Useful conference feedback

Walking off stage, my body was processing the usual adrenaline rush and come down combo, I was sweating profusely, and my throat was sore from all of the previous days’ practice and the final delivery. It was 11:45 and I hadn’t eaten a thing all day – I usually try to make myself eat something but a combination of nerves and wanting one more run through had made me stay away from breakfast. My talk took the schedule into the break, and as I looked for food options with a couple of other people someone made their way straight over to me.

“Hi. Thanks for your talk, but just so you know, in future you shouldn’t…”

This wasn’t the first time that someone had decided to give me their thoughts on one of my talks, but it was the first time that someone had immediately made a beeline to me purely to do so, straight after I had come off stage.

“_Don’t read the comments_” is a staple of what we’re taught about internet interaction, but this isn’t the case when people are wanting to provide feedback to you in person, and when this is sometimes useful for you to learn from. In addition to being given feedback, I’m also regularly asked for my thoughts on others’ talks, and I have been trying to get better at the insight that I can give.

After a busy conference season of giving and receiving both positive and negative feedback, plus speaking to other attendees and speakers about their experiences on this subject, I thought I’d write some tips for providing feedback in the most useful way.

Reasons for feedback

Having spoken to many people about this recently, common reasons that people want to provide feedback on talks include:

  • Letting a speaker or an event know how much they’d enjoyed or found a talk useful.
  • Letting a speaker or an event know that they didn’t think the talk was as good as it could have been (perhaps it was wrong for the event, or they had suggestions around the content that may have been useful).
  • Wanting to ask a question about an area that wasn’t clear, or needed further discussion.
  • Wanting to help the speaker improve their delivery.
  • General grumpy keyboard warriorism or one-upmanship.

Thinking about why you’re wanting to give feedback is a great place to start, as it’ll likely make you question whether it’s important to do so, and will inform the best way to go about it.

I’ve done a fair few talks now over several years, yet I am not a full-time professional speaker. Indeed, as fellow event speaker Shane Hudson stated in a retrospective recently, extremely few in our industry consider themselves to be so. Most of us, whether we work for ourselves or others, have full-time jobs where we take time out to prepare talks and attend events. Some of these events are as a result of invitation; others however are as a result of simply answering calls for proposals – we’re basically attendees who submit an idea. People, including myself, need to be able to learn to become better speakers. The only way you can do this is with real experience, and I’m incredibly grateful for lots of the valuable feedback I’ve been given over the years.

In preparing my two most recent talks, I created article versions first that I submitted to friends and trusted people in the industry. The articles were pretty damn flawed, and the feedback I received was invaluable. Moving into talks, I usually try to practice with real people, and have previously given talks at user groups or other more informal situations where I have specifically asked for feedback. Actually giving a talk rather than mumbling away to yourself helps you find out much more about what works and what doesn’t. If someone has asked you for feedback, especially if they’re at this stage of refining, try to think about the two or three things that could make their talk more effective, whilst trying to keep your personal preferences and feelings to one side.

An example of good feedback:

“Your second slide had a lot of bullet points on and I found it hard to take everything in because there were so many words. Perhaps you could break that into individual slides and talk through each point?”

(State the issue, give some insight into the reason why it was a problem, and suggest a possible solution)

An example of poor feedback:

“Those slides in the middle section were really boring.”

An example of terrible feedback (delivered to Ethan Marcotte in a Q&A session):

“Hi, Ethan. So why have you shown us some tricks that everybody knows, the nth-child or floating grids or the stuff that everybody knows in this room? Why?”

Channels for feedback

If the talk content is not appropriate for any reason, let the organisers know, especially if it was because you found it offensive or think that it may have broken a code of conduct. If you found it dull, irrelevant to your interests, or not appropriate for the audience in general, this can help them to ensure that they curate a better set of talks for next time. Perhaps you’re not interested in the subject or don’t like a style of delivery, but others may, and the organisers will be able to balance the different perspectives before planning for next year. You may not be the right audience for the talk, but this isn’t the speaker’s fault, and this kind of feedback is better delivered to the conference organisers themselves.

