The best way to improve is to get feedback that is actionable for you. But when it comes to presentations the only ones that tend to get feedback are pitch decks for investors. These pitches can be existential to the success of a venture and thus much more time is invested in improving them. In fact for two nights in April I’ll be scrubbing pitches for the participants in the MIT Venture Mentoring Service Demo Day, to be held April 26th. It’s a great process for the mentees, as they have teams of experienced mentors critiquing their pitches in real time. Then they have the opportunity to revise their decks and come back two days later to have their new version assessed. It’s extremely heartening to see the dramatic improvements the founders make on their second run. Sometimes it is even startling, as when a pitch is so totally transformed that it goes far beyond simply assimilating the constructive criticism to become both totally different and far more effective.
But how can presenters evaluate presentations they are giving that aren’t existential to their companies, presenters like me who don’t even have companies? In theory one could ask that a SurveyMonkey questionnaire be sent to everyone in the audience. But prevailing on your host to go to that time and effort would be an aggressive tactic that could potentially backfire.
So how do you know if your presentation has gone over well or not? You can rely on applause, but often every presenter gets about the same quota of applause. Aside from the obvious issue of noticing how many members of the audience consulting their mobile devices instead of paying attention to your presentation, what can you do?
Here’s my recommendation. If you are given say 30 minutes to present your company, your product or another topic, ask your host if you can allocate 20 minutes to the presentation and 10 minutes for Q & A. Also make sure that when you are introduced it’s made clear to the audience that you will be taking questions for the last third of your time slot.
I then judge my presentation’s success on two simple metrics: the number and quality of questions – a quantitative and qualitative assessment. Good questions challenge my thinking and require a nuanced response. The one problem with the Q & A session is like so many things, such as being the first investor or the first customer, people just don’t like going first. Everyone is looking for confirmation and you can’t get that if you go first – only those in 2 – n cohort can ask follow-on questions without that ubiquitous fear – the fear of looking stupid, ignorant or both.
So you may need to prime the pump; there are several ways to do this:
- Ask your host or the person who introduced you to start the Q & A session if no one in the audience initiates the questioning. You could even provide a couple of sample questions he or she could ask.
- Watch the audience while you present and call on someone who looks attentive and engaged.
- Ask yourself a question!
- Ask a question of the audience, one that doesn’t require just a yes or no, but should be evocative and lead to follow-on questions.
We have probably all been to conferences or other events at which we were asked to evaluate the program. In the old, pre-Web days a paper evaluation form would be left on everyone’s seat and the host of the event would ask everyone to fill it out. Perhaps you’ll have the advantage of an online version of that, especially if you are a presenter at a conference with several presentations.
But I would still encourage you to have a Q & A session. Why? Because I often find I can learn something from the audience and even make connections. Enable the audience to give back to you.