How to process the dreaded conference feedback


Image by Alan Levine [CC BY 2.0]

You’ve spent a good 40+ hours building and preparing for your conference talk, you’ve practiced, you’ve got past a lot of fears and you get up in front of a room full of people to share your knowledge (for free). Post conference your inbox lights up with the session feedback  and you eagerly read through it, desperate to make sure you find ways to improve. Quickly, you become disheartened and possibly even distressed at the comments you are reading. You think it must just be me, surely people would have warned me people could be this cruel.  Sound familiar?

After running Global Diversity CFP Day in Brisbane, this tweet it made me reflect on the conference feedback I’ve seen over the years. As an organiser for DDDBrisbane and having spoken at conferences I’m all too familiar with the types of things people tend to write.

Firstly, in my opinion, your average person is generally terrible at giving constructive feedback on a form. I’m no exception to this.

Knowing this fact – how do you process this feedback? Believe it or not many (if not all speakers) can take the feedback very personally. Here’s my tips on how I process it.

Scores Only

This one is the easiest. If I felt good about the presentation and the majority of the scores reflect how I felt – done.  I’m a personal believer that if everyone gives you a 10/10 than your talk needs improvement. If you’re challenging the audience, giving advice and helping them grow getting a few haters is a good thing.  Maybe an unpopular opinion.  If you thought you did well and the scores are very low – there’s not much you can do but to try and track someone down to get actual feedback.

Prepared Questions with Scores/selection only answers

I process the same way – have your own opinion on how you went at each thing – then look at the scores are and see how it fits.

Free Form Text

This could be a single overall feedback or broken into what they liked, what you could improve free form feedback. This one I feel gives the most anxiety to those who read it. This is somewhat a big ask as doing it properly involves a lot of thought, observation and effort outside of listening and enjoying your talk.

Tip 1: Don’t read it on the same day you presented – If you’re fortunate enough to get near realtime feedback available don’t read it the same day as your presentation. Let yourself absorb how you felt and how the day went before tackling the anonymous feedback of others.

Tip 2: Delete ANY of the following feedback: Anything that was out of your control as a speaker e.g. The air conditioning was too hot/cold, the seats were uncomfortable, the food was bad etc. This is feedback for the event organisers not for you. Delete it and get it out of the way.

Tip 3: Delete most comments about your clothes, hair and how you look etc. – Delete the comments about how they didn’t like your dress, they thought your shoes were weird, they don’t like your hair etc. The exceptions to this is where it had an effect on your actual presentation e.g. jewellery that was causing microphone issues. If you do get lots of comments about a part of your clothing – my example was I wore toe shoes – while I found them comfortable, the consistent comments in session feedback, hallway conversations, and very unwarranted mean girl remarks I got about them over the years meant I stopped wearing them to conferences because I didn’t want to continually discuss my shoes.  Not saying that’s the right thing for you but for me it was, and I have other shoes I happily wear instead.

Tip 4: Delete any personal attacks or puts downs – You don’t need this in your life if it’s not relevant to your talk. E.g. I delete any remark the refers to me being the token female, the diversity balance speaker etc.

Tip 5: Too technical / Not technical enough – Generally I would ignore/delete these as you’ll have an audience with varied experience so naturally some will find it too hard, too easy. These are the exceptions – everyone thought it was too technical or not technical enough,  if I was doing a level 100 talk and got more than 1 comment about it being too technical – and similar for say a 400.

Tip 6: Turn a negative into a positive – Take all the shopping lists of things that people thought you should have mentioned and put them in the list of positive comments – these are great ideas for future talks – use them as a gift as it means people want to hear more.

Tip 7: Delete the one-worders – These are so generic you can’t do anything about them. Examples here are: terrible, waste of time, missed opportunity. I also apply this rule to the positive comments as things like: awesome, loved it etc don’t tell me what to concentrate on.

Tip 8: It’s only that person’s opinion – In the end you can choose to ignore the feedback as you may disagree and remember if it’s only 1 person in the room of 100 or more people than maybe it’s not worth changing.

Now if you have remaining feedback you should be left with things that you can action on.  At this point I highly recommend putting the remaining list aside so you can get over all the other things you just deleted and have a fresh look the next day.

With this list, if there’s things I don’t already know about (as generally I know i messed up the demo, or I forgot to repeat a question), then focus on a few or just one of these and work out how to do better next time.

Asking for specific feedback

Asking someone you trust to give you honest feedback on a specific thing I find the best way to get actionable feedback. For example – if you want to work on your posture – ask them to write down the times your posture was bad, what was bad about it and what point in the talk it was. Equally important – ask them when it was good and what was good about it so you can harness how you felt at that time and try to replicate it more.