Why great speakers must seek out brutally honest feedback

There’s nothing wrong with encouragement or positive reinforcement, but if you want to become an exceptional orator, find someone who will candidly point out the flaws in your talk.


Are you in a safe or challenging place when it comes to giving speeches?

Are you receiving meaningful and constructive feedback that will, in the long run, make you a great speaker?

If the only feedback you receive is “nice speech!”, why bother asking for feedback at all? If it’s just to boost your ego, stay at home and give your speech in front of a mirror.

If you want to become a great speaker, here’s a simple two-step solution for you:

1. Find experienced listeners who won’t kiss your behind.

2. Get them to give you in-depth, written comments that have specific suggestions for improvement. (“I liked your voice” won’t cut it.)

Perhaps you’re familiar with Toastmasters. Some criticize the organization’s tendency to emphasize acting at the expense of substance. However, the great thing about Toastmasters is that speakers receive feedback for each speech they give. This is crucial for inexperienced speakers; it builds confidence and helps people deal with nervousness.

As speakers give more and more speeches, however, the feedback tends to become less relevant. You’ll often hear talented speakers, who pour hours of labor into their speeches, get some variation of “in short, it was an awesome speech” from the person giving them feedback. What a complete and utter waste of time.

“I already know it’s awesome—or I wouldn’t have given the thing!”

This is where many good speakers make a permanent stop on the road to becoming great speakers. What we need is somebody to say, “That speech could have used some work, and here’s exactly what you need to improve.”

We all need somebody who can jar us out of our complacency—somebody with the guts (and benevolent consideration) to say: “Actually, it wasn’t that awesome. It was kind of lousy, and here’s why.”

Finding somebody who is willing to hurt your feelings for the sake of improvement is essential. Unfortunately, very few seek this sort of tough love out—mostly because we don’t really want to take it. The truth can hurt. We’d much rather hear we are doing a great job, or that our speech about “taking the first step” is revolutionary or enlightening. (It probably isn’t.)

There’s nothing wrong with encouragement or positive reinforcement, but if you want to become a great speaker, you must get better feedback. How, you might ask? You don’t even have to leave your own home.

Invite five or six people to your house. Not just any people; seek out seasoned orators who know how to deliver great speeches. Invite people who will listen to your speech, then stand up and tell you exactly what they thought about it. Preferably, your constructive feedback group will consist of people who don’t find “keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars” to be a particularly insightful observation.

Ideally, your group should give speeches as well. Watch and critique each person’s presentation. Simple, right? As for rules, who needs them? You don’t need somebody ringing a bell each time somebody makes an “umm” sound. You don’t need boards of directors. You don’t need ribbons.

Try these guidelines instead:

1. Be quiet when somebody is speaking.

2. Say nothing when receiving your feedback.

3. If your speech sucks, do it again.

4. Don’t give your group a name.

5. Start this weekend.

Whether it’s writing or delivering a speech, we must constantly challenge ourselves if we’re going to grow. This means accepting some potentially harsh truths.

Can you handle them? Do you truly want to become better? Do you want to become the kind of speaker that other speakers long to be? Do you want to make money as a speaker and inspire people to do amazing things?

Or do you just want a ribbon?

A version of this post first appeared on Brent Kerrigan’s Global Speechwriter blog.

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