A positive feedback fanatic and a constructive feedback freak – that is who I am, today! In my trainings, poisonous expressions like “too” or “very” or “missing” are forbidden. I consider negative feedback poison. But – was I always like that?
It must have been my third year in Toastmaster International. Yes! It was back in 2008. I remember it was a hot and humid Barcelona afternoon. I walked up the wide stairs of the building sweating like a rainforest. That day, we were few people in our temporary club home, an English language school. There was Canadian Angela; there was Malaysian Rose, there was J. from Spain and another dozen of members and guests.
To be exact, J. comes from the small Balearic island of Menorca. When he passed over his Competent Communicator manual, I could feel his anxiety. Ice breaker day – his first speech in Toastmasters! Anyone who walked through this public speaking hell will remember that moment.
I was J.’s evaluator. This means, after his speech, for three minutes, I would give him my personal feedback. I had done it numerous times before. I felt comfortable about this evaluation.
The meeting started. All went smooth. The President’s welcome, the greeting of the guests, the Toastmaster of the Day introducing the Word of the Day, the General Evaluator and her team, the improvised speech session, … Then, the four prepared speeches.
J. is the first speaker. He uses PowerPoint. Not recommendable for an Ice Breaker, but fine. I have seen it before. At least, he uses images, full screen images. But, wait a minute, what about those notes? Notes are also fine for an Ice Breaker, but… he doesn’t look at us at all. He just reads out his notes, word by word. And he doesn’t talk about himself either. He continues to talk endlessly about the history of Menorca. The Phoenicians, the Greeks, the Romans, the English – slide after slide after slide. Still nothing about J. (this is what the Ice Breaker is all about – to get to know you, the speaker!). And this tiring monotonous tone! After six minutes he should finish, but the historical tragedy continues. Menorca turns into a horrid beauty. One minute over time, two minutes over time, three minutes, … Finally, silence!
I look at Canadian Angela in despair. She avoids eye contact. How on Earth am I supposed to evaluate this talk constructively?
At least, the other three speeches after J. give me time to reflect, think, consider. But time flies fast, when you need it the most.
I am the first evaluator. With heavy feet I walk over to the lectern. Canadian Angela is still avoiding eye contact. She knows what is about to come.
Still not really sure how to begin, I gaze at J., who is sitting there in the second row with a shy smile and anticipation in his eyes. I pause, I sigh, I say: J., Have you read the manual?
What followed then was the most destructive feedback, the most downgrading comments I have ever provided to someone in my life. I spilled out poison like, I really tried hard to find something positive about your speech, but I didn’t find it! I was a horrible evaluator (not only for Toastmasters standards).
Fast forward. What would I have told J. today? What would I have said today as a positive feedback fanatic and constructive feedback freak?
I would have appreciated much more the fact that he actually did get up and faced his public speaking hell. That alone is worth a round of extra applause.
I would have been less German (You must follow the rules!) and more uplifting with his passion for his island and heritage.
I would have encouraged him to do the Ice Breaker again with my help or the help from another seasoned member of our club.
In general, I would have been Gandalf, not an Orc.
J. never came back to our club. I deeply regret it. The irony is: Being the worst feedback provider that day I learned the best lesson. On that day, I turned in my poison forever and started to serve chocolate and lemon only.
Sorry, J., and thank you – wherever you may roam.