Often when I attend a presentation I have ideas about constructive feedback to give to the presenter. While I used to deliver my feedback and criticisms in a very direct and honest way, hoping that they would be taken at face value, I often found that presenters with disheartened with my feedback. Over time I learned a method to deliver feedback in a way that it would help the presenter in the future and learned how to take feedback better myself.
In their excellent book “Switch“, Chip and Dan Heath point out a studies that have shown that our perception and memories of “bad” events are much stronger (and longer-lasting) than “good” events (see the end of Chapter 2 in the book). People have a very strong tendency to focus on the negative, and this is very much true for feedback and criticisms they receive.
My current approach to giving feedback takes this phenomenon into account. When I give feedback on presentations I recognize that even experienced presenters are really exposing themselves when they stand up and talk in front of a group. I have been presenting professionally for many years now and I still get just a little nervous before a presentation and find myself hungry to know whether the audience approved afterwards. Feedback on presentations hits people where they are very vulnerable regardless of how confident they may be during a presentation.
Keeping that in mind I give feedback that is very specific and I balance every criticism with at least 3 positive observations. The specificity is important because it signals to the receiver that you were really paying attention. The 3:1 ratio helps balance the scales of our tendency to focus on the negative. The place where it is easy to make is mistake is being too general in your positive feedback. Imagine I came up to you after a presentation and said:
Wow, that was really a great presentation! I really like your style and you seemed very comfortable in front of the audience. I did notice that you made a mistake on our current number of customers: it should be 195 not 155. I did really like the flow of your demonstration overall!
That has three positives with one negative mixed in. But notice how general the positive comments are when compared with the negative? That signals that the one piece of feedback you want the receiver to focus on is the negative and the rest are just pats on the back to cheer them up. What if you heard this feedback instead:
Great presentation! The way you opened up with a story really grabbed their attention and I really liked how it related to what they read in this morning’s paper. The flow of the demo was really nice, particularly around how you compared it with their current experience and showed just how much better their life would be in the future. I noticed that you had 155 customers listed on that one slide, I think the number is closer to 195. I think that your style of being both confident and humble really made a connection, particularly with the IT manager who I saw you talking with at the break.
By softening the one criticism and being very specific in the positives you can take the edge off quite a bit. The reality is that all but the most clueless presenters are going to still focus on the negative, so there is no need to emphasize it. The reason why this approach is so important is that confidence in front of an audience is one of the key factors to success in a presentation, so you don’t want to undermine that for the presenter in their next presentation. You also want to be sure that they keep doing the things that are working (the positives) rather than just focusing on fixing the things that are not.
When it comes to receiving information I have also changed my approach over time. One of the challenges if you are a successful Sales Engineer is that sales reps may end up seeing you as a valuable resource that they need to compete with other reps for. This may not be true in your company, but I have certainly experienced it in the past. Because of this they may not be willing to give you honest, direct feedback on your presentations because they are concerned about whether you will want to work with them on more deals. Over time you may just get congratulations and kudos for every presentation, whether you felt you did a good job or not. We all need feedback to improve and that goes for even the most experienced and capable presenters.
To make sure that I get the real story from people in the audience I just ask them “Is there anything I should do differently the next time?” or “Is there anything that you think I could have changed in the presentation?”. Then, when they answer I make sure NOT to try to justify why I did it the way did, I just listen to the feedback and make sure I clarify what they are saying. So if I heard this feedback:
“Well, I am not sure if I really liked the analogy you used at the beginning of the presentation”
I would resist launching into my justification or explanation of why the analogy really should have made sense and instead ask what about it did not line up. So instead of responding with:
“Yeah, but I think the point I was trying to make really did fit with that analogy for this prospect…”
I would instead try to clarify exactly what they meant:
“What about the analogy broke down? Would the analogy work in other situations or does it just not make sense at all? Are there any other ways I could explain that topic?”
If you actively seek out feedback, you need to make sure to really take it rather than becoming defensive if you don’t agree.