I recently gave a Toastmaster in my club the most heartless, hurtful evaluation you can imagine. I’ve known her quite a while and have a good idea of how sensitive she is. Nevertheless, immediately after an important speech of hers, I said, “You call yourself prepared? Why didn’t you choose another direction for that speech? The audience hated it; didn’t you notice the man in the corner looking at his watch, and the woman who frowned the whole time? What about those slips of the tongue? And you call yourself a professional? How can you ever think of speaking again? Obviously a speaking career is not for you.”
As I look back, I don’t believe I made a single positive comment. And I didn’t stop. For days afterward, I kept haranguing her, making her feel positively miserable.
Several recent conversations have shown me that I’m not the only Toastmaster who treats members so shabbily. What is going on in our organization? Have we abandoned one of our greatest strengths: the effective, supportive and caring evaluation?
Yes – and no. The Toastmaster I evaluated was myself. When evaluating others, most of us are as thoughtful and helpful as we have been trained to be. Yet, when it comes to self-evaluation, we can be brutal. For some reason, we forget our excellent training.
What’s so bad about bad self-talk?
The problem is, thoughtless self-criticism can be every bit as damaging to a speaker as a poor public evaluation, sometimes even more so. A poorly executed evaluation in a club, as painful as it may be, lasts at most three minutes, with thirty seconds to wrap up. Afterward, other club members generally rush to the speaker’s side to assuage the harm.
But self-criticism can go on and on. After all, unless we share every negative thought with others, we have no one to refute them. What’s more, many of us tend to view our negative opinions of ourselves as more “objective” than those of outsiders, who are “just trying to be nice.”
Negative self-evaluation isn’t only hurtful because it can play on a feedback loop in our heads, or because we might take it more seriously than we do the more appreciative words of others. According to Barbara Hoberman Levine, author of Your Body Believes Every Word You Say, any negative self-talk can have a punishing effect on the mind, body and spirit. We tell ourselves that we are incapable of speaking, and we might just develop laryngitis or a stutter. We tell ourselves that we are hopeless and, sure enough, we lose hope.
Sadly, people at all levels of accomplishment engage in such harmful self-talk. At the last Toastmasters International Convention, I spoke to a workshop leader who was ex- tremely distressed at her “wooden” and “stilted” presentation. Also, a contestant in the International Speech Contest (one of the top 10 speakers in the world!) confided to me with some dismay that he had forgotten to make several important statements during the competition.
Here then, for those of us who tend to be our own toughest critics, are some points to remember when engaging in self-evaluation:
• Don’t agonize if you forgot to say something. Only you know what you failed to say. So what if you forget a line, or a story, or a joke? Most of the time, the audience will never notice it. As long as you are listening to yourself, and making a logical and coherent argument, no one will be the wiser. Besides, your subconscious often knows what you need to do far better than your conscious mind. Maybe there was a good reason you didn’t make the joke you’d planned, even if you don’t know what it was!
My husband once coached me on an early manual speech. He suggested I use a military chart, a pointer, and his leather army jacket as props; I was outlining tactics of some kind. I told him that I felt uncomfortable with the plan, but he assured me that it would be effective. He even drew a beautiful map for me to point to. After my speech was over, I realized that I had never referred to the chart, never pointed to the map. At first I was furious at myself, but then I realized I hadn’t been able to see myself doing that part of the speech, and, sure enough, I didn’t do it!
Author Joyce Carol Oates once wrote that writer’s block usually means that the thing that is being written is not authentic, that it does not reveal the writer’s true self. Perhaps the reason we forget parts of a speech is because we were never meant to say them in the first place.
• How did the audience react? Making a speech is, after all, communication. And communication is a two-way street. If the audience appreciated your speech, who are you to judge whether or not it was a true success?
On the other hand, maybe the audience didn’t react as you’d planned. Maybe you misjudged what would work for them. Does that make you a failure? Hardly. The speech might have been a stunning success with another crowd.
• Next time you feel you’ve “bombed,” ask yourself: “What can I learn from this experience?” It’s a cliche, perhaps, but everything we do really is an opportunity for learning. There will be times when the most important thing is not the prize, or the acclaim, or even the job, but the lesson. Perhaps the time you forgot your speech was one of those. Really good life lessons do not come cheaply. What’s more, we need to repeat them until we know them inside out.
• There can be only one winner. The most maddening thing about competition is one’s competitors. Case in point: When the movie Gone With the Wind earned the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1939, there were some sensational films that fell by the wayside. In any other year, The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Dark Victory and Wuthering Heights – every one of them a classic according to film buffs – might very well have been winners.
Judging is an inexact science, even, as we know, in beauty contests and Olympic events. As the Romans said, De gustibus non est disputandum. (“There is no disputing matters of taste.”) Even the most objective judges are only human, and humans use emotion, memory and a thousand other factors to make decisions. That doesn’t make them wrong. That just means other judges might have come up with other winners.
• Everyone has something to cheer about – even you. It happens to every Toastmaster. You are called upon to evaluate a speaker whose strengths may not be all that apparent. Yet you know that there is something positive to say about anybody. Somehow we forget that fact when we evaluate ourselves, however.
Next time you feel you didn’t do your best, ask yourself, What would I tell myself if I were someone else? Would I say that I looked professional? That my posture and bearing were authoritative? That my voice was pleasing? When we are down on ourselves, we tend to magnify our weaknesses and forget the very strengths that others recognize in us.
Remember, stressing the positive in someone’s performance is emphatically not a whitewash job. By emphasizing a speaker’s strengths, we are imbuing her with confidence and reminding her that she has much to give. That is what makes a speaker lose the less appealing qualities and focus even more on those positives. That is what makes a good speaker great.
• Who’s 100 percent, 100 percent of the time? We can work on a speech for a month, know it cold, and have a poor night’s sleep. Or, we can be distracted by the light in the room, the temperature or an itchy collar. Sure, we’re supposed to aim for professionalism, but these things happen. The perfect speaker has simply not been created yet. So, let’s give ourselves a break! To be human is to be a work in progress
Above all, let’s try to remember that the most important thing about any evaluation – of yourself or others – is that it inspires the speaker to go back and try again. You may think that you have let everyone down by not doing your best. But if your self-talk doesn’t accomplish the goal of getting you to try again, then you really have let everyone down. You have deprived the world of your continuing growth and achievement. And that, after all, is what life and Toastmasters are all about.
Caren S. Neile, Ph.D., is an ATMS/CL from West Boca Toastmasters. She is founding director of the South Florida Storytelling Project at Florida Atlantic University. Dr. Neile was a luncheon speaker at the 2006 Toastmasters International Convention and has been featured as an expert on storytelling on National Public Radio and in Cosmopolitan magazine.