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How to Get Feedback for Your Speech

Read earlier posts in the ‘How to Create the Best-Speech-of-Your-Life’ series.

Introduction

When developing the best five-minute speech of your life, you need feedback.  If you’re delivering any important communication, a message to your team, a big presentation,  answers for a big interview, get feedback. Important messages become clearer and more effective when you understand how people will react before you deliver them.  

Identify a feedback ‘mentor’

If you’re hesitant to share your work, find someone who’s supportive of your efforts, upbeat, or a good coach.  You must find someone who can provide critical feedback, preferably in a positive way.  To identify that person who we’ll call your ‘mentor’ (even if it’s not a formal mentoring relationship) ask yourself:

  • Who do I know that’s a good speaker?
  • Who do I know that’s a good writer?

Like the image below shows the first tier is a good speaker/coach. These unicorns are hard to find.  If you want to improve consistently, find a good public speaking club.  Toastmasters is a good option, but the club quality varies.  Find a good one and you’ll be on the fast-track to creating excellent speeches and becoming a better communicator. If that doesn’t work, use the second-tier: writers, teachers, presenters.

Speaker looking at audience of family, friends, coworkers, toastmasters searching for a speaking mentor amongst writers, teachers, presenters, coaches, speakers

Develop your idea

Spend time on it.  You can run your ideas by a mentor for their input but this isn’t the type of feedback I’m talking about here.  If you’re stuck without ideas, read about developing the first draft of a speech.  Then edit your speech to clarify the purpose and structure in your second draft. If you’re less experienced at writing and speaking, get feedback after the first draft.  You can learn a lot fast and avoid wasting effort.  For more experienced speakers, you may want to own your idea longer to see what direction it goes before asking for outside input.

Meet with your mentor  

Workaround your mentor’s schedule.  Make it convenient for them.  You may want to send a copy of your written text to them beforehand so they can review it and make notes.  Come to the meeting prepared to deliver your speech live for your mentor.  You don’t need a polished performance or a memorized speech at this point.  Just don’t back down when asked to perform.  Instead suggest that you read the speech once standing, even if you’re staring at the paper the whole time.  You and your mentor will learn what works and what doesn’t quicker from hearing how your speech sounds. 

Take notes

Bring two printouts of your speech to your feedback meeting with your mentor, one for your mentor and one for you.  Every time your mentor gives you a suggestion, write it down.  You don’t have to decide immediately to use it or not.  But capture it.  Storing another perspective is speech-writing gold if you have a good mentor.  You might not like the idea initially but you may come back to it later and see it in a different light.  Right now you’re performing an autopsy on your speech.  The crime we’re trying to solve is “why is this speech boring, awkward, uninspiring?”  (Don’t worry.  Almost everyone’s first drafts are that bad.) Capturing evidence is key to this investigation.  

Plus, when someone asks me to mentor them and I give them feedback and they don’t take notes, I stop investing in that relationship.  What’s the point?  My suggestions are lost.  Your mentor will likely feel the same way if they care about their time.  And if you’re thinking to yourself “I don’t need to take notes.  I’ll just use my memory.”, you’re (most likely) overvaluing your memory and/or how much your speech can improve.  Respect your mentor.  Improve your speech.  Take notes. 

Be open-minded

You should hope that your mentor will provide many suggestions.  You might fear feedback at first.  That’s natural.  But you want a mentor that provides input.  That means you have a mentor that’s either better than you or has a different perspective.  The only way you grow is to learn and understand their perspective.  My mentor tells me about other speakers he’s coached.  He always seems mildly frustrated that they don’t use many of his ideas.  I picture these closed minded speaking apprentices like the left side of the image below. What’s the point of asking for feedback if not to grow, change your style, and improve your toolbox?  Sometimes that requires changing what you prefer if only to learn.  You can always decide later to throw away what you learned.  But learn it first.

Here’s feedback from my mentor that I didn’t like at first.

