On unsolicited criticism

I had a new experience a few weeks ago when I was speaking at Velocity. I gave a keynote to 2,000 people; throughout the following day, a half-dozen strangers came up to me to supply unsolicited criticism of my presentation tone.

They each approached me individually. They were all male. Some waited til I was alone to approach me, others did it while I was surrounded by people. I don’t think they knew each other, and I don’t think they were fellow speakers. I repeatedly heard the following:

I’m a person who really appreciates feedback. I read the comments and reviews submitted through the Velocity site religiously. I gave the presentation 8 times at work before I gave it at Velocity, and more than a dozen people gave me incredibly helpful feedback on it beforehand.

But by the end of the day after my keynote, I was crushed. I had received a ton of praise and positive feedback, too, but I couldn’t hear it. My brain could only retain were these random, surprising, caught-off-guard moments that required me to nod and smile and try to make sense of what these people were saying. After dinner, I nearly broke down; I went to my manager, Seth, and told him what was going on. [1]

Seth turned to a nearby presenter (and fellow coworker) and asked, “Hey Jonathan, did you receive any constructive criticism or feedback after your talk?”

Jonathan said, “What? No. I mean, people said it was good. But not really feedback.” We continued our poll. The male presenters we asked received no unsolicited feedback (other than “that was great!”). Some women I spoke with, however, had received feedback on their tone as well.

I asked Seth, “Wait, are you saying this is gendered?” He nodded, “Yeah, I think it could be.” I was blown away. I was still crushed, but at least I could begin to try and process what had been happening. As someone who loves receiving feedback, I’ve had a hard time figuring out why I was so deeply affected by these strangers. I’ve narrowed it down to a few possibilities:

Those around me have some additional guesses as to why they decided to approach me and say something. I’ve heard, “Maybe they thought you were cute and wanted to impress you.” I’ve heard, “Maybe they were insecure.” But I think the real nugget is that I wasn’t like a lot of the other presenters: I wore a dress, heels, and a big necklace. I was incredibly articulate and poised. I wasn’t a stand-up act or rough around the edges. I think that this set off a red flag to these men: “There is something different here. Different is bad.” Is it possible that the only frame of reference they have for a strong woman in front of an audience, speaking articulately, is their school teachers? [3]

I’ve rewatched that video quite a bit since I gave the presentation. I continue to need to reassure myself that I’m actually really proud of my delivery. I think I represented myself well onstage that day [4], and I think I represented Etsy well, too. In the few days following the presentation I told a handful of very close friends that I didn’t want to give a talk again – I was that shattered by what’d happened. I’m in a much better place now, thanks to being surrounded by people who give real, helpful, honest feedback. There are things I’m continuing to improve on as a public speaker, but none of them relate to my tone.

I wrote this post for two reasons: I want people who have experienced this to understand that they are not alone. And I’m writing this to remind folks to check yourself when you have an instinct to give someone advice or feedback. Ask yourself some questions. When’s the right time? Is it constructive? What’s moving you to give feedback to them right now? And is it possible that your brain was itched by them not in a bad way, but in a potentially eye-opening way for you? It may reveal some unconscious biases in yourself that would be worthwhile for you to explore.

[1] An even weirder part of this story is that one of the men who approached me also approached Seth and gave him feedback on my presentation tone.

[2] I’ve spoken with other women who’ve had a similar experience and we’ve commiserated about how much it rattles you. But I’ve also learned how to handle it in the future: “Thanks so much for wanting to give me feedback! Please put in your comments and review online through the site; I read every single one of those, and I’m MUCH more likely to remember it that way” with a big old smile. It’ll undercut whatever is driving them to come say it to your face.

[3] And I’m still confused: how is coming across like a teacher a piece of criticism?

[4] I’ve also read through the reviews (I have a 4.37/5 star rating!) and was asked to speak at additional conferences by two fellow highly-rated keynote speakers at Velocity. And reading through the feedback on Twitter (which was universally positive), I realized something big: female audience members reacted incredibly positively to my talk. Maybe my tone and presence didn’t shock them as much as it did the others.

Lara Callender Hogan

I'm an Engineering Director at Etsy and the author of Designing for Performance, Building a device lab, and Demystifying Public Speaking. Follow me on Twitter, read my blog.

I champion performance as a part of the overall user experience, help people get comfortable giving presentations, and believe it's important to celebrate career achievements with donuts.