Ground Rules for Presentation Critiques

By Heather Baldwin

You’ve got a major sales presentation coming up. To help make sure you’re well prepared you enlist a couple coworkers to sit through a practice run and give you feedback. You run through your entire presentation – slides, video, clever opening line – and at the end your colleagues hit you with their comments. Among them: Great presentation! You need a little more preparation. I liked it a lot. You write it all down, go to make changes to your presentation and realize you have no idea what needs to be addressed. If this sounds familiar you need to lay out a few ground rules next time you ask for a critique session, says Jude Westerfield, author of Giving a Presentation (Silver Lining Books, 2003).

First, ask that all comments be specific. Sure, it feels great when someone tells you your presentation was terrific, says Westerfield, but for a comment like that to be truly useful, you need to know what, specifically, was terrific. Did you excel at getting the audience to interact? Were your stories and anecdotes particularly compelling in helping to drive home your key points? On the flip side, what didn’t work? If an audience member says the presentation was boring, find out when the person tuned out or where he or she found it lacked spark. With comments like these in hand, you’ll be able to zero in on the problem spots.

Next, ask that the people critiquing you use I statements because they can speak only for themselves. For example, if someone says: You didn’t make any sense when you used the football analogy to explain compound annual growth. That may not be true at all. You may have made perfect sense to everyone else. A better critique of your presentation would be: I didn’t understand your analogy between football and compound annual growth. It may turn out that the person missed a critical sentence and that the analogy makes perfect sense. Or it indeed may turn out that no one understood it, but that’s not for a single listener to assume.

Finally, “feedback should focus on what was observed without any inferences drawn from the observation,” says Westerfield. In other words, if someone observes that you spend most of your time reading from your notes, he or she should tell you that, rather than something like: I could tell you weren’t prepared because you looked at your notes most of the time.

Lay down these three ground rules at your next critique session and you’ll walk away with solid feedback you can use to help build a great presentation.