The role of the Speech Evaluator is probably one of the most critical in the whole system of public speaking clubs.
Although speakers receive written feedback from all members of the audience, the primary way in which they improve is through the detailed feedback of their speech evaluators. There's a separate chapter in this guide about how to do effective evaluations.
In Agora Speakers, all speeches must be evaluated. After all, Agora is, above all, an educational organization. There's absolutely no point to give a speech in a club unless it is for the speaker to learn something or to improve in some way. And learning requires and outside point of view, since we're usually very bad judges of our own performance.
As a speech evaluator, you will be usually asked by the Meeting Leader to intervene two times - once before the speaker, and once after the speaker.
During your first participation (before the speaker), your goal is to explain to the audience what project the speaker is doing, what are the learning objectives and goals and what the audience should be watching for. Try to finish with an encouraging or uplifting remark for the speaker.
It's very important that when you finish this part, you give the floor back to the Meeting Leader, instead of giving it directly to the speaker. This is necessary since the Meeting Leader still has to introduce the speaker. For example, you could say:
"Thank you Jane. Today I'll be evaluating John's speech. John is doing the project about Body Language, a project in which the goal is to use expressive and clear body language in support of a central message. Body language is the whole set of nonverbal cues that a speaker can use. The most visible ones are facial and hand gestures, but it's also very important the way he moves on the stage, or his general posture and demeanor. It's important that the gestures are natural instead of forced, and that they are relevant, appropriate and supportive to what is being said at the moment. We've seen John speaking before we all know he's quite expressive, so I'm sure this project will be piece-of-cake for him. Madam Meeting Leader"
(after which you extend your hand to shake that of the Meeting Leader, giving the floor back to her).
Anyone is qualified to be a Speech Evaluator
One question that usually Speech Evaluators ask is "Am I experienced enough to be a Speech Evaluator?" or "I've only done a few projects, am I qualified to be a Speech Evaluator for an advanced project?"
Usually the implication is that, since you haven't done enough speeches, you somehow lack the knowledge or the experience to be a judge of anyone else's speech.
This, however, is a fallacy. Consider for example the last time you went to a movie with a friend. Did you have an opinion on the film or the acting after you left the venue? I can bet that the first things you told your friend after the movie was over were something like "Wow, this was a great movie. I loved when .... " or "Gee,what a terrible movie. The acting was soo bad". And yet, you are neither a professional film maker nor script writer nor actor.
The same applies to many other facets of our lives - we go to a restaurant, and we do have an opinion on the food even if we're not able to cook even a simple fried egg without leaving a mess in the kitchen. We go to a theatre play and we do have an opinion on the story and the acting, even if we have not finished a drama school. We go to a football match and we do have an opinion on how each player performed even we never do any sports.
The reason for all this is that we're not evaluating from a professional viewpoint.
The goal of a Speech Evaluation is not to evaluate the speaker from the viewpoint of some academic or professional criteria.
The goal of a Speech Evaluation is to give your opinion on the speaker and the speech from the viewpoint of an audience member.
As a member of the audience, you know what you saw, you know what you heard, you know how the speech made you feel. And you have a whole lifetime of experience listening to speeches in all possible contexts.
Remember also that, as an Evaluator, you're merely expressing your own opinion.
Your Goals as an Evaluator
You have three primary goals as a Speech Evaluator:
- To Motivate the speaker. All speakers are humans and they share the same concerns and needs for acceptance as anyone else. Even if a speaker is very advanced and transpires confidence, he will still have the same inner doubts and fears - "Did I do it right?", "Was I convincing?", "What do these people think of me?", "Did they realize I made this and that mistake?". The only difference between an advanced speaker and a novice when it comes to these fears is the way the control and deal with them. So all speakers will value being recognized and encouraged by pointing out the positive things they did.
- To Educate the speaker and the audience. As an Evaluator, you need not only to point out the things that could be improved, but also why these things are important. Don't just say "I would use a bit more vocal variety". Explain why vocal variety is important in general, and for that particular project. The explanation is for the speaker, but also for educating the audience, as one of the main ways we learn is observing what others do.
- To Help the speaker improve. All speakers want to improve, even more advanced ones. Otherwise, they would be charging for speaking at conferences instead of attending a club! To Help a speaker improve, you need to provide him with specific and actionable advice : things that - in your opinion - he could have done better or differently in order to improve the effectiveness of his speech.
Now, I'm not suggesting that you should remember this as the "Meh!" goals, but hey, if it helps, go for it.
What to do as an Evaluator - Before the Meeting
To be effective as an Evaluator, you need to know both the person that is going to deliver the speech, and the project itself. Even if you have "volunteered" for the role of Evaluator at the meeting itself, there's always some time before the meeting starts to at least try to do the following steps.
