Things I Have Learned

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Caution – bad things happening. It’s been a bonkers month here. Illness and injury abound, with several people in hospital for several weeks. Not my fault, I promise – I didn’t put them there. In amongst all of this I have been desperately working on keeping my editor happy for the new book. But more importantly are a couple of things I (re-)learned which can be put under the category of “you can’t please all the people all the time”.

Case study one:

I was doing two sessions in a day conference for a big charity and – although they loved my second session – they hated my first presentation. Why? Because I used stories. Now… every professional speaker will tell you that stories are the way to go because they give you an emotional resonance with your audience. But this lot didn’t want them – in fact, they didn’t want them to the point that they resented them. (Actually, as far as I can figure in a detailed debrief, about five of the 25 people there didn’t want them – and they influenced the rest, which is a lesson in itself!) Using stories stopped people learning here, because they felt they’d learn better from the facts, just the facts, and nothing but the facts.

The research evidence is, of course, that they’re wrong, but that’s not the point. The point is what I, as a presenter, could do about it. The short answer is, bluntly, almost nothing. There was no hint before I started my session about their preferences that I can think of – even with the benefit of hindsight. There was no indication during the presentation itself that I could notice (remember, it was only a few people who subsequently complained, not a majority), and the brutal facts of the matter are that these people are either very unusual or simply wrong – they won’t learn better by a bare recitation of the facts.

The solution? Don’t charge them and chalk it up to experience. The audience is not always right.

Case study two:

Some feedback from an interview I did recently gave me 0/12 for illustrating an understanding of the needs of the clients. The clients weren’t in the room but their interests were represented by an administrator, someone from HR and someone “from procurement”. I must admit I’m slightly surprised by this feedback as, for nearly two and a half decades I was one of the clients these people represented. It’s hard to imagine anyone with a better understanding of their needs than someone with 24 years’ experience of those needs.

Ah well.

The solution? Chalk it up to experience. Sometimes you can’t win. The audience is not always right.

But hang on a minute…

Doesn’t that all sound rather arrogant? I’m blaming my audiences for not liking me. Isn’t it more likely that they knew best and I was just having a bad day? Well yes… it’s possible, and most of the time that would be my response too. (But a score of zero is just, well, silly!)

So how do I know when it’s me, and when it’s them? Your feelings about the matter might differ, but here are my criteria.

  1. History. On the times when you’ve presented that material before, using similar techniques, to similar audiences, what were the responses? Is there a pattern to the criticism? Does it chime at all with what other people have said?
  2. Experience. How closely aligned are you with the audience? Do you have personal experience of doing what they do, thinking like they think and being where they are? In other words, how sure can you be you’ve judged your presentation right?
  3. Instinct. Sometimes you just know you’re right. But be very careful with this one!
  4. Recordings or critical friends. What does the camera or an independent third party tell you? By the way, make sure the independent third party is both independent and knows what they’re talking about!
  5. Rehearsal. How did it feel when you tried in out in front of the mirror, to your pet cat and to the people you dragged in to rehearse in front of?
  6. Credibility. How credible is the criticism at first sight? What’s your immediate, unguarded and instinctive response? There’s a world of difference between a very bad and critical score of 3/12 and a very bad and critical score of 0/12: is it even theoretically possible that the comments are fair? No? I’ll bet it is, at least theoretically….!
  7. Alternatives. Can you think of any other interpretations of what’s going on? If you can’t think of any which are at least as likely and credible as the idea that you just screwed up, you might just have to swallow your pride and admit that’s just exactly what you did. After all, as Sherlock Homes once said, “How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?

So what do you think, fellow presenters? How do you know when criticism is justified?

This blog post has been re-published by kind permission of Simon Raybould – View the original post .


Published On: 9th Apr 2015

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