“The words of the tongue should have three gatekeepers:
Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it kind?” – ARABIAN PROVERB
This proverb can serve as a guide during our everyday conversations. It is capable of enriching almost any exchange we have with others, and it may be especially helpful when we serve as speech evaluators.
Our organization provides several excellent resources that delineate the role and responsibilities of an evaluator. The judging form used in our evaluation contests reflects the criteria of a good evaluation. Points are distributed among three primary categories: Analysis, Recommendation and Encouragement. These are the three strengths we must bring to the job of speech evaluation, and each can be related to one of the three “gatekeepers” in the quote above.
ANALYSIS: Is it true? Are we accurate and honest in our response to what we heard and saw during the presentation?
“Kathy” took almost three years to get to her ninth manual speech. She struggled with self-consciousness but steadily improved over time. Meanwhile, she served as club secretary and vice president membership, bringing enormous dedication to her work. However, except for officer training sessions, Kathy did not attend any Toastmasters events outside her club.
We nearly lost this valued club member after she volunteered to be the “test speaker” at another club’s evaluation contest. When she stammered through her material and forgot to shake the hand of the contest chairman, two of the three evaluation contestants assumed she was a new member giving one of her first presentations. Because they did not know her personally, they incorrectly interpreted her nervousness and assured her that she would improve “after you’ve been here awhile.” Even though their feedback was meant to be reassuring, she was deeply embarrassed and discouraged by their comments.
When serving as an evaluator, we must use all powers of observation to absorb the entirety of the speaker’s communication. It is important to distinguish between objective observation and subjective interpretation of what we see and hear. Jumping to conclusions does not serve the speaker or contribute to the learning experience for the rest of the audience.
Our subjectivity becomes apparent whenever we find ourselves thinking, He’s talking about golf. I think that’s a boring topic, so I’m sure it will be a boring speech, or, She’s very nervous, so she must be new to public speaking. Both of these thought progressions have allowed a personal assumption to color what we are actually seeing and hearing from the speaker. Our feedback will be distorted by our assumptions, and our response will not be true to the speech that was given.
Active listeners also use their ears to follow how the topic is being approached and developed by the speaker. They seek to absorb and understand the speaker’s thoughts and feelings, even if the topic itself is of no special interest to them. They take special care to suspend personal judgment if they find the topic to be unappealing, so they can focus on the speaker’s perspective and purpose, along with his or her choice of content, words and vocal tone. Active listeners also use their eyes as a secondary resource, for observing the effectiveness of gestures, facial expressions and visuals.
When we strive to develop our skills as active listeners, we learn to use our ears and eyes objectively. Then, we can focus our analysis on our objective observations, and we can create a “true” picture of the speech in our minds. This allows us to avoid making personal assumptions, and respond to the presentation with honesty and accuracy.
RECOMMENDATION: Is it necessary? Will our suggestions be of practical help to the speaker and the audience who are hoping to learn from our comments?
“Ira” was an experienced Toastmaster in a nearby club. When I served as a guest evaluator for his project from the advanced manual, Humorously Speaking, I was impressed by his self-assurance, polished delivery and clarity of expression. However, Ira’s speech did not contain anything that roused the audience to laughter. Rather than entertain us, he attempted to give an educational speech about the history of humor. He included many interesting facts, but delivered them in a straightforward manner.
My attention went back and forth between Ira’s presentation and the manual feedback form. Clearly, he was not meeting the guidelines provided! I struggled to create an evaluation that would be both truthful and practical in its response to Ira’s difficulties in fulfilling this assignment. I did not want to be a brutally harsh critic nor an ineffectual “whitewasher.”
At times like this, it helps to compare the role of speech evaluator to that of an athletic coach, and our meetings to practice sessions. No matter how much effort and anxiety goes into preparing a Toastmasters manual speech, it is just a practice session. The big game may be an upcoming speech contest, a formal business presentation, or an important job interview, but what we do in our regular Toastmasters meetings boils down to… practice. The evaluator is merely a coach whose purpose is to observe that day’s practice session and provide specific recommendations for making the next session (and the next real game) more successful.