1. Read about the project
Read the project description that the speaker is going to deliver completely. Pay special attention to the learning goals and the key objectives. These are the main take-aways for the speaker from the project.
2. Determine the Context
All Evaluations should be tailored to the particular context in which they are happening. The context includes things like:
- The Project objectives
- The overall goals of the educational path the speaker is following
- The Level of the speaker
- The Specific interests of the speaker
- The Venue
- The Time
- The Preceding and Following Events.
An example of how context influences a good evaluation, consider the level of the speaker. When someone is beginning public speaking, the feedback on basic elements such as having a good eye contact with the audience can be extensive and profusely explained. For example, "During your speech, you didn't look too much at the left side of the audience. Having a good eye contact with all members is important for many reasons - it immediately draws the attention of the person you're looking at, you transmit a feeling of confidence and authority, and you create an atmosphere of a friendly one on one conversation with that person".
If the speaker was instead an experienced speaker that has already 20 projects behind his back, the above would be overkill and would waste precious time that could be better spent on detailing less known issues by the speaker. Note that this doesn't mean that you shouldn't mention it at all. Quite the contrary, all speakers - even very advanced ones - make basic mistakes occasionally. So be sure to say something like "During your speech, you didn't look too much at the left side of the audience.", but don't dwell on it - an advanced speaker already knows that.
Also, experienced speakers usually like to receive more suggestions for improvement while novice speakers need more encouragement and only a few tips for improvement at a time.
The Venue is also an important context. Good speakers need to adapt to bad venues:
- Geometry - Sometimes the venue is terrible in the sense that the audience is not concentrated in a single location, but distributed in various shapes. Good speakers have to make sure that they address and establish eye contact with all members of the audience regardless of where they're seated.
- Acoustics - Some venues have terrible acoustics and a good speaker must compensate for that by projecting his voice even louder.
- Illumination - Sometimes the lights are too dim, and the speaker has to put additional emphasis to avoid people falling asleep. Sometimes the lights are too bright, and this will be problematic if the speaker uses visual aids or projection equipment.
- Temperature - If the venue does not have an appropriate temperature, humidity or ventilation, people will be more focused on their uncomfortableness, which will require extra efforts from the speaker to keep their attention. A good speaker can sometimes include an appropriate (usually humorous ) reference to those factors and gain instant connection with the audience and their positive predisposition virtually with no effort.
Day and Time of day are also very important factors in a speech, although in club settings they will be relatively constant as most clubs meet at the same time the same day of the week. However, for out of club projects and for the real world in general, a speech delivered a Monday early in the morning is not the same as a speech delivered on a Friday before the work day is almost over and people are already in mind and spirit away from the venue where the speech is given. A speech at 8:00am should not be the same as a speech given immediately before or after lunch.
3. Contact the Speaker
Your work as an Evaluator begins well before the meeting. Many speakers have their own additional goals in every project. Many speakers want to make sure that they have learned and put into practice specific things from previous projects. It is extremely helpful to have someone point them out how successful (or not) were they in doing so. Maybe the speaker has the habit of looking too much to the left side of the audience? Maybe the speaker has the habit of moving back and forth the whole time? Maybe the speaker wants to make sure his enunciation is clear? That he is heard at the back of the room?
For those reasons, contact the speaker before the meeting and ask him if he would like you to pay attention on anything special, in addition to the project goals.
4. Pre-write your evaluation
Although you have not yet heard the speech, you can decide on your evaluation strategy before the meeting and pre-write its general structure. For example, you may decide in advance that you will open with a positive comment on how you remember the beginnings of that particular speaker. Or you may decide to start with your personal experience with that particular project. One fellow member used to start every single of his evaluations with "Your speech reminded me of .... ", and then proceeded with a very short personal story.
You may also select some quotes that might be applicable for a particular project. For example, for the project of "Speech Development" where the main focus is using effective language when writing the speech, I like to include the following quote from Antoine de Saint-Exupery:
"If you want to build a ship, don't drum up people to collect wood and don't assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea."
This quote helps illustrate the need of using language that transmits powerful images and feelings to the audience.
Remember that an Evaluation is also a speech in itself, and it should have all the attributes of a good speech - structure, message, clarity, pacing, etc.
You can also pre-write the main items you want to focus on, and maybe pre-write some keywords that you will later merely underline or cross (some prefer to write "plus" and "minus" signs) depending on how the speaker is performed. Anything you can do to save you time writing down your impressions during the speech itself is welcome, as it will allow you more time to concentrate on the speech.
What to do as an Evaluator - During the Meeting
Where to Sit.
