This article is based on an educational session prepared for Black Forest Toastmasters on 13 January 2011.
I used to think that the most difficult part about feedback was to receive it. Who hasn’t felt rejected, unworthy or not good enough after a particularly slathering helping of ill-thought-through criticism? I certainly have.
Nowadays, the most difficult part about feedback for me is to give it. I don’t want to hurt anyone. It seems so much easier to remain silent or voice my discontent in private.
But I also know that giving good feedback can make all the difference to someone’s progress.
At Toastmasters, feedback is at the core of the educational programme. No speech, no role remains without evaluation. Most of us come to Toastmasters because we want to improve our public speaking, but as we train to become better speakers, we also practice to give better feedback.
The key to powerful evaluations: Act like a coach, not like an examiner.
A good coach – be it in sports or business – has two roles: She keeps the motivation up to ensure that the person she works with keeps showing up to training sessions; and she identifies specific steps the person can take in his training programme. A good coach knows that substantial improvements come through many small steps in the right direction. She also knows that improvements take time. You can improve your evaluations by acting like a good coach.
Step 1: Listen
Listening starts before the activity you want to evaluate. Try to find out where the recipient is at, what his needs and objectives are and what he would be capable of doing. If you’re at Toastmasters, make sure you review the manual. Once the activity starts, pay attention to your reaction: What do you see? What do you hear? What do you feel? If it helps you, jot down some notes: What happened? What did you like? What could have been better? Sometimes, specific criteria can help to ensure that you get the information you need. In other cases they only distract from your listening. Whatever you do, hold off from preparing your evaluation during the activity.
Step 2: Prepare
At Toastmasters, you now have at least five minutes to prepare your evaluation. Use this time to cull your observations to the few points you want to communicate this time. Everything else can wait until later. Make sure you acknowledge the effort that went into the activity and highlight an aspect that was handled well before you make any suggestions. When you do, don’t just state what could have been improved – make an effort to come up with specific recommendations. Think of it as a practice assignment: The next time the person is in a similar situation, what would you recommend that he tries? If you’ve struggled with similar challenges, what have you tried? What ultimately helped? Finally, keep your strongest positive observation, your absolute highlight to the very end to close on a high note.
Step 3: Deliver
When you’re called to deliver your evaluation, make sure that you speak only for yourself and that you are as specific as you can when giving examples. Don’t say “Nobody could understand what you were talking about”. Say “I felt confused when you described your trip to Egypt”. If you are giving feedback in public, speak to the entire room. Evaluations in third-party language (“John used a clear three-step structure for his speech”) help everybody to learn from your insights. They can also be easier to receive. Above all, keep it short and helpful.
What’s your next evaluation?
Receiving good evaluations is easy. Good evaluations bring a great boost of confidence and motivation. They help recipients to grow and overcome their stucknesses.
When you listen well, prepare your feedback with good intentions and deliver it without judgement, giving feedback is not only easy – it’s also incredibly rewarding.