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July 2024
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Learning to Evaluate Everybody

Don't be intimidated by title or tenure; both new and advanced members benefit from honesty.

By Megan Preston Meyer


An unfortunate phenomenon plagues some Toastmasters clubs, and it’s one we don’t often talk about. It holds members back from achieving their potential and progressing as quickly as they could.

Rita Barber, DTM, of San Jose, California, is working on her third Distinguished Toastmaster designation, and she calls it “the curse of the DTMs” because the title tends to intimidate other members. This “curse” can affect any experienced member and just as unfortunately, it affects less experienced members, as well.

The issue is this: New members sometimes feel unqualified to evaluate experienced speakers, and are therefore too intimidated to try. This means that seasoned speakers miss out on valuable fresh perspectives, and new Toastmasters miss out on the opportunity to improve their evaluation skills.

With that in mind, here are some tips to build the confidence you need to evaluate even the most advanced speakers in your club.

Consumer vs. Producer Feedback

What do you do when you’re asked to evaluate a very advanced speaker, and you’ve just barely made it through your Ice Breaker? What feedback can you give on a truly excellent speech—one where the body language is open and authentic, the vocal variety is appropriate and engaging, and the content is well-structured and fluid? What value can you possibly add?

The answer: a lot. You may think that your evaluation won’t benefit the speaker because you are not as experienced as they are, but that’s almost never the case. The trick is to determine what type of feedback is most appropriate.

Don’t be intimidated by title or tenure; both new and advanced members benefit from honesty.

Daniel Mouqué, DTM, of the Brussels Toastmasters Club in Brussels, Belgium, borrows from economic theory in distinguishing between two methods of evaluation: producer feedback and consumer feedback. Producer feedback is instructional; it tells the speaker how to deliver a speech more successfully. Consumer feedback, on the other hand, is reactional; it tells the speaker how you perceived their speech.

Mouqué came up with the idea after asking volunteers from an econometrics lecture that he was teaching to evaluate his comedy routine. He found that, while they were “not equipped to produce comedy, they did know what they found funny.” The audience couldn’t teach him to be more humorous, but they could—and did—identify which jokes they liked best. These reactions helped him to refine his routine, focusing more on what his audience enjoyed and less on what they didn’t.

Most of us are not public speaking experts yet, and may not be able to offer feedback to the top speakers in our clubs—and that’s okay. If speakers rely solely on evaluations from people with greater or equal technical mastery, the base of potential evaluators shrinks quickly. “When you get to a certain level, there’s a mystique to it,” Mouqué says. People mistakenly think that if you’re a World Champion of Public Speaking, you “must only listen to World Champions.” But there are only a handful of World Champions, and if they limit themselves to feedback from within their small circle, they will all start to think—and speak—alike.

You don’t need to be a better speaker than the person you’re evaluating; producer feedback is not the only way to evaluate effectively. We are all experts on our own perceptions, so we are always qualified to deliver consumer feedback.

Valuable Perspective

But is consumer feedback valuable? Absolutely. Just as companies measure customer satisfaction to make small but important tweaks to products, advanced speakers need listener perspectives to make small but important tweaks to their speeches.

Experienced members often don’t need tips on technical skills; they’re looking for feedback on how their message is perceived. As a professional keynote speaker, Lars Sudmann, DTM, another member of the Brussels Toastmasters, actually prefers evaluations from newer Toastmasters members; he values the fresh perspectives they bring and their willingness to relay their emotional response to a speech.

Don’t worry if you can’t identify concrete areas for improvement; instead, Sudmann recommends that you “write down three things you liked and dissect those.” What elements of the message resonated the most with you, and why? Describe your journey as you watched the speech. How did it make you feel? By focusing on what worked and articulating why it worked, you’ll deliver valuable feedback to the speaker, allowing them to fine-tune their message.

Experienced speakers can assist newer members in evaluating them, as well. “It’s a great opportunity ... to coach newer members to develop strong evaluation skills and to provide feedback in uncomfortable settings,” says Gusanita Roberson, DTM, of Mableton, Georgia. She suggests giving less experienced evaluators “a specific objective to evaluate, along with the formal evaluation.” For example, “Which anecdotes are the most memorable?” or “If I had to cut 30 seconds of my speech, what part should I remove?” This type of guidance can ease the intimidation factor and encourage less experienced members to sign up for evaluations.

Learning by Teaching

“It’s counterintuitive to think that you can improve by evaluating someone much more advanced than you,” says veteran Toastmaster Jon Lukacher, of Irving, Texas. But that’s exactly what happens. We learn by teaching others, which is why evaluations are such an integral part of the Toastmasters experience. Evaluating advanced speakers takes that experience to the next level.

If you only evaluate newer members, you may find yourself offering the same constructive feedback over and over. An evaluation featuring basic advice like, “Try using vocal variety to add emphasis” or “The structure of the speech could be clearer” will be beneficial to the speaker but is not likely to challenge your own evaluation skills.

Evaluating experienced Toastmasters forces us to notice, articulate, and convey nuances of public speaking that might otherwise pass us by.

Contrast that with evaluating a speech project from a seasoned Toastmaster. There may not be obvious opportunities for the speaker’s improvement, which makes finding feedback more difficult but ultimately more valuable. Evaluating experienced members forces us to notice, articulate, and convey nuances of public speaking that might otherwise pass us by—and once we’ve identified what works for other speakers, we are far more likely to incorporate it into our own communication.

Overcoming Intimidation

Despite all the benefits of evaluating senior speakers, it can still seem intimidating. But just like with any skill, Lukacher says, you’ll get better with practice. “It’s going to be awkward. It’s going to be hard at first,” but that means you’re making progress. “If it’s not awkward, you’re learning at a snail’s pace.”

Remember that any intimidation you feel is likely your own invention. Lukacher has been in Toastmasters for more than a decade, but whether you’ve been with your club for 20 years or 20 minutes, “when you’re there, you’re a Toastmaster. We create an environment where we’re one and the same. We share a common goal.”

Barber, the two-time DTM from California, agrees. “Everybody [in Toastmasters] is learning and growing ... and they cannot do that without meaningful feedback.”

So set aside any intimidation or awkwardness that might hold you back, and sign up to evaluate the most experienced Toastmaster you can find. Even if you can’t offer “producer feedback,” advanced speakers will benefit from your consumer feedback—and you will benefit from providing it.

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