Giving Presentation Feedback
I routinely get the opportunity to provide feedback on draft versions of my coworkers’ presentations. I work with incredibly smart, interesting people, and it’s wonderful to listen to their stories, learn from them, and see what new thing they’re bringing to the industry. Having given different kinds of talks at a spectrum of venues, I’m able to ask questions and provide feedback that could (I hope!) help them with their presentation.
The other day Maggie Zhou, a fellow engineer at Etsy, asked me if I’d written up the kinds of things I think about when giving presentation feedback. Major thanks to her for encouraging me to write up my general thought process for helping with this kind of practice/feedback session.
Delivering feedback well is hard (but important)
Before I dive into the questions I ask, I want to emphasize: read the room before delivering feedback. Don’t give feedback in the moment if the tone or timing isn’t right. Use your emotional intelligence spidey sense. You can always, always, always save your feedback for another time, and a more private or less stressful setting.
Hearing the sound of your own voice is never a good enough reason to give feedback, especially if it’s just to +1 someone else’s feedback. The understanding and comfort of the practicing presenter is paramount. Otherwise, they will neither hear nor benefit from the words you share.
Ask questions first, give suggestions later. I always ask first, “How did you feel about that?” when the presenter finishes. Listen and understand. They’ll know exactly how they did. Your job is to help them find new ways to take their talk to the next level for their eventual audience. Your job is NOT to teach this presenter something. Put on your inquisitive hat for all feedback-giving. “I think that this phrase may be hard for the audience to understand; could there be an alternative?” “I really liked how you hit home this big idea. That was really powerful. Is there a way to weave that thought into the beginning of the presentation, too?”
I like to know where a person is already feeling strong about their presentation, and where they know they need feedback (hence the question-asking before it even starts). If I have feedback outside of that scope, I’ll ask if now is an okay time to share it (nearly always, the answer is yes; this brief question is a great way to ensure it’s the right time and their brain is open to it).
All right. Let’s get to the questions!
Questions I ask beforehand
Before watching a coworker’s practice talk, I ask them:
- How long is your speaking slot? How much talking time are you aiming for? (Versus, for example, Q&A time)
- What’s the audience makeup like? Developers? Designers? Specialized in a certain area? Technical depth?
- What time of day is your talk? Is it right before or after lunch?
- What kind of feedback are you looking for? (technical depth appropriateness? design? storytelling? accuracy? presentation style? etc.)
I also read the description posted on the conference website (if it’s available) to get a sense of what the audience is expecting to see from this presentation.
Things I ask myself during the run-through
While I’m listening, I try to put myself in the audience’s perspective with the following questions.
Topic and technical depth
- Will they get it?
- Will they be bored?
- Is there Etsy-specific terminology that may be unfamiliar to them?
- Will they be inspired to try something new? Or do some more research afterward?
- Is the presenter nerd-sniping the audience at any point, to the point of potential distraction?
- What questions will the audience be likely to ask first when the presentation is over?
- Did the content match the talk description?
- Can I read everything on the slides? Will people in the back of a large room be able to?
- Is there the right amount of info per slide? Am I spending more time reading than listening?
- Is there consistency of fonts, colors, etc.?
- Can any of the content of the slides be eliminated to make the point clearer? (Browser window add-ons, dates from email screenshots, irrelevant code in snippets, etc.)
- Is there a different way to represent the info that might be more intuitive/better storytelling? (“magic move” is a great one; also sometimes gifs, sometimes Etsy listing images, or quite often using significantly fewer words)
- Does the talk have a clear arc?
- Do I feel myself disconnecting at any point?
- Would it benefit from a presentation narrative structure of more storytelling, less instruction? (Hint: almost always.)
- Is there a bigger idea at the end so that everybody in the room has at least one takeaway, even if they already knew the meat of the talk?
- Do I understand why this person wants to talk to this audience about this topic? (Do I know what their job is? Why are they interested in this topic? Why should I trust them?)
- Does this get too in-the-weeds at any point?
- How many ums/uhs/soooooo’s? How quickly are they speaking? (Note: I will rarely give this feedback to someone in front of other people.)
- How much is this presenter relying on presentation notes, or visibly locked to their laptop? (Same as the above; this is private feedback.)
- Does the tone match the topic? (For example: is humor helpful, or distracting?)
Depending upon the amount and detail of the feedback I’ve gathered from these questions, I’ll share these in person or send notes via email. If I have a lot of feedback and I’m in a room with lots of other feedback-givers, then I’ll typically ask the person if I could follow up with them in person afterward. Giving a presentation is hard enough without having to process all of the feedback immediately (and we all know that receiving feedback is hard!).
There are some all-star presenters at Etsy, for whom this isn’t their first rodeo. My feedback usually falls along these lines:
- Were there any words, phrases, or jokes that caught me by surprise or distracted me from the talk?
- Would any of the visualizations benefit from magic move, an animated GIF of a screen capture, or other next-level Keynote technique?
- Is the “big idea” at the end big enough? Can I think of any other suggestions to make it more powerful?
- If I’ve presented at that conference or in that country before, are there any tips that I can share from my own experience?
- What’s their resources page look like? Are there any other people or resources they could give shoutouts to?
- Are there any constraints from the conference organizers that you should try and push back on for the sake of the audience? (Required slide design, room setup, etc.)
If it’s the right time (and headspace) for the presenter, now may be a great time to pretend to be the audience and practice Q&A. Now is not the time to pretend to be an asshole. Now is the time to appropriately prepare the presenter for questions about how we do things at Etsy, questions from people who love a particular piece of technology that may not apply to this talk, and questions from people who want to know how fast the presenter can open-source their work.
I’m sure I’ve missed things from this list, so I’ll continue to update it over time as I get more practice watching practices. :)