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What Do Speakers Look for in Reviews?

February 15th, 2018

Every public speaker is different, so let me tell you to what I personally pay attention in post-talk reviews.

Reviews That I Don't Find Useful

"I didn't learn anything." I can't control what people know. I have knowledge that I want to share. The audience is diverse. Many people find things eye-opening while others consider those same things common knowledge. If I can't change that, then such reviews are not useful to me.

I once had a review about a poster behind me that fell for no reason, or about a specific projector model failing to be detected by my laptop. If I can't control it, then these reviews fall on deaf ears. Perhaps notify the organizers about any equipment or venue issues.

"I wish you talked more about X." The time alotted for a talk is short, so there will always be sacrifices. I don't try to cover as much content as possible. I try to give people a framework of thought: something that they can apply in many situations. That said, I welcome content suggestions during in-person interactions, because then I can better understand the reasoning behind the request.

"This is not what I expected" is partially problematic. It can either be that the person created themselves false expectations, or that I didn't set the expectations correctly through my abstract. However, without the reasoning, I can't do anything with this information. It's better to say "I expected this to be X because I saw Y in the abstract." In the same vein, sometimes conference organizers change the level of my talks without warning, so people walking into an intermediate talk that said advanced on the schedule will likely be disappointed. I have an award-winning article that some people complained was too basic. Well, it was useful to many other people. It was shared on social media by a thousand people.

Reviews That I Find Useful

"I didn't quite understand how X leads to Y." This is probably the best kind of reviews, those that tell me about a missing link between topics. It's possible for me to overlook something that is obvious to me, but doesn't quite make sense to those who are only just getting into this topic. I can then adjust my talk for a better flow, either by rearranging the topics or adding a diagram for a better explanation.

"I can't quite apply this in my work due to X." These objections are valuable, because I can then find a solution for these edge cases and incorporate them into my presentation. I want the most people to be able to apply the knowledge that they gain from my talks. I sometimes even change my approach to things based on such reviews.

"It was hard to see the code from the back." Anything that has to do with slide readability is useful advice. Over the years, I learned to bump up the font size, balance contrast, display less code on a given slide and annotate code parts as I speak. Now I get reviews like "I really love how you pay attention to details in your slides", which shows me that I made significant progress.

The best reviews are actually just having interesting conversations after the talk. At a conference in late 2017, I spent over 2h in the hallway after my talk just talking to attendee after attendee. I nearly missed lunch. But I did get the audience's perspective on the subject, why they fail to implement certain practices, what value they see or don't see in the proposed solutions, etc. This not only allows me to improve the talk, but also leads to ideas for other talks that complement the original subject.

What About Performance Quality?

As for the quality of the perfrmance itself, I don't really need reviews because I already know before the talk is even over. I can hear whether people got my jokes. I can see in their eyes whether they're bored or curious for more. I can see when people are taking notes or taking pictures of slides. I can see when people nod in agreement or tilt their head in pondering. I can later even tell whether I got them thinking by the relevance of their questions.

What are the reviews that you're interested in as a speaker? Please share in the comments below.

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