don’t have the ankle strength to own stilettos like an Amazonian, leave them behind and let your strength and presence show through your great talk.

If you’re not yet prepared enough to think about which shoes you’ll be wearing start with Tips for giving great presentations: my experience as a TEDx speaker coach

Or read more about speaker coaching for your next conference or professional presentation.

How to deliver a presentation without notes

Image: Henderson Graphics

Most TED talks are delivered without notes. This only happens because speakers prepare, prepare and prepare some more. My own TEDx talk commanded almost full time preparation for a fortnight before, not to mention weeks prior of evenings and weekends.

It is possible to speak eloquently without notes. Here are 3 tips for preparing to present without notes.

1. Use key headings as rehearsal prompts
Once your talk is more or less on track, write down the key point of each paragraph. Transfer these to a single page and use them prompts to practice your talk. Look at the key point, take it in and “feel” what the paragraph is about. This should take at least one breath. Once you feel anchored, look up and speak from the heart.  Repeat for each paragraph.

2. Aim for a memorised talk, delivered naturally
A talk you have only just committed to memory can sound tentative, even rehearsed. Once you really know your words you will feel more comfortable being yourself. Rehearse individual paragraphs over and over until you deliver exactly what you want to say, naturally. Your precise words may vary, but you should feel that your tone of voice, body language and words combine to express something you believe in. If you can’t deliver a memorised talk naturally, it may be that your words do not accurately reflect what you believe deep down. Go back to the planning stage and re-assess your key messages.

3. Get comfortable with pausing to think
When you forget your words in front of a big audience, it’s tempting to rush on and hope no one has noticed. Unfortunately, this usually has the opposite effect: you talk faster and even less coherently. Better to breathe in, take in your audience and mentally re-find your place. These pauses feel like forever for you but are a mere blip for the audience. And actually the audience usually loves pauses because they have time to digest your important words! Resume your talk on a breath out.

Delivering a talk without notes and that actually makes a useful point takes time. This investment pays off though as a good talk can be delivered again and again to new audiences.

If you do need to use notes (which is completely allowed and not a sign you are a more fallible human being) read How to use notes AND look at your audience when you give a presentation.

Read more about speaker coaching for your next conference or professional presentation.

How to use notes AND look at your audience (inspired by Annabel Crabb)

When a conference speaker reads directly from their notes it doesn’t usually make for the most exciting listening. As an audience member, when someone is looking down you don’t feel connected and it’s hard to pay attention.

“I could have just read the journal article”, you might think.

There’s nothing wrong with notes – except for the fact that almost everyone who does so ends up with monotonous “reading voice”.

The exception is the likes of Annabel Crabb, who I watched read from her notes at the 2017 Women in Mining WA Summit, while remaining gloriously entertaining and engaging. Here are 4 tips for being more Annabel-like fabulous in your next public speaking appearance, by using notes more effectively.

Step 1. Double check that you wouldn’t be better off writing a blog post or recording a podcast than talking to hundreds of people
If you need to read your notes for a talk, would a podcast or written article be more effective? You can reach thousands of people and archive them for later use. If you decide you do really need to speak live, a blog post or recording can capture some of your points as ‘pre-reading’ or followup to compliment your talk.

Step 2. Don’t believe yourself when you say “I’ll have my notes just in case”
Plenty of high-profile speaker use notes (Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales are two great examples). If you will give a better talk with notes, you are allowed to have notes too. But if you are telling yourself you want your word-for-word script in your hand “just in case I lose my spot” you might be kidding yourself. I find this generally doesn’t work. The instant a public speaker with script in hand loses her place and looks down, she starts reading. Rather than a check to re-gain her place she becomes reliant on those notes. Instead: make a conscious decision to use notes or not to use them, and rehearse appropriately.

Step 3. Train yourself out of vague glances to the audience
You learned in highschool that it was important to look up at your audience. It is. But you may have noticed that speakers often look up for a quarter of a second without actually connecting with you.  This serves no purpose because you haven’t achieved the point of looking at the audience: to make them feel connected with you. In fact, this kind of audience “vague-ing” can have the opposite effect: losing your place makes you nervous, so you rely on your notes more.

Step 4. Look at your audience, intentionally, take them in – and then read
As MC at the 2017 Women in Mining WA Summit Annabel Crabb relied heavily on notes. If you’ve watched her on TV she often does this in her interviews – for good reason. But Annabel did not use “reading voice” or throw vague glances at the audience. Instead, she looked intensely at her audience in the pauses. Her gaze was intentional, and long enough to feel she had seen us. She then began to read – but magically not in “reading voice”. My clown teacher would always remind us to be their for the audience. With Annabel, we always felt she was there for us.

The next time you are public speaking, remember that what you are doing is, above all, for your audience. Connect with them, and their energy will fuel you, igniting you to give even more.

Read more about speaker coaching for your next conference or professional presentation.