Was my talk any good? by Anand Swaminathan


One of the most important questions to ask after giving a talk is “was it any good?” I struggled for years trying to figure out the answer to this question. Without feedback and self-evaluation, how can we know if what we’ve done was actually worthwhile? How can we improve and grow?

Current feedback systems are sub-optimal to say the least. People rarely fill out post-grand rounds evaluations, but if you’re lucky you’ll get a handful of evaluation forms with routine questions with a standard 1-5 Likert scale. There is a section to free text comments but I notice that this section is rarely filled out and when it is, it typically contains useless feedback like “great talk!” or “very engaging!” On rare occasions, someone in the room with lots of experience will give you directed feedback on your talk, but this has only happened to me once or twice over 8 years of giving presentations. Larger conferences don’t necessarily guarantee better feedback. Typically, you simply get more routine evaluation forms filled out simply because there were more people in the room but by percentage of attendees, you’ll actually be getting less feedback. Regardless of volume, it’s still rote questions, Likert scales and the occasional written in comments (“Bring him back next year!” or “Why did you invite this guy?”).

So, if feedback is so important, why isn’t it done better? There are many reasons for this. Constructive feedback requires honesty from the feedback giver and the feedback receiver must be open and willing to accept criticism. This in turn requires a relationship between the speaker and the audience that is often lacking. Additionally, good feedback takes time that people often aren’t willing to invest (either on the giving or receiving end).

What can we do to improve feedback for presentations? There are a number of ways to address this but there are four main realms I think are critical:

  1. Feedback while you are building a talk
  2. Self-evaluation of your talk
  3. Feedback from colleagues/friends you trust on your performance
  4. Feedback from the learners

Feedback while you are building a talk

One of the first steps in assuring that you give the best talk you can is by getting feedback during the process of creating the talk. Informally chatting with colleagues about your talk topic can give you ideas on what areas to cover. Formal feedback during the building stage is also crucial. I routinely exchange slide sets with colleagues to get their thoughts on images, text placement, visual appeal and whether the images I’m using communicate the message I’m intending to get across. When you look at a slide deck for a long time, you miss obvious issues (e.g., sub-optimal images, images with poor resolution, slides with too much text, etc.). Getting a fresh perspective makes sense. Additionally, my slide consultants often offer ideas for images that better communicate the point I’m trying to get through.

I also routinely send colleagues recordings of my talk for feedback. The recording is typically one I make while practicing at home. This helps with getting thoughts on how the content is being transmitted and to tease out areas where I sound less confident about the information. On occasion, one of my colleagues may disagree with the message itself which is useful in helping you hone your argument or, allow room for the alternative perspective. Last year when I did this, one of the friends I sent it to helped me reshape my introduction on a talk to make it more powerful. It’s a change I’ve carried forward to every talk I give.

Self-evaluation of your talk

Giving yourself feedback can be difficult, but it is critical. The recording that you make while you are practicing should also be reviewed by you. Many find it painful to listen to their own voice (myself included) but this step is vitally important because you will be able to pick up areas where you stumble or where you don’t have a firm grasp of the information. You will also pick up mannerisms (“ums”, “likes”, etc.) that will distract the audience and devalue your message. This step is essential while you are building and practicing the talk but also after you give the talk. Record your live presentations, listen to yourself, and critique your performance. Early on in my speaking career I was amazed to see people I thought were excellent speakers doing this exercise immediately after their talks and taking notes on what went well and what needed work. Clearly, this was an important part of how these speakers got so good at what they do.

Feedback from colleagues/friends you trust on your performance

Prior to giving the final presentation, give the talk in a low-risk setting. For me, this is usually delivering the talk to my trainees. This allows you to gauge your comfort with the content and to reveal areas that need more work. Additionally, you can recruit colleagues you trust to watch the talk and critique your performance. Before speaking at SMACCDub last year, I gave both of my talks to a group of residents and faculty and asked a small number of faculty to critique me. The feedback was invaluable. They honed in on what my big message was and gave me tips on how to stress it in a way that would really resonate with the audience.

Every time you give a presentation somewhere, make sure to recruit one or two people you respect to turn a critical eye to your talk. If you can get multiple people to do this, you can ask them to evaluate specific parts: stage presence, grasp of content, performance, body language, etc.

Feedback from the learners

While all of the above is vital, feedback from the learners is the most important (and the most difficult) to get. If the audience didn’t understand what you were trying to communicate, you haven’t achieved your goal. Identifying this failure can be frustrating but it’s essential if your goal is to excel at speaking.

Even if you are open to receiving feedback from learners, our current systems are suboptimal for doing this. As mentioned above, most standard feedback forms rely on Likert scales and free hand comment sections that either have useless information or aren’t completed at all. Positive but non-specific feedback (i.e. “great job!”) will not lead to you improving your skills. However, honest and open feedback from learners is difficult to obtain.

My favorite method to get feedback is to distribute 3X5 index cards to everyone in the room. At the end of the talk, I ask them to take 30 seconds to write down the three most important things they learned from the talk. Essentially, this is the learner telling me what information they are taking home from my presentation. I then collect the cards and review them later. Their take home messages should ideally mirror the concepts that I think are the most important for them to get from the talk. If it doesn’t match up, then it tells me that I wasn’t effective enough in communicating to the learners. This helps reveal areas in the talk that are weak or, possibly, uncover a message that I didn’t mean to convey. Occasionally, this exercise may reveal a message I didn’t go into the talk intending to communicate, but is important and perhaps it should be stressed more next time.

The only way forward is through feedback whether it be external or via self-reflection. If our goal is to hone our presentation skills and inspire change with our words, we must know whether what we did was any good.

The above are my personal techniques for feedback, but I’m interested to hear what you do to illicit feedback…so please leave your comments below.