The real strength of the Toastmasters program is the peer review process, the core of which is the speech evaluation.
The feedback we receive on our club speeches is the most helpful tool for growth because it is the most personal, and is tailored to our own skill level. Various factors determine the quality of that feedback. However, the most important one—one that we usually don’t think about—is what are we striving to achieve in our evaluations.
The sandwich approach is the model for Toastmasters evaluations. This is where you state the positives of the speech, suggest an area or two for improvement and finish with another positive comment. But in my 12 years as a member, I have all too often seen the balance between emphasizing strengths and offering suggestions tip heavily in the “strengths” direction. In the process, the learning component is lost. Why does that happen?
One reason is a club may shift its evaluation focus from being educational to being encouraging. There is nothing wrong with encouraging the speaker, of course. But if “positives only” becomes the focus, with virtually no significant suggestions for improvement, speakers can’t learn.
Another reason is the focus may have shifted from the content to the structure. It is quite common to hear something like, “That was a great evaluation. You used the sandwich approach.” If the evaluator uses this method but doesn’t provide useful information, then is it helpful or not?
One tool that should help is the Pathways evaluation process. In the new learning experience, evaluators use standardized criteria that help focus their feedback and increase the consistency of the evaluation experience. When members give speeches in Pathways, their skills are scored on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the highest. Categories on the evaluation form include “vocal variety,” “eye contact,” “gestures” and “clarity,” and these categories are reviewed in every speech so that the speaker can see their progress.
This should not only help educate the speaker, but also challenge evaluators to ask themselves, “What is good vocal variety, what is good eye contact, what is good body language?”
“If the creativity becomes the central focus of the evaluation, it can crowd the education right out of the picture.”
Pathways evaluations should thus lead to more thorough and relevant feedback for speakers and evaluators alike. (For more information about Pathways, visit the Toastmasters website.)
Another trend I am seeing more and more, especially in Speech Evaluation contests, is placing style over substance. Some evaluations have become productions. The evaluators get kudos for being creative or funny. Or they might get a pat on the back for not using notes.
You might think, Are those really problems? Isn’t all of that good? Perhaps, but what do we lose?
Evaluations are very limited in time, typically two to three minutes. If we want our feedback to be educational, much of that time should be spent educating. If a creative structure aids in the learning experience, great. If it takes time away from it, then I would suggest it is a problem. And if the creativity becomes the evaluation’s central focus, it can crowd the education right out of the picture.
I particularly disagree with a focus on memorizing your evaluation. With the limited time available to prepare an evaluation in a club meeting, and especially in a speech contest, you can’t memorize detail, only generalities.
To offer details, I give the speaker an example of what they said and what they could have said. An evaluator might typically say, “You need a better opening.” I prefer, “You opened your speech by saying ‘xyz.’ What if you had said ‘abc’?”
To directly quote such examples, I need to use notes.
We must be careful that our focus is on the learning, and, as such, on the speaker, and not on the evaluation “speech.” The question that we, the evaluators, should ask is, “What is the next step in the speaker’s growth?”
That, I believe, will help us provide a strong learning experience.
Bill Brown, DTM is a speech delivery coach from Las Vegas and a member of Ahead of the Curve Toastmasters. Learn more by visiting his website.