Getting good feedback from practice talks

June 27, 2016

This is a collection of tips I've gathered over the last few years on how to get more from practice runs of a talk that you're working on. The first step, of course, is to run practices in the first place. These are optional extras on top of that.

Scheduling your practice
  • I mostly run practices at work, so I'll book a conference room that fits around 10 people.
  • In the calendar event, include the title and abstract for your talk, as well as any relevant details about the conference (when is it? what is the target audience like?) and target length of your talk.
  • Select your practice audience based on people that you know to be supportive and skilled at giving constructive, kind feedback.
  • Prior familiarity with your topic doesn't matter as much--maybe one or two people who could comment on "correctness", if that's something you're worried about, but getting feedback from people of "this part was confusing" is already very valuable.
  • Invite ~3-8 people--enough for a spread of opinions and having at least a couple people that do show up.
  • If your practice audience seems open to some coaching on giving feedback on practice talks, this old post of mine on giving feedback may be useful and this post by Lara Hogan on Giving Presentation Feedback in particular is excellent.

During the practice
  • Turn on slide numbers in the footer of your slides, so that audience members can write down the slide number associated with the feedback they want to give. (instructions for Keynote)
  • Thank your audience for coming and give them some context on the feedback you're looking for right now. I usually write down these points on a whiteboard in the room to remind them of what my focus is. 
    • Could be: "overall flow and structure" or "do the technical explanations make sense for an audience of ____" or "physical or verbal tics" or "nitpicking on slides." 
    • A sample set of questions from a friend who ran a practice talk:
      • Are these helpful/interesting topics to cover?
      • What else do you think would be helpful?
      • Was the format understandable?
      • Was the format entertaining?
      • How could I add more funny pictures/entertain you more?
  • Tell your audience what you aren't looking for feedback on right now (could be any of those items in the previous bullet too!) See this on the difference between asking for 30% vs. 90% feedback.
  • If you're testing out timing, either set up your view so that you see a timer or ask someone in your audience to keep an eye on this. Recently when I was worried about the length of a particular talk, I asked someone to write down the times for each major section title as I hit it, so I could put those into my notes and see the breakdown overall.
  • When you're ready to receive feedback, put your slides into light table mode and project that, to help your audience pick out which part of the talk they'd like to discuss.
  • You don't have to make all or the exact changes that your audience suggests, but you should take the opportunity to ask questions and understand where they're coming from, in looking for improvements you can make.

After the practice
  • Add their names to a thank you slide.
  • Send the finished slides to the people who attended a practice talk, so they can feel gratified by the final, pretty version!