You should sit in a neutral, non-privileged location. Don't fall into the temptation of sitting in the front row in order to "see and hear" the speaker clearly, because that's not how the audience in general will perceive it. Remember that as an Evaluator, you're not some sort of official judge for a performance whose opinion is more important than anyone else's, but merely a member of the audience that has been given the opportunity to make his views known publicly in an Evaluation mini speech.
It goes without saying that to evaluate a Speech, you have to listen to it, and very carefully at that. Hopefully by this time you have pre-written the things you will be focusing on, so you will not be spending time writing. Forget about your drink, your food, your mobile, your neighbors in the audience or the member you have a crush on... Forget about anything else
No matter how wonderful you think your memory is, it isn't. Don't deceive yourself thinking that you will remember to say this or that about a speech - write it down. In particular, write down, as they happen:
- Any particular quotes or sentences that you find particularly good or memorable
- Any gestures or body movements that were very appropriate to support the main message (or that, on the contrary, felt awkward, exaggerated or out of place)
- Any visual aids or props that stood out or were not used very successfully.
- In general, any element of the whole presentation that was great (or the opposite).
When you take notes, make sure you write in a way that will allow you to read it back! More than one or two evaluators have suffered on stage because they couldn't read their own handwriting.
A good recommendation also is to write in big letters. This will allow you not only to read easily, but also to get rid of the notes and not have them in your hands. You would be able to place them on the lectern, or a chair on the first row and read them from a distance.
While you are taking notes, decide also on the importance of each issue you wrote down. You will not have time, during your evaluation speech, to say every single thing you want to say. So it's a good technique to assign an importance number to any observation (some people prefer to use "+","++", and "+++" for example, and the same with "-" for the points for improvement), and then quickly write an outline of the things you want to say when the speech is over.
Show that you care
Even though they shouldn't, speakers usually pay more attention to the evaluator than to the rest of the audience. Up to a point, that is natural and not very problematic. But it does place extra responsibility on you. You should show that you care about the speech with extra eye contact, small approval gestures like nodding, and being supportive when support is critical - for example when the speaker presents a joke or a funny anecdote.
Things the evaluation is not about
While listening to the speech, it's always good to remember not only the things that are evaluated, but also those that are not:
- Choice of content is generally not evaluated, except to say how it related achieving the goals of the project. For example, if the project is about Body Language, then you could comment on whether the choice of subject gave lots of opportunities for this or not. Other than that, speakers are free to choose the subject they want to talk about.
- Content is generally not evaluated, except in some very specific projects. Even if you don't agree with the content, try not to comment on it, or much less to argue with the speaker or engage in a debate over who's right or wrong.
- The person is never evaluated. You shouldn't comment on his clothes, or his style, or the choice of accessories, except if they affected the speech in a very specific way. For example, if the speaker is wearing a set of bracelets that make distracting noises every time he moves his hand, that is something that should be pointed out. However, comments like "Today you were wearing a very beautiful dress" or "what a nice suit you wore today" are completely inappropriate.
What to do as an Evaluator - The Evaluation itself
Usually the recommended approach for delivering an Evaluation Speech is what's called the "sandwich" approach, combining one layer of positive feedback and things that you like, then one layer of things for improvement, then one final conclusion layer of things that you liked. The sandwich can be several floors high if you keep repeating this structure.
How "thick" should each layer be? That depends a lot on the level and confidence of the speaker.
- For beginning speakers, something like 40% positive, 20% improvement, 40% positive is very encouraging. This would probably mean that in the evaluation you'd only mention a couple of points for improvement, the main ones.
- However, more advanced speakers would probably prefer something like 20% 50% 30%, meaning five to six points for improvement and two - three very strong positive points.
Presenting Positive Feedback
Positive Feedback is usually the easiest part, however it's very easy to fall into several traps:
- Praise - Praise is definitely positive and everyone likes receiving praise, but it is not feedback. The difference is that praise is nonspecific, and the speaker cannot know what exactly is the thing that he did that earned him that praise, so he can repeat it or build on it. For example,"Great job on the story. Really good work!" - that's just nonspecific praise. However, if you say "Great job on story. I loved the little girl character and how detailed was the description of her character, and also the way you impersonated her with your voice", then that's positive feedback. Especially run away from generic adjectives that mean nothing "nice vocal variety", "good speech", "fantastic presentation", unless they're immediately followed by an explanation of why you thought they were such.
- Trivialities - Don't fall into the trap of giving positive feedback or - worse even, praise - on trivial issues. This is especially important for advanced speakers. For a beginner, it's good and encouraging if you mention that he didn't use notes or that he had great eye contact and even comment on them. However, for an experienced speaker these things should have become trivialities. Put yourself in the shoes of someone that has already delivered 20+ projects and he hears, for the 21st time, "You didn't use notes, which was great because..."
