A few years ago, I gave a communication skills presentation at a national pharmacy meeting. The audience of 400 consisted primarily of young pharmacy residents who were about to embark on their careers. I prepared, I rehearsed, I knew my content, and I thought I understood my audience. After all, I had done this workshop many times before.
When it was my turn, I climbed the stairs of the podium, checked my mic, and jumped into the spotlight and my presentation with extra vigor. I think I was overly-peppy because I wanted to draw the audience into my presentation, which is harder to do with large groups.
I gave lots of sage advice, used examples from presentations past, and even had a few audience members participate. I thought I kicked butt.
It turns out I didn’t do as well as I thought. Overall my evaluations were good, but I like to be described as “excellent.” The most difficult part of reading these evaluations was discovering one negative comment. Of the 400 participants, 399 thought the presentation was helpful and informative. But ONE person said I was “not in” with the audience, meaning I didn’t give examples that related to him or her.
I was crushed by this comment. “What does this person mean, I’m ‘not in’?” I asked my husband, David. “I’m in! I know what they need to know. I’m a good speaker!”
“Yes you are,” replied David. (He’s a smart fellow to agree with an upset redhead.)
“So why did somebody say I’m ‘not in’?” I demanded.
“Everyone in the audience isn’t going to love you,” he said. “Let that one go. Look at the 399 people who gave you positive feedback.”
He was right. But it was still hard for me to focus on those positive comments. In fact, I can’t even remember one of them. But the negative comment stands out like a giant zit on my nose. Like most people, I just want to be loved. I want approval. I want kudos only.
This is not how life works, and I know it. Statistically speaking, I cannot possibly please every person in every audience. Yet, like a child seeking attention, I want those difficult-to-please participants to change their minds and think I’m fabulous.
Ironically, as a communication skills coach, I give this kind of feedback to other people all the time.
I read an interesting article recently that said people who are receptive to receiving critical feedback are not only better in their performance, they are better at giving critical feedback to others.
With this in mind, I’ve made a list of critical feedback techniques that we use when coaching others:
- “Sandwich” the criticism between two positive comments. For example, in coaching a speaker I might say, “I loved the way you outlined the three points of your talk. As a listener, I want more. Show us what you’re talking about by expanding on those great stories about your family.”
- Use “I” statements. This is one of our favorites; we even put it in the book, Listen. Write. Present. Instead of saying, “You need to stop cursing in the office,” try “I’m going to recommend you take the ‘Curse Word Challenge.’”
- Temper constructive criticism with specific suggestions such as, “The CFO likes weekly reports that are less than a page long,” and diplomatic suggestions such as “Paragraph two isn’t really adding value to this letter.”
- Ask the person receiving the criticism questions to spark conversation and foster self-realization. For example, “What did you like about the meeting?” or “How do you think you could improve that pitch?”
I think the key to success is not speaking in passive voice, eg, “It was decided,” and not using hedging words such as “possibly” in this example: “You might possibly want to….”As I mentioned in my bad news post a few months ago, most people can see bad news coming. There’s no need to sugar-coat criticism either, but you can make it more palatable.