Thursday, 22 October 2015

Feedback for Conference Speakers

I spoke at a number of conferences over the past month or so. After each talk I received a variety of feedback, from a variety of channels. The genesis for this post is two pieces of feedback I received for the same talk at the Canterbury Software Summit.

From the conference survey responses:
"Good coverage of the topic; however: agile teams/tribes should be self-sustained. Katrina's presentation though was explaining management activities. What I missed was how the agile approach really works for BNZ, how they constantly improve, what issue and challenges they faced and face etc. Missing enthusiasm. Average slide quality."

From a direct message on Twitter:
"One of the guys at work I talked to today, appreciated your talk at Canterbury software summit. We're thinking of now trying some of the ideas you talked about. Katrina please keep using your gift of inspiring the testing community, as it makes our jobs more enjoyable and fruitful."

As you can see, one person was utterly underwhelmed while the other felt inspired and motivated to make changes in his organisation.

As a new speaker I had no frame of reference for feedback, or any notion of what to expect back from the audience when I delivered a talk. Had I received that first piece of feedback for my first presentation I would have been entirely disheartened.

Now that I've presented a few times, I'm starting to see patterns in when I receive feedback, what type of feedback it is, and how I can use it. To illustrate, here's the feedback I received after my 'Diversify' keynote talk at the recent WeTest Weekend Workshops.


I find public speaking a taxing activity. At the end of the talk, my adrenaline is racing - I know it's all over and I am looking to get away from people for a few minutes to calm down. However, there is usually at least one person who comes to the front of the room to speak to me. 

I like that people do this. The things they wish to say are usually positive and it's good to get immediate validation that it all went okay. Unfortunately I usually don't remember the nice things that they've said, because my brain isn't working properly yet!

Occasionally I get immediate feedback of a different kind. At WeTest Weekend Workshops someone approached to suggest how I could improve my use of the handheld microphone. Strangely I always remember this sort of feedback, the things that aren't entirely positive, despite being in the same agitated mental state.

I consider the number of people who come to the front of the room after my talk to be a loose indicator of the emotional response of my audience. The more people, the more I feel like I spoke about something that really resonated for them.

Social Media

After my talk I like to find a quiet spot, take a few deep breaths, and then check the reaction from Twitter. I see three broad categories for the feedback that appear in my Twitter timeline.


The first tweets are the people who simply say that they are attending my talk. Announcement tweets contain no judgement and no content. Often they contain a photo from near the start of the presentation.

As I've started to gain a wider following on Twitter, I think the number of people who announce that they're at my talk has increased. As a new speaker, very few people got excited about merely attending my sessions! I consider announcement tweets a loose indicator of my reputation in the community behind the conference.


The next tweets will be the ideas from my talk. These might be pieces of content that resonated with people, summaries of my main points, or tweets that let people who are not in the audience know that they've been mentioned.

I consider idea tweets a loose indicator of how engaged people are in the content. In some respects I prefer that there are fewer of these type of tweets, as I believe that most people find it difficult to actively listen while also composing the perfect 140 characters on Twitter.


Finally there are the tweets that come at the end of the talk. Reaction tweets are all about judgement, though on Twitter you're usually just going to get the happy vibes from people who loved it and felt inspired.

Reaction tweets are about the buzz. I consider these a replacement to coming to the front of the room after the presentation, and so treat them as the same loose indicator of the emotional response of my audience. The more reaction tweets I get, the better. Even if they're not all positive, at least I touched a nerve!


If the event information has been published online, via Meet Up, Facebook, or some other alternative, there is usually an opportunity to post feedback.

I find that the feedback I receive via social media comes from people who feel a connection to me as an individual, or who are confident about expressing their opinions to a wide audience. By contrast the feedback I receive via the event page comes from people who I do not know well, those who need longer to process their reaction to the presentation, or those who are not on Twitter!

There is also a shift in language. People have had time to reflect, so their reaction is less emotive and more analytical. On Twitter people "love" the presentation while on Meet Up it's "great".

Providing feedback via Meet Up requires effort beyond the time frame of the event itself. I consider this feedback a loose indicator of how I've improved my standing in the community behind the conference.


Many conferences send out a post-event survey to all the attendees to help them improve their format, content and structure for the following year.

Survey feedback is anonymous and, of all the forms of feedback, gives the widest spectrum. It seems that once there is no association between your feedback and your name, people become remarkably honest.

Here's a selection of survey comments about the speakers at the WeTest Weekend Workshops event to illustrate this:
  • Katrina's presentation was awesome. Very motivating 
  • Keynote was useful and aligned with the theme. 
  • Might have been even better if we had a more diverse speakers. 
  • Would be lovely to see more "activity" type events over the vanilla "here's a talk" type events 
  • The talks I attended were average from my perspective.
  • Did not find it as useful as I thought it would be.

Suddenly there's a much richer picture that includes those who had a less enjoyable experience. At conferences without a survey form, the only negative feedback you receive may be the absence of positive feedback.

I consider survey feedback a loose indicator of what I can improve in my presentations. I don't listen to everything, and where there are clearly other factors at play I take the criticism with a grain of salt, but overall I find it a valuable source of information to help me refine my content and delivery.


Finally, there are people who want to share the talk with others. I take blogs, and other post-event activities of this nature, as a form of feedback. I treat these as a loose indicator of lasting impact.

After WeTest, the following resources have appeared that referenced my keynote:

The Big Picture

The volume and type of feedback I get varies greatly between presentations. It's taken time to establish my own interpretations of an influx of information that might otherwise feel overwhelming. I use the types of feedback I've described to determine:
  • The emotional response from my audience
  • How engaged people are in my content
  • My existing reputation in the community behind the conference
  • Whether I've improved my reputation in the community behind the conference
  • What I can improve in my presentations
  • Whether I've had a lasting impact

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