- Too much positive feedback. Too much of a good thing can be bad. All members join Agora in order to improve and learn. If an Evaluation consists of 80% (or even worse, 100%) positive feedback, the member might think "Ok, If I'm so great, then what am I doing here in the first place?"
- Positive feedback as an excuse or mixed signals. Too many times people use positive feedback as an excuse or a dampener for what is about to follow. You can see that in constructions such as "I loved ..... BUT .... ". The BUT word basically erases anything that was said before and marks it as an irrelevant introduction to the real statement that comes after that. Avoid this. Positive feedback should stand on its own.
Presenting Feedback for Improvement
Presenting this part is usually the most difficult. Reasons for this difficulty can be:
- We don't want to be critical
- We're unsure of our own experience
- We're unsure of our qualifications
- We're unsure of whether we heard or saw correctly.
To address them, remember that you're not scoring the speaker, but merely expressing your own opinion and offering him advice on how to improve.
In order to be useful, the points for improvement must:
- Be specific. Again, this is what distinguishes criticism from feedback. Criticism, like praise, is nonspecific, and many times personal. "Your use of body language was a bit too much" is an example of criticism. However, if you say instead "When you jumped on the table and started acting like a gorilla, and then hung yourself on the lamp, I think that was a bit too much when it comes to body language.".
- Provide guidance. This means that you not only point specifically what parts of the presentation could be improved, but you also provide advice on how they can be improved. Continuing with the previous example, you could add "I think just placing your hands and curving your body the way gorillas do and walking a few steps like this would have been enough to make the point".
- Actionable. This means that the person can really do something about the thing that you didn't like. For example, if the person has a husky or raspy voice, then that's the voice he has. It's not really a constructive feedback to tell him "I would suggest when you read romantic poetry to use a different voice, softer and more melodic."·
When it comes to presenting the points for improvement:
- Don't repeat recommendations. It's enough if you point them out once, no need to dwell on them repetitively.
- Don't use imperative language. You're not the speaker's boss. Try to avoid "You should", "You need" (or, God Forbid, the dreaded "you must") , or in general the "finger pointing " language. Instead, a recommended way is to say "I would do this and this instead" , "I recommend that you do it in this way ", "I suggest that you..", "I would offer", etc.
- Don't talk in absolutes. Remember that you're merely stating your opinion, not some universal truth. "The voice variety was lacking". Instead, state that "I didn't notice too much vocal variety - I only remember three instances, when you impersonated the little girl, the wolf and the granny."
- Don't speak in the name of others. Again, this is related to the previous point. You don't need to prove anything to the speaker or the audience. For example: "I think we can all agree that the body language can be improved".
- Finally, state what you observed, instead of making assumptions about the underlying reasons. For example, don't say "I felt the speech was not well prepared" since you have no basis whatsoever for that assumption. Instead, you could state what you actually felt: "I felt that at moments you were hesitant or unsure about what to say next"
The Evaluation Conclusion
The conclusion of the Evaluation should summarize again the positive points, the points for improvement, and end up on a motivating and encouraging high note.
Try to avoid using cliches, in particular the abused "I look forward to your next Speech". Try to be creative. Plan for the conclusion before even the speech.
What to do as an Evaluator - After the Meeting
After the meeting, talk to the person you evaluated to see if he has any doubts or questions.
Also, remember to fill in his evaluation card for that project.
Becoming a great Evaluator
As always, perfection comes through practice. But you don't need to be an evaluator to gain practice. For example, you can do all the steps that an evaluation requires, without delivering it in public. And it's always instructive to compare your evaluation the one delivered by the appointed Evaluator at the meeting.
When you are the one being evaluated
When you're the one being evaluated, accept the evaluation with humility and as a gift. The Evaluator is there to help you improve. Don't take anything personally.
Don't argue with the Evaluator, much less during the evaluation itself - he's just stating his opinion and transmitting you the way he saw and felt your presentation.
If you want to make any comments or want to discuss something with him, do it after the meeting.
When NOT to be an Evaluator
Once you become an active and appreciated Evaluator in your club, you will be tempted to apply your skills elsewhere. Do that with caution, if at all. Speakers in a Club come with the purpose of being evaluated and being provided with feedback, they expect it and they value it. This is not the case for the general population or much less speakers at other events.
Imagine attending an award ceremony, then approaching the winner after the ceremony and saying something like "I liked your acceptance speech. I loved how you projected your voice to the back of the room so that everyone could hear you. May I suggest that you have a more sustained eye contact with your audience? I noticed that you tended to look too much to the right wing of the room, and ... "
As ridiculous as this might seem, it does happen.
There's a difference between being a teacher when you're asked to step in and provide feedback, and lecturing the world-at-large