Giving Presentation Feedback

Originally posted May 23, 2015

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:

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

Slide design


Presentation style

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!).

Next-level feedback

There are some all-star presenters at Etsy, for whom this isn’t their first rodeo. My feedback usually falls along these lines:

Questions afterward

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. :)

Lara Hogan

Author, public speaker, and coach for managers and leaders across the tech industry.

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