For many years, I’ve quietly mentored a few speakers in the industry. Nothing big, nothing formal, just periodically I’d find somebody that wanted to get in front of audiences and speak, and either they’d ask me some questions or I’d get the feeling that they were open to some suggestions, and things would sort of go from there. Now, as I start to wind down my speaking career (some), I thought I’d post some ideas and suggestions I’ve had over the years. This time, it’s to critique (not criticize!) others speaking. And ask for their critique in return.
Note first of all that “critique” does not mean “criticize”. Where the use of the term “criticize” is, colloquially speaking, intended as a negative concept meaning “to put down” or “to find fault with”, I use the term “critique” here to mean “give honest feedback”.
There’s a technique to giving feedback (the so-called “compliment sandwich”, although to me its more subtle than that), but first of all, there’s an important thing we must address.
You are not your talk.
It’s all too common for people to invest their ego into their work. Whether that’s code, art, fiction, or any other kind of creative or productive activity, it’s all too easy to put “us” into the work. This is made all that much easier when everybody out there is telling you to “follow your passion” and “be passionate about what you do”, which thus makes you want to pour your heart and soul into the work all that much more deeply.
Unfortunately, this carries with it a large negative consequence: when the work is criticized or found less than perfect—and let’s be really clear here, your work is always less than perfect, because there is no such thing, get that through your head right now—then the criticism of the work is implicitly a criticism of you, of your ego, of your commitment to your passion, of your ability to execute, and from there it’s really short step to HOW DARE YOU QUESTION MY COMMITMENT TO THIS WORK YOU UNBELIEVABLY RUDE PIECE OF SH–.
Nobody is calling you a terrible person. Nobody is saying you are worthless. Nobody is telling you that you are a waste of oxygen and food and water. Even if your talk was the worst that was ever given, that doesn’t mean you as a person are worthless.
Because you are not your work.
If this does not make sense to you, please return to the top of this page and try again. Nothing else I say here will make sense until you can imbibe and absorb this mantra.
Still having trouble with that? Try this: When’s the last time that you said, “This code could be made a little bit clearer by using this different approach”, and what you really meant was, “I can’t believe your mother didn’t do a service to all of humanity and just strangle you in the crib”?
Funny thing is, people critiquing your code—or your talks—are in the same boat as you are when you’re offering up criticism. Usually they’re trying to help. Sometimes they’re not doing it well, but hey, most of the time, you’re probably not doing it well, either.
And here’s the funny thing about criticism: It becomes easier to accept criticism of your own work when you are able to criticize others' without judgement. And, of course, when you actively encourage others' criticism of your own work.
By the way, just keep friends and family out of this. They will mean well, but they will generally tell you useless things like, “No, I thought it was wonderful! You’re so good at this!” Bleah. Yeah, I know, it feels good, but that’s the cotton candy of speaking criticism—tastes good for a moment, but it doesn’t nourish you, you don’t get stronger, and you can’t subsist on it because, hey, it’s all really just whipped air with a touch of sugar.
What you want—nay, need—is “brutally honest” feedback. You need somebody who will look you in the eye and say, “Dude, that part there in the middle? That sucked. Totally put me to sleep.” Nicely, of course.
And the way to do it nicely? Conventional wisdom suggests the “compliment sandwich”, which is to say something nice, then say something mean, then follow up with something nice again. Sort of like hiding the pill in the peanut butter, I suppose.
Personally, I prefer a mechanism a little more transparent: offer up a healthy mix of both things you liked and things you didn’t like:
I liked your opening. Good hook, got my attention. But I was waiting for you to get back to the hook later, and you never did, so it felt kind of like you just click-baited me into paying attention to your talk. I really want to see you circle back to the hook by the end of the talk, personally.
Note that this is about what I liked and didn’t like. I can’t speak for everybody, of course, and others' opinions will differ from mine, but if you get feedback from multiple sources, and a common theme emerges, you’ll start to pick up on what’s important and what’s just personal aesthetics.
That first demo was good. I liked the idea that you started with something simple, so I could follow what you were doing without getting too bogged down in complex details yet. That makes it easier for me to try it out later and make sure it’s all working right on my own box. But the second and third demos went too quickly—I couldn’t see what you were doing and next thing I know, it’s over and yeah, I can see the results, but it wasn’t clear how you got there.
Yes, ideally, this is the kind of feedback that attendees will give you. Most of the time, you won’t get it from them—partly because attendees are not speakers and don’t see a talk from a speakers' viewpoint, and partly because attendees are too focused on the content to pay attention to the delivery and mechanics. And friends and family, yeah, they’re going to be too focused on trying to encourage you and make you feel good to really notice your crutch words.
The only people who will be able to give you this kind of “brutally honest” feedback will be other speakers with whom you have a halfway-decent relationship based on mutual respect.
Which brings me to my last tidbit:
If you ask me to, I will happily sit in your session and give you a full, thorough breakdown of your talk, start to finish (assuming I’m at the conference, of course). And I encourage speakers to ask other speakers to do the same for each other. Critique me, too. Tell me what you like about my talk, tell me what you don’t like, and what you’d do differently or what you’d like to copy.
All over beer or wine or Scotch, of course. Critiquing a fellow speaker should have some benefits.