What? A Standing Ovation for an Evaluation?
Thoughts on giving
an exceptional evaluation.
By Judith Tingley, Ph.D., DTM
A few months ago, while hiking in Sedona, the red-rock country an hour and a half north of Phoenix, Arizona, I met a woman who was also a Toastmaster. When she found out I was a member of Park Central Toastmasters, she said, “I’ve heard a lot of great things about Park Central, but the one thing I’ve heard most often is, ‘If you want to experience superb evaluation, go to Park Central.’ “I was happy to hear her view because I think well-intentioned, honest, supportive, encouraging feedback accelerates the learning curve and inspires us to reach up and take risks when we speak.
Intelligent, thoughtful evaluations are unique to Toastmasters. Our friends and relatives may listen endlessly as we rehearse our speeches. They may even tolerate our spouting off spontaneously on odd topics at unexpected times. Civic involvement as well as work can encourage us to learn, expand and use our leadership skills. But I know of no other settings where we can receive targeted, objective and constructive feedback on our speeches. And there are no real-life negative consequences even if the evaluation is negative – with the exception of an occasional bruised ego.
Years ago I earned the nickname “boom-boom” in my club because in one of my early evaluations of an experienced speaker, I mentioned that his speech was on a trivial topic and was boring too – a double lowering of the boom. I’ve learned since how to do a better job of being honest and constructive rather than honest and harsh.
Most Toastmasters have their own strong ideas about how evaluations ought to be conducted, and I’m no exception. My club uses these basics to guide evaluators:
• Call the speaker before the meeting, find out the manual she’s using, the level and the objectives of the speech as well as the speaker’s particular needs related to her development.
• Check in again the morning of the speech. You’re the coach and you need to know how your speaker is feeling, thinking, being. Be sure you have his manual so he can receive credit for the speech.
• Be ready to give your total attention to your speaker, even before she comes to the lectern. Clear your mind of judgments and extraneous thoughts, and tune in. Listen openly and attentively.
• Make some notes, but don’t attempt to write the evaluation as you listen.
• Summarize your notes, using the objectives from the manual, and organize your evaluation as you would a speech: with an introduction, a body and a close.
• Get ready to give the evaluation. This is your big moment. Whoops, think again! This is the speaker’s big moment, to hear the thoughts, feelings and suggestions you have about the speech.
• Stand up in front of your audience as you would if you were giving a regular speech. It is one – although shorter than the typical five- to seven-minute speech. Address the general evaluator, your audience and particularly the speaker.
Here are some more tips to help you do the most valuable evaluation.
• Focus on specifics. “Your enthusiastic opening inspired us from the start.” “Your clear chronological organization helped us understand your speech quickly.”
• Focus on positives. “Your opening grabbed the audience. The audience looked mesmerized.”
• Give concrete suggestions. “The splashy ending might have worked better as the opening.” “Decrease the details in the stories or the number of stories you told so we could stay on track.”
• Point out needed areas for improvement. “This speech would have been even more effective in front of the lectern.”
• Don’t repeat the speaker’s content. We’ve heard it.
• Focus entirely on the speaker, not on yourself, your similar or different experiences, or your equally stellar qualities.
• Focus on the speech, not on the speaker’s personality, values or lifestyle.
• Focus on the delivery, not the rightness or wrongness of the content or your agreement or disagreement with the speaker’s perspective.
Two or three years ago, at Park Central Toastmasters, Lee Robert received a standing ovation for her evaluation of Frank Switzer’s contest-winning speech about sex offenders. That was a first in my years of experience as a Toastmaster. What did Lee do that made her evaluation so outstanding? What can we all learn from her success that we can use to improve our own evaluations?
• Lee focused on the speech, the construction, the organization, the delivery. She didn’t focus on the challenging content and tell us what Frank had told us. We heard him, loud and clear. She never talked about her opinion about sex offenders, her experience with sex offenders, sex offenders she had known, or about her perception of Franks’s opinion, his values, his personality. She focused on the speech and its delivery. She gave concrete, specific suggestions about how Frank could improve his speech, which she also briefly demonstrated.
• Lee adapted her evaluation to the speaker. What does that mean? She introduced her evaluation by saying, “This is an advanced evaluation for an advanced speaker.” We all knew, as did Frank, that a powerful critique was coming down the pike. As Lee said later, “If Frank is going to the regional conference, he certainly needs to be ready to hear more than a whitewash.”
Evaluators need to make an acknowledgement of the level of the speaker’s progress in the Toastmaster manuals. When the evaluator structures his or her evaluation with the manual objectives, not only the speaker, but the whole audience understands exactly what the expectations are.
The evaluation of new speakers needs to be encouraging, but not without constructive thoughts for future improvements. The evaluation of experienced speakers requires more analysis and in-depth evaluation, without whitewashing, so that they, too, are challenged to escalate their skills.
• If in doubt, ask others. As part of her evaluation, Lee asked us all as a group, before she stated her opinion, whether we were offended by a certain comment in Frank’s presentation. When a large number of people said they were, she commented, “Drop that part, Frank.” She didn’t give him heat for his comment. e.g. “Frank, that’s really insensitive, bad judgment or poor taste.” She just stated the obvious. “Let it go.”
Another way to do the same thing if you’re not sure about your own reaction, is to ask the people around you what they think. Did they see the organization of the speech clearly, even if you didn’t? Did they get the point early and you didn’t?
Being well and thoroughly evaluated is perhaps the biggest opportunity Toastmasters offers all of us. Most of us can’t find that feedback anyplace else. Everyone wants to improve and wants to help others improve. And I know you’ll agree, one of the very best ways to achieve that goal is to work on perfecting our evaluations.
Do your fellow Toastmasters a favor. Whether you evaluate them on paper or upfront, give each a solid evaluation, adapted to that speaker, focused on the speech, offering objective comments. Make that a goal, fellow Toastmasters, and the quality of your already great club will improve dramatically in the next year as the quality of your evaluations improves. You too, like Lee Robert, may be surprised by a standing ovation!
Judith C. Tingley, Ph.D., DTM, is an author and psychologist as well as a Toastmaster for more than 20 years. Based in Phoenix, Arizona, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.