I stepped down from the stage that night feeling like God’s gift to public speaking. I had just given an on-message, word-perfect, resounding success of a talk. So much so I felt the applause could have been a little louder, a little more, well…grateful. After all, I had travelled a long way to be there.
‘Son,’ said the elderly man who was fast approaching me with an outstretched hand. Here it comes, I thought, the first of many rave reviews.
‘Son, I was at the back of the hall and I could barely hear a word you spoke. What I did hear you said so quickly. I didn’t understand what you were trying to say. Plus you kept referring to people here as sufferers. I’m not a sufferer. You need to think about that a bit more next time you speak. Good luck.’ At which point he turned on his heels and left the village hall.
Embarrassed, my pride hurt and seething inside, I made a quick exit. For the first half of my drive home I ran out of cusses and imaginary follow-up conversations with this so-called ‘expert’ in public speaking. In my mind I put them firmly in their place I can tell you. He could have shouted out something at the time. But why should he – the responsibility to make sure I am heard is ultimately mine as the speaker. Slowly it dawned on me that my friend had a point. Well, several good points if I was honest.
It was true that I sometimes didn’t project my voice very well. I knew that my real Achilles heel was that I spoke too quickly. And calling people sufferers was a cardinal sin – I should have known better. The sobering thought I was left with was: how many others in the hall felt the same way as he did but were too shy to say anything? As I reached home I concluded that I had failed my audience as a speaker that night.
Like many of you reading this I have done a good number of public speaking or presentation courses. On the whole they have been great. I have got a lot from them. But I often tell people that the best training in public speaking I ever received came during my first job, as parliamentary officer at the then Alzheimer’s Disease Society.
At least four or five times a month I would visit the Society’s local branches and support groups up and down the country. I was there to talk about our campaigns and how they could support them. One night I might be talking to five members of a carers’ support group in a day care facility in Sunderland. The next it might be to a packed village hall in Maidenhead. The experience was challenging. It was fun. I can promise you that there are few people as blunt and direct as the average octogenarian (other than perhaps very small children). It was on this five year ‘road trip’ in the ’90s that the above incident occurred. It and a few others like it taught me the importance of feedback and listening to your audience.
It’s not that I believe the customer is always right as the saying goes; rather that there’s always ‘a truth’ behind a person’s comment (whether positive or negative) which is worth listening to. It’s what you do with it next that matters most. If it’s positive do you just use it to puff up the cushions on which you rest your laurels? If it’s negative, should you choose to react angrily as I did at first in my story? Or do you just ignore it?
Neither is right, of course.
I tend to wait until the day after to reflect on how a talk went and anything people said to me at the time. Things always seem better then. What went well? What didn’t go so well? Was the feedback I got fair? Is it something that other people have noticed to suggest I might have slipped into some bad habits? What were the other speakers like? Can I learn anything from them? I used to keep reflections on each talk I did and any comments people gave me in a note book, It tends to be scraps of paper these days. But they build up over time and they still help.
One of the most disappointing trends among conference organisers in recent years is the lack of formal feedback given to speakers after an event. It’s not that organisers don’t collect the feedback – forms are in the pack, reminders announced by the Chair of the day etc. etc. But the conference report and/or evaluation summary rarely finds its way to the speakers and other participants. It is maddening because such feedback can be so helpful. And yes, if is ok, to feel damned pleased with yourself if 99% of people said you were great. But I wouldn’t know because, out of 80 or so talks I did last year, I can probably count on one hand the number of times I got any feedback. Organisers please note.
I think the other lesson I learnt that night was the importance of humility as a speaker. You should take the audience seriously but once you take yourself too seriously I think things begin to go wrong for you. But that’s a topic for another day.
In this post – the first of a number I’d like to do with personal reflections on public speaking – I wanted to highlight the importance of audience feedback. What you do with it can really make or break you as a public speaker. What do you think? I’d really like to know plus get your feedback on this post. Thank you.
Oh, and by the way, when you begin your next presentation there’s no harm in asking people at the back of the room if they can hear you.