Tired of polite compliments on your presentations? Get feedback that you can actually use

David de Léon
7 min readFeb 17, 2023

When giving feedback on presentations most of us are unsure what to say and how to say it without upsetting anyone. That is why I designed a set of cards that you can hand out to your audience before giving a talk. Each card asks for feedback on one very specific aspect of presentation technique.

You’ve just given a talk. Afterwards, people stop by and tell you how interesting it was and what a good job you did. This is nice to hear of course, not least since you were feeling nervous earlier. However, to improve as a speaker, and to become better at crafting effective presentations, you need more specific and actionable feedback. Hearing that you were interesting, even in those cases where this is true, gives you no indication of how to further develop your presentation and your delivery of that presentation.

Getting useful feedback on a presentation turns out to be quite difficult. In my experience, people seem unsure what to give you feedback on. When there is something that they might have an opinion on, they are often vague and tread carefully in order not to hurt your feelings. Since getting honest feedback can actually be a bit jarring, most of us contribute to this dynamic: we avoid asking difficult follow-up questions and we are then relieved not to have to hear any uncomfortable observations.

But, I really need and want some honest and workable feedback. Feedback is the best way that I know of to develop as a speaker, and it is also the quickest way to improve a presentation.

Is there some way of changing the dynamic of the typical feedback situation? I think there is. Let’s look at the problem again. I think the reason that we seldom get feedback that we can use boils down to two things:

1. Most people that we ask for feedback are actually unsure what to give feedback on. They haven’t given much feedback before and don’t know what aspects of your presentation and delivery to focus on.

2. Most people also don’t know how to give feedback, and they afraid to inadvertently hurt your feelings, upset you, or worse, make you angry.

I have created a small set of cards that go a long way towards solving both of these problems. Before giving a presentation, you hand the cards to people in your audience (or send them out if you are presenting online). Each card suggests a specific aspect of presentation technique to pay attention to and to give feedback on.

By handing out the cards, you are giving express permission to the people who receive the cards to give you feedback. There is no longer any doubt that the feedback is desired, and since each card addresses a specific topic, it is clear that you are willing to receive feedback on that specific topic. The cards could be likened to a kind of contract: you agree to give me feedback on x, and I agree to gracefully receive your feedback on x.

When you hand out the cards, you could mention that you are hoping for direct and honest feedback, but it works best if you don’t make a big deal out of it. Act as if this is a regular part of your routine.

If you feel uncomfortable asking for feedback, and uncomfortable receiving feedback, I would recommend that you read another essay of mine. That essay suggests some unique ways to think about feedback that can radically change how it feels to receive it (at least it did for me).

Each card targets a specific aspect of presentation technique, things like your use of language, your gestures, and the clarity of your central message. Every person with a card now knows precisely what to pay attention to. You have charged them with a specific task, but one that is considerably easier than giving overarching and general feedback on your presentation.

Using the cards

Before you deal out the cards, you are free to pick the ones that you will use. You can of remove any that target areas of presentation technique that you don’t want to hear about. If there are areas that you want a diversity of opinion on, you might put in duplicates. Needless to say, add your cards with your own questions.

I would suggest that you hand out the cards to people in your audience who seem attentive and interested. You could always ask them first if they would like to help. You could also let people choose which aspect they want to give feedback on. I prefer to hand them out as if this is simply part of my regular routine when I present.

You can ask for feedback immediately following your presentation. If this is impractical or uncomfortable for you, there is a version of the cards that has space on them for people to write their comments directly on the card. This also makes it possible for people to give you feedback anonymously.

Note that the cards are still under development. I welcome any feedback that you might have after you have tried them out. What worked for you, and what didn’t? How could they be further improved?

The cards are available for you to download in three different versions:

# All of the cards in one ready-to-print pdf.

# All the cards in a pdf with one card per page (to make it easier to send out individual cards to people when you present online).

