Some time ago I presented a three-hour workshop called “Push-ups for Self-Esteem.” After the session, the meeting planner and I looked over the evaluations. The first three I picked up were from people who had graded the workshop “poor” on everything: the room, the food, the location, the hotel and the speaker. The third person even wrote, “I have been more stimulated at a Tupperware party!”
I put the papers down and said, “I quit! If I am that bad, I don’t need to be speaking anymore.”
Trying to reassure me, the meeting planner said, “I know exactly which three people wrote these. They do this type of thing every year at our convention. I don’t even know why they come. Do not pay any attention. And read the rest of the stack.”
I did just that. All the rest had great comments, encouraging comments. Before I left, I said to the meeting planner, “Cecil, I want to know one thing: What on earth do you folks do at Tupperware parties for that woman to like those parties better than my presentation?”
Despite the many words of praise I know were expressed that day, the only observations I remember now are those negative comments. There is a saying: “It takes 11 positive statements to erase the one negative one.” Negative remarks stay with us a long time, whether or not we deserve them. So I learned to be careful when offering feedback. And I consider it a lesson worth sharing.
Let’s look, then, at how we can offer speaker eval- uations that are helpful rather than hurtful. There are basically three kinds of evaluations: the good, the bad and the ugly. Here’s a breakdown:
- The Good
These evaluations can help you become a better speaker. They usually include comments on things you did well and suggestions to help you improve your speech. If the opinions are expressed in a constructive manner, even tough issues can be addressed. This spirit of helping a fellow speaker improve a presentation leaves everyone smiling.
- The Bad:
These evaluations are generally non-constructive, petty, or so flowery they convey that the evaluator has not been listening or is too busy giving a speech of his own.
- The Ugly:
These evaluations spurn the idea of contributing anything helpful. They’re so hurtful that a member could drop out as a result of being victimized by one.
Talk About It
It takes skill to give a good evaluation. And members join Toastmasters in order to build their communication skills – which include giving evaluations. Take the opportunity in your club to discuss how to give evaluations properly. It can also help to have a member present Toastmasters’ The Art of Effective Evaluation program or review some of the other informative materials the organization makes available on this topic. (See sidebar on page 18).
Depending on the methods of your club, the General Evaluator’s role may include evaluating the speech evaluators. If a speech evaluator does not give supportive or constructive feedback, it’s the General Evaluator’s responsibility to point it out and describe for the group how to present suitable evaluations. This can be beneficial to a club, even if performed on an occasional basis, because it lets members know what is expected in an evaluation and what is inappropriate.
If the General Evaluator does not handle this sort of task in your club, you should still seek ways to improve this important portion of the Toastmasters experience. In any case, be sure to take advantage of the information and assistance provided by the Competent Leadership manual. This part of the Toastmasters education program offers suggestions and feedback forms for evaluations of speech evaluators. Several questions determine whether the evaluator appeared biased or thoughtless in evaluating a speech. And such reviews are usually performed at the same club meeting. Don’t let weeks go by without addressing evaluation problems in your club. No club can afford to take a chance on losing members because of a bad or ugly evaluation.
When to Try and When to Shy (Away From Something)
When you first begin giving evaluations, look at how some of the veterans in the club give them. Try out the techniques you like, to see what fits your personality and abilities. This will allow you to grow and learn.
I’m a humorist, so when I deliver an evaluation I try to mix playfulness with pointers. For example, I might have fun with words by saying something like, “You had a great opening and a fantastic body, but you need to change your close.” When I say the last few words, I tug on my own clothes, yanking at the sleeves, to sell the pun. After the chuckles die down, I switch gears and explain what I think truly needs to be changed. Whether or not my suggestions are about the “close” of the speech doesn’t matter at that point. My little one-liner has helped to put the speaker and fellow club members in a lighter mood so they’re more relaxed and receptive to my suggestions.
A little light humor is one thing, but you should be careful to avoid a combative or hurtful evaluation. And you should dismiss any such evaluations that come your way. That is not what evaluations should be. Speaker feedback is meant to be given with encouragement and in a friendly environment – especially verbal evaluations. No one should ever cringe when hearing their speech assessed by a fellow member.