  • Change up your monotone delivery.  Nobody wants to hear this.  I’m still working on it but at least I add more humor, and vocal variety now.
  • Speak more colloquially. I like precise formal speaking, not adding words/phrases like “now”, “okay”, “let me tell you” to the beginning of sentences. But I sprinkle them in now and again, okay?
  • Stick to one theme, one message.  I like tying together complex concepts.  I learned my audience doesn’t understand all the complexity I have in my head.  I shouldn’t expect them to understand.  I’ve spent a lot more time thinking about it than them.  It’s hard to transfer all that knowledge in five to ten minutes.

My mentor was right.  I’ve learned.  Take notes.  Let them sit for a few days.  Process them later when your ego is less bruised from the sting of not being perfect.  At least pretend to be the happy mentee on the right side of the image below. We’re all a work-in-progress.  Get after it!

How to work with your mentor: stick figure on left with arms crossed closed-minded and stick figure on right sitting taking notes open-minded

Rewrite using mentor feedback

Block an hour.  Whatever they asked you to change, change it.  Give it your best effort.  If you’re failing because you don’t like their idea, you’re failing to improve.  Once you make the changes, come back a few days later and re-read the speech with a balanced, open mind.  For any changes you don’t like, compare it to the previous version.  If you want to revert it back, go for it.  If the new version is better, keep it.  If you’re not sure, try reading, recording, or videotaping it.  Or show both versions to a third party.

Rewrite using your own thoughts

As you iterate with feedback, periodically invest time rewriting the speech based on just your thoughts.  This is not your mentor’s speech.  It’s yours.  If you only iterate based on feedback, it might veer off the path of what you want to communicate.  Don’t lose your authentic voice.  Spend time alone trying to improve your speech.  Sometimes you’ll hit a brick wall with no ideas.  Sometimes improvements will flow from your fingertips like Niagra Falls.  Use your mentor when you’re blocked.  Don’t be afraid of the pain of not having any good ideas for an hour.  It happens to me often.

Repeat the process

This is when we iterate.  If your speech doesn’t need to be that good, getting feedback once is fine.  If you’re speaking a big conference that could change your career, preparing for that dream job interview, rallying your team to invest more time and effort on a major project, get more rounds of feedback.  Use the process in the image below – practicing, blocking time with your mentor, taking notes, and rewriting. You can also substitute recording yourself and listening to or watching your performance occasionally instead of mentor feedback. Your skills will improve faster from practicing critiquing your work.  

The more you follow this process, the more your sessions with your mentor should resemble you delivering the live performance of the speech.  This has the dual benefit of making you game-time-ready for delivering the speech.  

Iterate to improve your speech: circular steps starting with write, practice/record, listen/watch/meet with mentor, take, notes, back to writing

How many rounds of feedback?

That’s up to you, depending on your schedule and the importance of this speech.  Two is better than one.  Three is better than two.  That continues until you hit a point of diminishing returns.  You’ll notice you’re not getting many suggestions you’re accepting from your mentor.   The speech becomes stagnant.  At that point, get a different mentor to provide a third perspective or if you’re sick of feedback, just practice and deliver the damn thing!

Appendix – Feedback Examples

Create the Space Speech Videos

If you want to understand why getting feedback is important, watch the four videos of my Create the Space speech. Watching all four takes thirty minutes. If you’re short on time, just watch the first version and the fourth version. You’ll see a dramatic difference. Most of the improvements came from changing the speech based on feedback and iterating.

Speech Evolution Post

Read how the same Create the Space speech evolved from idea creation until I delivered the first version including one round of feedback from my mentor.

Email Audience to Gather More Feedback

After the first version of my Create the Space speech, I emailed people I knew who saw the speech to ask for their feedback. Below is an example of feedback I received from an excellent speaker and evaluator.

Hey, I’ll be honest I was distracted at the beginning of your speech. Factor that into my observations:
– I think you were saying “make space to listen”. I’m glad your mom listened when you told her the house was on fire but my impression was she may have been listening more to the caller on line one than her kids. I wondered if that was a pattern which seemed to not support your thesis, or maybe it does in a kind of contrary way.
– After that I snapped to attention. Amazing speech!
– Maybe you could simplify it a bit, like 10-20%. There was a lot going on with the combination of your childhood, evolution of your adult self, and the journey toward reproduction.
– “maybe I’ll resent you”. Wow, I’m going to put that one in my back pocket. A galvanizing moment. Still, there’s a lot to give up in terms of time for yourself so it left a lot to the imagination as to how you got past that. Not looking for a core dump but perhaps a little more detail there could be good.
– The handout didn’t resonate with me for what that’s worth. I assume you wouldn’t use it at the district level anyway.
– I really like how you don’t use the 3 points about whatever structure. – – – With that said, and factoring in I was distracted at the beginning, might be great to have you reinforce the thesis a little more.
– Masterful use of the room, confidence, overall presentation skills. Looking forward to the next round!

