Presentations – don’t get ‘feedback’

A friend of mine was recently not chosen to speak at a TEDx conference. That’s no big deal – there are always more would-be speakers for TEDx than could possibly be allowed on the stage. What was a big deal however was the reason why TEDx rejected their presentation idea…

The feedback was… wait for it… that they didn’t provide a reference for the fact that when you drop a sandbag of a hot air ballon, all other things being equal, the ballon goes up.

hot air balloon
Hmmmm….. some presentations just have too much hot air! 😉

It’s great that the selection committee were looking for evidence and facts in the presentations they allowed on stage because far too many stages are filled with people who can’t tell the difference between their opinion and facts. But this rejection was basically “you won’t allow a presentation because they don’t provide evidence of gravity“. You’ve got a bit of a problem if you’re TEDx has to prove the existence of gravity before you can do anything else.

Apart from everything else the sandbags thing was being used as a metaphor in this presentation so the physics of it isn’t as important as what people understand/believe to be true.

And this farrago got me thinking about feedback…

Presentation feedback

I've written presentations in the back of a London taxi

I’m reminded of a conversation I had with a taxi drive on the way to the train station recently, after England lost an international football game. I un-surprised to discover that

  • my taxi driver knew what had gone wrong
  • didn’t understand why the Manger of the national team hadn’t done what he would have.

He clearly knew how to manage a national football team! In fact he knew how to do it so well he could do it in his spare time while making a living as a taxi driver.

Astonishing talent, I hope you agree.

Actually it might not be so surprising, given how many people I know who can give me feedback on presentations – and give feedback to the people around them in their company. Ask yourself how many of the people you know suddenly became experts on viral transmission when Covid struck…

Astonishing talent there, too! 😉

To all such people I have one word to say, but I won’t, just in case it offends google.  ?   Instead I’ll use the word Tosh. (You might be interested in a blog I wrote a while ago about the BadVice I’ve seen given to presenters!) They’re mainly talking tosh and don’t know you’re talking tosh. They offer up this opinion in a confident way – so confident that a poor trying-but-novice-presenter might think they actually are experts.

The reason they offer tosh with such confidence is that they are so bad at presenting they don’t realise how bad they actually are.

Don’t be surprised – it’s so common that there’s even a name for it… the Dunning-Kruger syndrome. Put simply, the DK syndrome identifies the phenomenon that there’s more of a negative relationship between confidence and competence than is comfortable.

Generally unless you’re actually an expert STFU, please!

A message to presenters about the feedback they get

No all feedback is created equal. You’d not take advice about your car from your mate in the pub, would you? Not unless he happened to be a qualified mechanic. The rest of us go to a garage and get the expert opinion of a qualified mechanic.

Nor, I hope, would you take legal advice about selling your house from Tom in the Procurement Team, just because he sold one once, six years ago, before the law changed… Oh, and actually it wasn’t his house but his partner’s… and it was actually an upstairs flat… but it’s okay, they’re all the same aren’t they? These places you live?

So why in heaven’s name would you take (often unsolicited) advice from your peers about your presentations?

What feedback can you trust?

There are only two types, I’m afraid. Council and consequence. I’ll look at them separately.

Council about presentations

sketch of a face

If you’re going to be in a Court of Law you take legal council, don’t you?  (Or at least you should!). The difference between feedback/advice and Council is that Council is based upon thousands of hours of training and research – it’s not opinion, it’s expert opinion.

Don’t listen to Petra, the eager probationer from Procurement. Find an expert.

Presentation consequence

Consequences are what your presentation makes happen.

You don’t make presentations just to take presentations, do you? You make presentations because something is supposed to change. People are supposed to do/think/believe something different by the time you’ve finished presentation, right? That makes consequences the ultimate feedback…

Once you know what that consequence is supposed to be (and if you don’t WTF are you doing making a presentation?!? 😉 ) it’s easy to get feedback. If that consequence happens, you made a good presentation and if it doesn’t you made a bad presentation. It’s simple and it’s brutal.

As an aside, I want to differentiate here between “brilliant” and “successful”. Brilliant is what people think it was – it’s what drives the applause and the nice words at the end.. but if no one acts on your presentation (no consequences) It certainly wasn’t a successful one. Think of how many “arty” adverts you’ve seen and not known what the were advertising at the end! Brilliant but not successful!

Like it or not, the best way to get feedback on your presentation is to compare your intended outcome with the actual one.

And the best way to improve is to ask what you can do next time to make the latter closer to the former.

Finally …

Well no – I’ve not got anything “finally”. Either you’re got it or you’ve not! 🙂

9 Comments

  1. I agree. It’s a difficult one though. We all need feedback in order to get better and most people have a huge lack of any feedback at all when it comes to giving presentations.

    I think that the real skill that needs to be developed is how to draw useful information from the type of dodgy feedback you’re describing. For myself, I almost always ignore the proposed solutions given in the advice. Instead I use feedback about a particular aspect of the presentation as a sign that I should look again at that aspect. Maybe I won’t change it but I’ll look at it through the perspective of the feedback and see I can identify what might be going wrong.

    But that’s me and I’m reasonably strong minded and sceptical of random opinion. Unfortunately many people who lack confidence in their abilities and intuition are more likely to be knocked off course by every bit of feedback.

    • Simon Raybould

      Hi Alex

      Point taken. I didn’t mean we should literally ignore all feedback… just the “well intentioned but rubbish” stuff 😉

      The trick lies is figuring out what’s worth heeding. To that end, I like your idea of not taking the proposed solution at face value – I think the extra mental effort so generated would be a good fillip to examining the feedback.

      Cheers for your thought!

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  5. Simon Raybould

    God yes! The number of people who tell my boss his presentations are good when they actually make us embarrassed is shocking!

  6. Steve

    God yes! The number of people who tell my boss his presentations are good when they actually make us embarrassed is shocking!

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