How To Give Stronger Constructive Feedback to Presenters

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In my public speaking and presentation teaching career, I’ve noticed that one huge thing separates those earning As on their speeches from everyone else: practice.  People who practice their speeches with me are more likely to earn a score of A than those who don’t.  It’s also likely that if a student doesn’t practice with me, he or she won’t actually “practice” the speech at all.

Last month, my August superstudents practiced every single speech with me.  I didn’t have to poke or prod them to come in and practice; they understood that in order to develop as presenters, they needed some honest, constructive feedback.  This month, unfortunately, my students haven’t taken me up on the offer to practice.  Some students aren’t earning the grades they want and are disappointed.  Why do some students totally understand the importance of practice and constructive feedback as an enormous element of preparation?  Why do some students think they can just “wing it?”  [Note: I talked at length on the first day of class about the importance of practicing with me to both groups of students.]

Nancy Duarte’s Presentation Ecosystem has a common thread.  Can you pick it out?

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“Critique,” as you see on every part of Duarte’s ecosystem, is essential to a student’s success.  Constructive criticism and a bit of feedback during the preparation phase helps push students out of the realm of mediocre.

Andrew Dlugan of Six Minutes writes “The Art of Delivering Evaluations,” and I love his approach to constructive criticism.  Negative feedback is essential to a student’s overall success in my course, but it is often hard to explain to a student how and why he or she earned an “F” on a presentation.  When a student sees a low score, that student may become frustrated, angry, and disappointed.  Though I want to say to students, “You didn’t prepare. You didn’t practice. You earned the grade that was equal to the amount of effort you put into this,” I have to tailor my approach to fit each individual student’s needs.  Since every single student comes to a presentation with different strengths and different weaknesses, each student deserves honest, kind, thoughtful feedback.

For me, it’s helpful to ask my students questions first.  I ask things like, “How many times did you practice delivering this speech with a timer or stopwatch?”  If a student says, “Zero,” then I explain that preparation and developing strong speech content is the foundation of any presentation.  After all, without proper preparation, an audience will never be able to appreciate the speaker’s content, delivery, and visual design because he or she won’t be able to follow that speech.  Though a score of “F” on a speech is disheartening, typically, that “F” means the base foundation wasn’t well-developed.  Like all things in life, the more you put into a speech, the more you get out of it.

After asking the student questions, I have him or her ask me questions to clarify the rubric I filled out.  Following up my questions with the students’ questions is an effective second step because the student does get a chance to clear up any confusion he or she may have.

Lastly, I support my critique with two important items: a video of the speech itself along with peer review feedback.  Some students protest, “But I did say all three sources in my presentation!”  It’s impossible to argue with video evidence.  Peer review is also a great tool to support the instructor’s rubric.  If three fellow classmates wrote, “Work on eye contact,” the student understands the importance of that particular element of delivery.

“Constructive Criticism: 10 Rules for Giving Negative Feedback” by Geoffrey James explains a few ways to give negative feedback to employees. You’ll also want to check out Michelle Mazur’s “12 Crucial Tips When Communicating Criticism.”  Both offer some strong ways to help you provide constructive feedback to other people.

How do you give constructive criticism to presenters and public speakers?

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8 thoughts on “How To Give Stronger Constructive Feedback to Presenters

  1. I teach MBAs a course on Persuasive Communications. Each student prepares and delivers at least 2 3-minute speeches. I have seen about 1200 speeches a year for the last 9 years.

    At the early stages of teaching I focussed a lot on positive feedback. Helping a speaker see what they did well and should do more of. I found the “constructive” feedback a lot harder.

    Over the years, I have changed a great deal. If a student comes in without practice, I will not give feedback on the speech, but will look them in the eyes and tell them that I am disappointed, I saw great potential… you have let yourself down.

    If they have practiced, I will give one or two positives – but will look at how to help them take the speech to the next level – my focus is not “how to make this speech a 10”, but “how to take this 7 speech to be an 8”.

    Thanks for your words… I am preparing the syllabus for 2012 right now and was thinking about grading, how much to make practice a fundamental requirement (ie student must bring a sign-off sheet of 3 people who have heard the speech before class… or is this too drastic…)

    Best

    • Hey there, Thanks so much for your comment because I had an “ah ha!” moment when I read this line: “If a student comes in without practice, I will not give feedback on the speech, but will look them in the eyes and tell them that I am disappointed, I saw great potential… you have let yourself down.” This is so simple yet so profound; it made my day!

      I’d love to see your syllabus! Is that super nerdy? I always love to see what and how people teach to help improve my own classes. Thanks, Alex

  2. Hi, I’m a marketing communication student from Indonesia who just enter my 3rd semester at uni. And today I just got my first Public Speaking subject & it was pretty exciting for me.

    I’m so glad I find your blog since in the next couple of weeks I’ll be facing a few of speech test. Thank you so much for sharing this, it makes me know how important to practice before delivers any speech. Have a wonderful day!

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