My Toastmasters friend

Here’s what I focused on from that feedback with my subsequent ideas in parentheses ().

  • Does mom’s listening to phone, not son, detract from thesis (nah she didn’t pay attention to food, not me)
  • Simplify things 10-20% (maybe cut one big point and expand ending?)
  • Explain how I got past “I will resent you” (as emotionless as a cold, dead rock or a shiny metal robot or as sensitive as a (make up something sensitive-sounding))
  • Reinforce the thesis a little (was distracted)

Example of Changing Due to Feedback

In the quoted feedback from above, there’s a key point raised about how I got past “I resent you”. Since that section is the climax of the speech, I paid close attention to this. Below is my attempt to explain that moment better from draft 30 when I received the feedback to draft 54 which is the most recent version of the speech.

Draft 30

‘Create the Space’ Version 1 video (starts at Chapter 4)

Chapter 4
… It was July 9th, 2018.  
… My wife and I ate dinner like any other night.
But afterward, my wife said to me, 
(Remember she’s shorter  like a hobbit but prettier)  [low voice + crouch down]
“Listen I love you with all my heart  [look R-3rd row]
BUT if we don’t have kids, I’ll still love you — — —— but I’ll resent you too.
(Whoah, this was it.   [step out R]
The moment.  [look L-3rd row]
The decision.
… I heard honesty.
…I felt pain.
I wanted to protect our space.  [create ’space-box’]
And I knew what my mom would do.)
So I said,“Okay. Tell me more.”  

Draft 54

‘Create the Space’ Version 4 video (starts at Chapter 4)

Chapter 4 – The Conversation
It was July 9th, 2018. 
My wife and I ate dinner like any other night.
Then my wife put down her fork — 
“Listen I love you with all my heart  
but — if we don’t have kids, I’ll RESENT you too.
— —— 
(Did you feel that — ‘but’?)
(I had seconds to react.)
 — — 
(But first some stats.)
(I’m 35, married 8 years, with 0 kids.)
(Could you predict this was coming?)
 —
Me too and I knew three words from my mom.
I put down my fork and said,“Tell me more.” 

Detailed Example of Mentor Feedback

Below are PDFs of two drafts of my ‘Create the Space’ speech with notes I took when meeting with my mentor, showing the ideas I pulled from working together (and my own strange notation format).

Draft 16 (First meeting with mentor on this speech)

I met with my mentor once before delivering the speech publicly and captured the feedback in this draft-16 file.  The speech wasn’t very good at this point.  He was surprised two weeks later when I deliver it publicly (draft 30 below) and it was much better.  He helped me reframe the speech to focus on “Create the Space” rather than more generic/unfocused/undifferentiated “Just Listen”.  This was a big step forward.  A week later I actually thought he gave me that line “Create the Space” and looked back at my drafts and saw that it was a hidden gem I’d written.

Draft 30 (After first public performance of speech)

The feedback in this draft-30 file mostly came from my mentor and my notes when we watched the video of my first public performance of ‘Create the Space’ speech delivered in late February 2019. We didn’t have a lot of time to spend watching the video and taking notes since I was going on vacation and had ~20 minutes over lunch.  The smiley faces 🙂 and “+” signs indicate laughter.  “flat” indicates a joke or line didn’t work as I expected.  I also emailed the audience asking for feedback since it was my local Toastmasters club and I planned to give the speech in subsequent competitions.  I received several good pieces of feedback: clarify the theme, simplify the message a little, explain how we got past “I resent you”, consider removing the cheap “yeast” joke, etc.  Watch the version two video to see how the speech changed from this feedback.

Read more posts in the ‘How to Create the Best-Speech-of-Your-Life’ series.