For the Novice: Do You Dread Receiving an Evaluation?

For the Novice: Do You Dread Receiving an Evaluation?

Don’t be offended. It’s only an opinion! 

By James Clark, DTM

Why do prospective members hesitate to join a Toastmaster club, and why do some new members drop out early? My guess is that it is often because they worry about how their communication skills are received by other club members.

After all, individuals usually join with the hope of making a good impression and building friendships, as well as gaining professional development. Those who become discouraged in the early stages may not have been adequately prepared to receive feedback. New members are generally the most sensitive to constructive comments and the least familiar with the kind of feedback to expect.

As a result, new members should be told that Toastmasters clubs are comprised of the most empathetic listeners possible. Contrary to a popular misconception, people rarely join because they like speaking before an audience; they join because they are among those who least like public speaking but see the benefits and will work to overcome their fears. Many of us continue to stick around after public speaking has become fun, but we don’t forget the initial difficulties.

If given in accordance with Toastmasters guidelines, receiving an evaluation is generally a pleasant experience. Ideally the evaluator should consider the speaker’s sensitivity level and provide feedback that praises strengths and offers suggestions for improvement. A properly delivered evaluation should leave the speaker feeling encouraged and aware of their assets as a communicator. 

• New members should be aware that Toastmasters evaluators always offer suggestions for improvement. In other words, they should give up any expectations of receiving nothing but praise during an evaluation. The Toastmaster philosophy is, “No speech is perfect.” With so many key issues involved in the art of public speaking, no speaker is expected to master them all at once.

                    "A properly  delivered evaluation should leave the speaker feeling
                    encouraged and aware of their assets as a communicator."

• New members should know that evaluators are, at best, offering their own opinion. Experienced evaluators will typically offer similar suggestions. Even so, evaluators will often disagree in their reactions to a speaker and should remember to preface suggestion with phrases such as, “In my view,” to remind the speaker that his or her comments are subjective.

Members likely will benefit by carefully considering feedback, but none of us, no matter how experienced, is correct in presenting ourselves as an authority who speaks for the rest of the group. In my view, the more an evaluator forgets this rule, the more listeners may want to take his or her suggestions with a grain of salt. 

• New members should know that giving an effective evaluation is probably the most challenging job facing a Toastmaster at a regular meeting. Remember, an evaluation should be positive and acknowledge the speaker’s assets while at the same time tactfully suggest improvements. So demanding is this task that new members are generally not asked to attempt an evaluation until after they have completed a number of their own manual speeches and have heard numerous evaluations.

Ideally, new members are evaluated by senior members who know how to be appropriately sensitive. Because no system is perfect, and because delivering a good, considerate evaluation is so tricky – even for experienced members – the goals of an ideal evaluation are rarely met. Maybe the evaluator finds it difficult to observe anything significant and resorts to nit-picking. Perhaps the evaluator is actually trying to be witty; the joke falls flat, and the speaker misinterprets a comment as ridicule.

For whatever reason, all of us from time to time can expect to feel some sting from feedback. Such is life. But in enduring even that, we benefit by developing a thicker skin, which is part of what we should be seeking anyway.

James Clark, DTM, has been a Toastmaster for 22 years. A former division governor, he is a member of Switch-On Toastmasters and Ordnance Orators in San Jose, California.