A better way to get feedback on a talk

4 May

A few weeks ago I had an important talk to prepare, and I wanted to get some feedback to make the talk as convincing as possible. So, as is usual in the lab where I work, I scheduled a practice talk a few days before the actual talk, but then I decided to do things slightly differently.

The usual way to get feedback:

1. Give a practice talk for the lab.

2. Ask people to give feedback directly after the talk. 

While this method is at least a hundred times better than not giving a practice talk at all, I thought it could be improved.

Here are some of the drawbacks of the current method:

1. The people in the lab are not necessarily in the best position to give feedback. For example, they may understand parts of my work that are difficult for another audience.

2. It takes too much time (for me and the others) if everybody needs to tell me their feedback.

3. I will probably not remember everything that the audience told me (except the general message that there is always a lot to improve).

4. Not everybody will actually state their opinion. Some people are too shy to speak up and a consensus may grow during the discussion, whereas I would like to know the variety of opinions.

So this is what I decided to do:

1. I scheduled a practice talk, as usual, but in stead of letting people tell me their opinion, I asked them to write it down. I explicitly asked them to write down what they liked about the talk as well as ideas on how to improve it.

2. I also screencasted a part of my talk with Quicktime (this records slides and my voice) and sent it to a collaborator in another city, so that she could make sure my presentation was correct on her part of the project. In principle, the screencast could be sent to a friend in another field to get the opinion of an outsider. 

How it worked

First of all, I discovered that after my practice talk, several people were eager to tell me their feedback directly. I asked them to write first, but then I also got oral feedback and this led to some interesting discussion about the content of my talk.

The written feedback from the practice talk was extremely useful. I read everything immediately after my talk. It hurt a bit. Just like honest feedback always does. I noticed that there were a few opinions in the written notes that I hadn’t heard in the seminar room. Two people wrote that they liked the first part of my talk, whereas the consensus in the room seemed to have been that this part wasn’t very good yet.

I put the notes away and worked on my talk for two more days (yes, it was an important talk!). Then, when I thought I was ready, I looked at the feedback again. Surprisingly, this time the reading was not painful at all! Now it was like reading a to-do list with only items that I had already done, interspersed with compliments.

I was happy that I had asked for the positive feedback, because it was motivating to read as I was sitting in my foreign hotel room, it got me excited about actually giving the talk. Rereading also helped to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything important (the axes were unlabeled on slide 15).

The video I sent to my collaborator in another city was also useful. It was easy to do (see link with explanation), it felt good to have my collaborator involved in the process, and she sent me an email with detailed feedback.

All in all, my conclusion is that it is very useful to get feedback in writing. It saved time, I got more opinions and I was able to reread it a few days later. In fact, I used the written feedback method for my students in Munich in the four years that I taught scientific presentations. I should have known that what was good for my students is good for me!  

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3 Responses to “A better way to get feedback on a talk”

  1. Dmitri May 4, 2013 at 10:54 am #

    Interesting. I like the idea of combining the two. First, people silently write down their comments for 5 min or so. And then there is an open discussion so that everybody can learn.

  2. Thalia March 5, 2015 at 10:21 am #

    I’ve had success when asking people to write down both pros and cons. Sometimes, people feel that they have something either really positive or negative to say, but asking them for both really gets them to think more about your presentation :).

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