Guide on the Side – Feedback: A Critical Step in Learning

Marie Wallace has enjoyed a fulfilling career as a librarian, beginning in 1951 in academia with the University of California and transitioning in 1971 into the private law library world until her 1995 retirement from O’Melveny & Myers. She is the 1997 recipient of the American Association of Law Libraries‘ highest honor, the Marian Gould Gallagher Distinguished Service Award. Throughout her professional life, Marie has been a guiding force in the Southern California Association of Law Libraries, Practising Law Institute’s programs for law librarians and Teaching Legal Research in Private Law Libraries (TRIPLL).

Today, Marie has commenced on a new path she terms “Life in Progress,” which enables her to pursue a diversity of interests as a master swimmer, law librarian, trainer, storyboarder and designer of wearable art. She continues to be a dynamic speaker and prolific writer on such topics as private law library management, presentations and training. She is a member of Toastmasters International and is active with the American Society for Training Development (ASTD) and in continuing education for private law librarians. She devotes her “free” time to various non-profit and civic activities.

“Mirror, mirror on the wall..” begins the age-old plea for feedback. Progress assessment is a critical step in any kind of learning journey. It doesn’t matter whether your destination is to gain new knowledge, master a physical skill or alter an attitude, you want an answer to the question “How am I doing?”

Public speaking involves knowledge and skills plus other intangibles such as gaining confidence, developing a persona and finding your inner voice. Skilled feedback validates your natural talents, recognizes your efforts and neutralizes your tendency to be overly self-critical. It lets you know when a simple course correction, like changing the order of ideas, can make your message more powerful.

Where can you find reliable feedback to gage your presentation efforts? To learn how to give and receive constructive evaluations? In 1924, Toastmasters International (TI) pioneered in developing an effective and easily-learned model for giving and receiving feedback called evaluation.

TI members prepare speeches from a series of manuals. Each assignment is focused on a specific objective. Immediately after the delivery, another member evaluates the performance. Did the speaker meet the objectives? (Speaking and evaluating assignments are rotated so members learn to both give and receive feedback.) Members also sometimes practice forthcoming presentations to an outside audience to get feedback on their delivery, content and organization before the real event. TI members consider the constructive and supportive system of feedback input to be the most valuable part of the Toastmaster program.

TI founder Ralph Smedly observed “Ours is the only organization I know that is dedicated to the individual. We work together to bring out the best in each of us and then we apply our skills to help others.” Implicit in this philosophy is the notion that presentation styles are unique to each person. Thus members learn to “put themselves” into their speeches and appreciate that effective presentations are colored by personal talents, passions and reservoirs of experience.


Many people are do-it-yourselfers by nature and inclined to ask colleagues, friends or family members for input on speeches they are about to give. This is treacherous and can put you in a vulnerable position. Chances are co-workers, acquaintances and family don’t have the listening skills required for feedback, lack free time, don’t understand your presentation objectives or can’t distinguish between an effective presentation and a hum-drum one. They may tell you useless sweet nothings like “Hey dude, it’s going to be great” or discredit your efforts, leaving you feeling discouraged and maybe even angry. (Not a good way to prepare for tomorrow’s speech.)

Difference between Feedback and Criticism

Feedback is positive and constructive input. It aims to give an honest appraisal of how you speech communicated your ideas. It affirms what the evaluator perceives as effective and often comments on how the speech architecture supports the speech objectives and audience’s interests. It encourages growth in new areas such as adding humor or props. It may alert the speaker to distracting mannerisms (nose scratching, key jiggling, foot tapping). It validates the speaker’s strengths and enriches self-knowledge by epitomizing the speaker’s natural style.

By contrast, criticism is censorious in nature, often discrediting the person as well as their effort. It stress errors and faultfinding. It omits any reference to what was done well and provides no guidance on how to improve. Criticism is “gotcha” in nature and effectively undermines a person’s confidence.


The speaker was rehearsing a presentation to top management in two days at a Toastmaster meeting in Montreal. The speakers’s company manufactured complex valve systems and it was taking three weeks to get cost estimates to customers. The speaker developed a software program to provide cost estimates in three hours. His speech was a proposal to top management to install his software.

The speaker opened with a description of several recent incidents when the company lost business because of late bids. The body of the speech was a description of his software–ease of use, costs, and hardware.

I thought the presentation was excellent. The material was well organized, technical terms were explained in a non-technical way, overheads were clear and pertinent, and the delivery was direct and sincere. The woman evaluating his speech praised his delivery but cautioned that she had made a similar presentation recently and learned it was a mistake to articulate what was wrong when talking to top management. CEOs are already aware of problems besetting the company and may not react well to being reminded in public. (A form of “shoot the messenger.”) The evaluator suggested starting the speech on a positive note such as the customers’ need for quick estimates followed by the software solution. She suggested completely omitting reference to the company’s existing slow turnaround time.

This type of strategic evaluation, dealing with covert audience attitudes, makes the difference between a proposal being accepted or rejected. Where else could a speaker get this kind of environmental reality check on short notice?


Feedback has been called “the fertilizer of presentations.” When I first joined TI, a new member gave a speech on How to Buy a Diamond. In the opening, he explained that he was from a family of jewelers and grew up in the gem trade. He wanted to share his knowledge of cost by describing the four C’s of diamond rating: clarity, carat, cut and color. He was clearly nervous and attempting to speak without notes. He started well describing the four Cs but soon his mind went blank. He sat down, a bundle of despair, unable to continue.

I wondered what the evaluator could say as in my eyes his speech was a complete failure. He didn’t finish. However, the experienced evaluator commended him on choosing on a topic of universal interest, diamonds being an investment, adornment, and heirloom. He clearly had a personal and passionate interest in his subject, the information was organized around the four C’s which made it easy to remember. Then she added that she still got nervous before speaking and explained how she controlled her nerves. For his next speech, she suggested he try some of her techniques, including the use of notes. She ended the evaluation with a diamond in the rough metaphor, encouraging him to take another cut and said she hoped to hear more soon about diamonds.

The evaluator provided the nutrients to encourage the speaker and subsequently he became an excellent communicator. It was because the evaluator clearly told him what he had done well and gave him pointers on how to improve. She didn’t even mention that he didn’t finish. She couched her comments in terms of her own experience. “I still get nervous and this is how I handle it…” Not only did the speaker learn from the evaluator but many others in the audience, like myself, learned an important lesson about feedback.


Shortly after I retired, my Master Swimmers coach called to tell me he had given my name to local TV anchor person to be interviewed as part of a series Eyewitness News was doing on how seniors kept fit. I had no reservations about the speaking part but was self-critical and nervous about my swimming form and speed. The later gave me qualms about doing the interview. Fortunately, the next day was my Toastmaster meeting and I mentioned the assignment, with trepidation. Immediately members asked if I wanted them to take me through a mock interview. Great idea! Their questions stabilized my nerves and anticipated many the news anchor’s queries. I was able to focus on key messages with confidence and the anchor dubbed me “the sizzling senior.”

Room for Improvement

Good feedback assumes there is always room for improvement. It is not aimed at achieving perfection. In addition to being a critical step in presentations, it has broad applications in employee/management relationships such as orientation, briefings, training, motivation, and performance evaluations.

Want to see feedback in action? Join a TI club or visit a meeting. Feedback is alternately encouraging, instructive, amusing and insightful.

Posted in: Guide on the Side, Presentation Skills