Many events provide official feedback channels, and if these aren’t present and you’d like to see it in future, perhaps have a word to see if they could be brought in.

If you have noticed something specific to the talk, are wanting to ask a question, or are wanting to help the speaker, then this is better delivered to them directly. Most of the events in our community are great for this, and you’ll likely be able to nab the person at multiple points throughout the day.

Timing is everything

As I mentioned at the start, speaking is a real roller coaster, and it can sometimes be overwhelming when you’ve just come off stage and immediately get mobbed. Personally, I’m likely to be needing a drink, some deodorant, and the toilet, and depending on whether I’ve eaten or not I’ll probably be fixated on food. I typically avoid Twitter and all other feedback until I can regain some balance and start to form sensible words again, and it’s usually when I head out into the public areas in breaks and lunch that I’m happiest to chat about the talk. Others will be different and they may love continuing the flow of their talk immediately, but bear in mind that everyone deals with the stress of speaking in their own way and this may impact on how your feedback is received.

Be kind

This tip speaks for itself really, but if you’re just coming up to someone in order provide criticism, is this really necessary? Having spoken to many speakers at different levels, everyone has a tale of some feedback that has stuck in their mind for all of the wrong reasons.

I’ve met people who have spoken whilst ill, whilst having personal issues, and whilst suffering from crippling nerves – they’re all people who have normal lives going on, and who try to do a great talk despite this. Sometimes taking a minute to consider how kind your comment is – would you like to be given the feedback you’re giving? Could they already be aware and you’re just beating negativity into them?

Kindness also ties into the way that you deliver your feedback. Venting your frustrations to an organiser about a poor talk may be a kinder thing to do than to .@ someone on twitter with snark.

Not the best way to give feedback!

Things like this help to normalise a culture of nastiness and criticism. What may be a fleeting feeling or desire to share your thoughts can also lead to others feeling like it’s ok to do so. And what does this do? It drives away speakers, perhaps even before they have done their first talk, worried about putting themselves out there when even seasoned speakers are painting a target on their head for insults by getting on a stage.

“I don’t think I want to do any public speaking anymore. In part, I guess you could say unfortunately, this is due to some criticism from audience members at the last couple of talks I gave. I know words shouldn’t hurt but they easily do when you’re miles from home and family and extremely tired too.

I was ‘accused’ (a strong word, my choice) of falling asleep during a talk I was giving. That hurt, I was tired. Tired with nerves and lack of sleep. At a different event I disappointed a member of the audience due to my ‘lack of professionality’ because I needed to refer to some notes on a brand new talk I was giving. I thought it’d be better for me to have some form of script than try and unprofessionally ‘wing it’.”

Stuart Robson

Contribute to the discussion

I’ve seen many talks over the years where I fundamentally disagree with points being made. When you find yourself in this position my final suggestion is to respond, but in a constructive way. If you disagree with a point that a speaker is making, then blog about the issue, speak about it, and discuss the points raised in a balanced, adult manner. Don’t just call them names and make them feel terrible for having put their own take out there.

Not everyone wants to speak about things, and that’s ok, but if you have anything you would like to say, and would like help forming your thoughts into a talk synopsis then feel free to get in touch. I would be happy to give you some advice on putting something together. Many events would love the opportunity to hear differing opinions and a balanced view of subjects, and getting in touch with your ideas can’t hurt.

Better feedback gives better events

I’m a big believer that the right feedback in the right way can help us to have better events and better speakers. Helping to create a community where feedback is delivered in the best possible way, and where we encourage speakers to get better rather than knocking them down, will ultimately help us all to enjoy better events. Next time you’re asked for feedback or are thinking of providing some, try to make sure that it’s useful, delivered in the right way and at the right time.