# A larger version of the cards with space to write on the card.

Aspects of presentation technique

So what’s on the cards? Nine areas are covered:

1. Messaging: the message of the talk and the call to action.

2. Clarity: how easy the talk was to understand and follow.

3. Credibility: whether the facts and arguments presented were believable.

4. Engagement: which parts were more engaging, and which less.

5. Voice: pitch, quality, tempo and pauses.

6. Language: the type of language used and variety in expression.

7. Physicality: the speaker’s body language, gestures and movements.

8. Visuals: the quality and effectiveness of any visual aids used.

9. Connection: the speakers rapport and connection with the audience.

You don’t have to download the cards to read what’s on them. The following section reproduces the texts as they are printed on the cards.

Messaging

What was the central message of the presentation? Could you summarise it in one sentence?

What do you think the presenter wants the audience to think, feel and/or do after the presentation?

What is one thing the speaker should keep the same if they where to give the presentation again?

If they were to change one thing about the presentation or its delivery, what would that be?

Clarity

How easy was the talk to understand?

Were there parts that were harder to understand? If so, which parts?

Was there enough content? Too much? Too little?

What is one thing the speaker shouldn’t change if they where to give the presentation again?

If they were to change just one thing about the presentation or its delivery, what would that be?

Credibility

If there were facts given, did you believe them? If not, why not?

Was the chain of reasoning sound?
If not, where did you feel doubt?

Was the presentation a good fit for the audience given their level of knowledge and their beliefs?

What is one thing the speaker shouldn’t change if they where to give the presentation again?

If they were to change just one thing about the presentation or its delivery, what would that be?

Engagement

Was the speaker engaged? Where did they seem more so? Where less?

How did your own engagement go up and down? Anything that grabbed you? Anywhere that it got boring?

Does the speaker have a unique and individual point of view?

What is one thing the speaker shouldn’t change if they where to give the presentation again?

If the presenter were to change just one thing about their performance, what would it be?

Voice

How was the presenter’s voice? Was it relaxed or tense? Was it varied and expressive, or was it monotonous?

How fast did they talk?
Did the pace match the content?

Any verbal tics that you noticed (e.g. filler words or unnecessary sounds)?

What is one thing the speaker shouldn’t change if they where to give the presentation again?

If the presenter were to change just one thing about the performance, what would it be?

Language

How was the language that was used?

Was it at the right level for the audience? Was it abstract or concrete? Was it visually rich and varied?

Were any words or phrases overused or misused? If so, which ones?

Did the language feel like a natural fit with the speaker?

What is one thing the speaker shouldn’t change?

If the presenter were to change one thing, what would that be?

Physicality

What was the speaker’s body language, posture and gestures like? How did the speaker move?

Did their physicality feel natural?

Did the speaker’s movements and gestures fit their message?

Is there something about the speaker’s physical communication that they should keep doing?

If the presenter were to change just one aspect of their physical movements and expression, what would that be?

Visuals

Did the speaker use visual aids? Did these support, conflict or distract from the message?

Were there any obvious graphical mistakes?

Would the presentation have worked as well without visual aids?

What is one thing about the visual aids that they should not change?

What is one thing about the visual aids that could change?

Connection

How was the presenter’s connection and rapport with the audience? Did the speaker make good eye contact? Were any parts of the audience left out?

Did it feel like the speaker was making assumptions about the audience? If so, what do you think they were?

Were there any questions from the audience? Did it feel easy or difficult to ask questions? How well did the speaker interact with the people asking questions?

Post script

A massive thank you to Oliver Schöndorfer, who gave me some very useful feedback on the typography of the cards and suggestions for how to make them more usable. See some of his very entertaining and useful videos here.

I will be using these cards when I give a talk at UX Copenhagen on the 23rd of March 2023 (let me know if you want a discount code).

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David de Léon

David is a freelance UX designer and researcher. He is a published author, with a PhD in Cognitive Science, an inventor and an amateur magician.