Recommendation should not focus on “what went wrong” but on “what might work better.” It looks forward, rather than backward. Recommendation needs to be practical and concrete: Take time to be specific and provide examples that you believe to be within the capacity of the speaker, so that your suggestions may be applied directly to his or her future speeches.
When I stepped to the lectern, I smiled encouragingly at Ira. I acknowledged the strengths he had shown in his powerful speaking presence. Rather than say that this particular presentation had failed, I admitted that humor had been one of my biggest challenges in Toastmasters and asked whether he had felt the same pressure in preparing this speech. He nodded.
Before Ira could develop skill as a humorous speaker, it was necessary for him to consider and experiment with different strategies. He needed recommendations that would help him find ways to incorporate comedy into his speaking style. To help Ira, and others in the audience, I focused my feedback on describing various techniques for humor that I’d tried, and which ones eventually worked for me.
I was thrilled when, at the end of the meeting, Ira rushed up and shook my hand enthusiastically. He said that I had given him exactly the recommendations he needed to go home and write his next humorous speech!
ENCOURAGEMENT: Is it kind? Do we provide support that allows the speaker to feel good about his or her effort and encouraged to present again?
“Roy” was another dedicated member who struggled with a specific challenge: his high energy often caused him to speak quickly and rely on a favorite filler word. He worked very hard on this problem and was making progress from month to month. One day, we had several new guests at our meeting and needed a last-minute replacement speaker. Roy volunteered and I agreed to evaluate him.
Despite a serious lack of preparation, his speech was full of humor and delightful, spontaneous observations. The adrenaline pumping through his system added to the vitality of the speech, as well as to his speaking rate and repeated use of that filler word – I lost count somewhere around 64! I glanced at the faces of our guests, and realized they were laughing at Roy’s jokes but having trouble understanding his quickly-voiced words. If I were to be truthful in my evaluation, and cover all of the necessary areas for improvement, what could I say about his most obvious speaking challenges?
The manual’s feedback form was very helpful in this situation, because it reminded me of several specific objectives that were to be met in this assignment. In organizing my comments, I began by addressing the areas where Roy was most successful. First, I congratulated him on achieving his goal: he entertained us all. Next, I shared my awareness that Roy had done an excellent job of preparing his material – considering that he volunteered to speak on very short notice. I described the techniques he had used to fulfill most of the criteria in the manual assignment. Where I had suggestions for improvement, I included the phrase, “when you have more time to prepare, you might try…” as a way of providing practical feedback that could be put to use in future presentations.
Although evaluations are addressed to a particular speaker, they are also intended to benefit the other people in the audience, which may include experienced members, novices and guests. Our guests were surely expecting me to comment on Roy’s speaking rate and use of that filler word. I chose to use this as an opportunity to demonstrate how a Toastmasters evaluator may provide additional feedback that addresses specific challenges the speaker is working on.
Because I was familiar with Roy’s struggles, I could be tactful in mentioning that I noticed his rapid speech and several uses of his filler word. (It was not necessary for me to state the actual number of times I heard him use the word!) I congratulated him on his continued effort and improvement over the past months. I then explained to the audience that whenever we are under stress, it is likely that our habitual speaking patterns will become more pronounced. Knowing this, we need to take a moment to remind ourselves to look out for any specific bad habits we are hoping to break.
Honest and practical feedback about Roy’s speech was a result of analyzing his presentation and providing specific recommendations. However, it was also important to publicly encourage a member who had given us all the gift of his delightful humor. The kindness of encouragement allowed Roy to feel good about his contribution to the meeting, while assuring the audience that he was applying effort and receiving support in addressing his specific challenges.
Speech evaluation is one of the most precious gifts we can offer our fellow Toastmasters members. We use our eyes and ears to analyze content and delivery and to determine what is true; we use our minds to formulate recommendations that address what is necessary. Most importantly, we use our hearts to provide encouragement and sustain the kind and supportive environment that nurtures us all. The ultimate success of an evaluation can be measured by how fully it encourages the speaker to present more – and better – speeches in the future.
Shelia Spencer, DTM, is a member of the Leadership Roundtable Toastmasters club and a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.