Undercover Economist

November 29, 2013 6:58 pm

The perils of public speaking

‘Feedback is standard in certain environments ... But it is rare for criticism to be quite so practical’
Illustration by Raymond Biesinger of judges raising scorecards©Raymond Biesinger

I recently gave a talk at a large venue to nearly 1,000 people. It seemed to go well but who am I to judge? The experience of giving a speech is radically different from the experience of listening to one. An adrenalin-drenched emotional rollercoaster for a nervous speaker may nevertheless be unbearably tedious for the listeners. A superbly honed performance may produce a sense of suspense, surprise and delight for the audience; the result of many hours of rehearsal and repetition for the speaker. Yet it can be very hard indeed for the speaker to know what worked and what didn’t.

Audience comments aren’t much help, either. People are polite, and they know that giving a speech is difficult, so a handshake and a “well done” could mean anything from “you moved me to tears” to “you bored me to tears”. A speaker can float through talk after talk in a warm bath of gently encouraging remarks.

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On this particular day, though, I was in for less of a warm bath, more of a bracing shower. The Geoffrey Boycott of personal financial advisers was in the audience – a tall Yorkshireman with lots of unvarnished opinions that he felt duty-bound to share with me in the lobby afterwards.

“For a start, I kept wanting to offer you my tie. Next time, wear one. And your shoes – I notice things like that.” He gestured towards my evidently slightly-too-comfortable footwear.

“But that’s not what I wanted to tell you,” he continued. I waited, a little bemused. “Your first slide, instead of just telling us that it was John Maynard Keynes, you could have asked, ‘Does anyone know who this is? Anyone?’ It just gets your audience a bit more involved. I teach public speaking, you see.”

I nodded and thanked him for the suggestion but the flow of comments was relentless. “Don’t get me wrong, I liked it. But then, what you could have done was … ”

As a piece of rhetorical advice, it was too much “public speaking for beginners” to take entirely seriously. But the conversation was an absolute masterclass in how to give feedback: arresting, friendly, frank – and above all specific. My self-appointed speaking coach had identified a set of particular points he wanted done differently, and listed them clearly, with reasons, examples and the occasional word of encouragement.

Such feedback is standard in certain environments – Olympic coaches, editors on deadline and schoolteachers all provide focused constructive feedback if they’re any good. But it is rare for criticism to be quite so practical: it’s usually vague and verging on flattery or cruelty.

An alternative is the “praise sandwich”, a thin but chewy sliver of specific feedback, squeezed between two thick, doughy slabs of praise. This seems like a common sense way to combine criticism with kindness but it is not always helpful. The economist Richard Thaler once posited the idea that we practise “hedonic editing” – lumping together good and bad news to make ourselves feel better. (An example: why fret that I lost my wallet, when my house gained thousands of pounds in value just this month?) Hedonic editing allows us to take the rough with the smooth; but that makes it a dangerous way to process critical comments. It helps us feel better but it doesn’t help us perform better.

Yet there’s no use blaming the critics for being too vague: they’re vague because they know that specific criticism is not always welcome. I have taken to seeking out specific suggestions for improvement, when I can muster the courage.

It’s draining to ask for such comments. It is also difficult to provide them: if you ask people to think hard about something you should have done differently, they will often be lost for words. But there are certain, glorious exceptions. If they don’t buttonhole you in the lobby, they’re worth seeking out.

‘The Undercover Economist Strikes Back’, by Tim Harford, is published by Little, Brown

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