There are times, of course, when certain points need to be driven home – particularly if the speaker has been a member for several years – but that doesn’t mean to get ugly. No one wants to hear degrading remarks. If a presentation was truly bad, you should talk to the speaker in private to offer suggestions for improvement. And make sure you’re always as respectful as possible in your comments.
Experienced Toastmasters agree. “In my early days in Toastmasters we had a guy in our club who was downright mean in his evaluations,” says Past International Director Frank Slane, DTM. “I made a vow at that time to make my evaluations acceptable and useful in a kind, courteous and truthful way.”
That positive practice served both Slane and his fellow members well. “Applying my philosophy once saved a Toastmaster from quitting,” he says. “She told me after the club meeting that she had come that evening to make that her last speech, and to drop out, but because of my evaluation she decided to stay.”
Being respectful and encouraging in an evaluation doesn’t mean making such flowery remarks that you gloss over any constructive criticisms. If that were the case, a speaker would never know how to improve. You can be honest while still being polite and supportive. It’s helpful to preface your remarks by reminding the speaker that you are about to give your own opinion of the speech, and that other opinions may vary.
Give and Take
Just as there’s a good way of giving evaluations, there’s also a good way to receive them. A speaker needs to be open to instructive feedback. When you get the same comments again and again about ways you can improve or things you did incorrectly, it’s a good idea to examine them. There is probably some truth in the remarks, and it may be time to figure out how to change certain habits. Sometimes we are not aware that we have nervous habits that are distracting to our audience. As a professional speaker, I don’t want those kinds of issues to stay with me. It’s much better to hear about negative or distracting problems from my Toastmasters family than to read it on an evaluation form from a meeting planner or an attendee.
When receiving critical evaluations, look at them carefully. What can you learn from them? Have you heard this feedback before? Did you disregard it because you didn’t like the evaluator?
However, sometimes it’s appropriate to consider the source. Does this person ever give good evaluations? Does he ever have anything constructive to say? Does she give everyone a bad evaluation? Does he like to pick on certain people? Could she be jealous or a bit intimidated by you? Do you respect this evaluator as a speaker and person?
It’s also important to remember that all evaluations are opinions. The assessment offered isn’t right or wrong – it’s just one person’s thoughts on your speech. Take what you can use, and don’t worry about the rest. Be positive and receptive to the advice that evaluators offer – not defensive. After all, if their suggestions helped you improve, wouldn’t you be thankful for it?
In the stories that follow, two speakers reacted very differently to evaluations they received. The value of the experiences were affected by their reactions.
One night at a club meeting, I observed a speaker who usually gave extremely interesting and prepared speeches. However, this night anyone could tell she was woefully ill prepared. She stammered and stuttered, stumbled over words and ideas. When she received an evaluation pointing out the awkwardness of her delivery, she said she wasn’t surprised by the criticism. Furthermore, she used the input as helpful advice. From that experience and evaluation she resolved to do several things: take more time to prepare, not allow her own speech to intimidate her, and remember that as long as she does the best she can, that’s all she can ask.
The point is, she used constructive criticism as a springboard for growth and improvement – not something to get angry or depressed about.
Here’s the other example: At a club meeting one night, a speaker made a controversial political statement that was not integral to the speech. The evaluator told him she was uncomfortable with the comment. The speaker never returned to the club.
When he received that evaluation, he had several choices in how to respond: He could have continued to attend club meetings, and learn and grow; talk to the evaluator, his mentor or a club officer about the evaluation; or just decide that he disagreed with the evaluation and continue to deliver the speeches he felt comfortable giving. But by forming a defensive response and dropping out completely after one remark, he did himself a disservice.
We all need to take well-meaning evaluations as helpful, not critical. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent.”
Speakers who truly want to improve want concrete evaluations. If we don’t get our flaws corrected, they could block our effectiveness and our progress. Asking for and accepting evaluations will boost your ability to see these pesky yet critical behaviors that, when faced and mastered, become stepping stones to success.
Carol Dean Schreiner, DTM, is a member of the Sooner Club in Norman, Oklahoma, and the Boomer Storytelling Club in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. A motivational speaker and humorist, she is the author of four books, including Wonder Woman Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Reach her at www.caroldean.com.
Editor’s Note: Carol will lead a session at this year’s Toastmasters International Convention, on Saturday, August 15. The title of her presentation is “Taking Care of Your Favorite Speaker: You!”