I'm lucky that I get the chance to speak at conferences on a fairly regular basis. Last year, I presented about a dozen talks on web design topics and taught a couple of workshops. But, I'm still a neophyte next to the Molly Holzschlag's and the Jared Spool's of the geeky lecture circuit. I know I have a lot of room for improvement. Yet, getting honest criticism from your audience is just about impossible.
Earlier this year, Khoi Vinh correctly made the case that designers are generally too kind to each other. At no time is this more true than when you're asking people to criticize your public speaking. You can ask attendees and even fellow speakers for tips and they'll invariably concoct a compliment and shrug their shoulders before telling you that they couldn't do as well as you just did — which is total crap.
During the past year, I've figured out a few decent techniques to encourage people to give you a critique. This is something I still struggle with so I'd appreciate your ideas as well. A few things that seem to work for me:
- Ask for just one thing
- If you ask people to tell you 'anything' or 'everything' that you could improve upon, they'll usually stumble about and not give you anything useful. But, ask them for the 'one thing' you could improve on and they'll at least wrack their brain to come up with a single criticism. This is much better than getting nothing.
- Ask people who know you well
- The best post-presentation critiques I've received have come from a long-time coworker and my father. People who've been on the other end of your own stinging criticisms are much more comfortable throwing some back at you. This is great! My dad's a really nice guy, but he's both heard me carp at him more than a few times and he's a seasoned university lecturer. He was kind but blunt with several pieces of good advice.
- Ask drunk people
- Seriously. After a workshop at Future of Web Apps in Miami last year, I asked the attendees to give me some honest feedback and got a tepid response. But... that night, a couple of the guys were pretty drunk and (standing a little too close for comfort and with potent whiskey breath) gave me a healthy dose of totally unvarnished advice. That advice, which was to show more examples and to cover less material but in more depth, was fantastic.
- Ask groups of people
- This seemed counterintuitive to me. I assumed that if you cornered an individual that you could get good one-on-one advice. But, if you can coax just one person in a small group to give you a single piece of advice, the rest sometimes sense blood in the water and will join in too — yay! Once the ice is broken and people see that you actually didn't rip the critiquer's head off, it's much easier for the other people to add their own comments.
- Be persistent
- People are eager to please. Heck, that's why they're being too nice to you in the first place. If you seem genuinely disappointed that no one is offering you criticism, people sometimes throw you a bone to please you. Like in the previous point, once you've broken the ice...
And, of course, If you've seen me present recently or if you're going to be at one of the same conferences I'll be at (I've got a list at the bottom of the page), I'd appreciate your critique in the comments. Be honest, be judgmental, be picky, be cold, heck be downright mean — I'll learn more from your criticisms than from all the platitudes you might write.