How To Give Speech Feedback

How life as a cave dweller influenced speech feedback

It’s risky leaving the cave.

You’ve been asked to give feedback on a speech or presentation.

Just saying, “Yeh, it was good”, isn’t going to help much is it?

On the other hand, providing a list of ‘faults’ could be damaging. You see, we are all still a bit like cave dwellers.

OK, perhaps we’d better explain that last comment.

Feed or Feedback?

Just cast your mind back a few millions of years. You are a cave dweller and you detect something moving outside your cave.

You have an important decision to make.

Dash out, spear in hand, and find a herbivore munching the grass and you might have a tasty meal that day.

But if it’s a sabre-tooth tiger, you are likely to be the meal.

Tigers and other hazards to our lives over millions of years have required us to develop a survival instinct.

Beware the Tiger when giving Speech Feedback

Having popped out of our modern cave to make a speech, our antennae are still tuned to look out for negatives. Millions of years training can’t be undone overnight, even if that ‘overnight’ is many years.

In most circumstances we are still more conscious of negatives than positives.

A negative comment about our presentation will be perceived much more clearly than a positive comment. And remembered.

The effects of Sabre Tooth Tigers on giving speech feedback.

How to Provide Positive Feedback

The priority for anyone giving feedback on a speech or presentation should be to encourage the speaker to stay in the sunshine outside their cave. The risks are low and the opportunities considerable.

OK, so how do we provide a constructive review of someone’s performance?

For a start, it needs to be overwhelmingly positive and encouraging. Encouragement is the key to development, whether of a speaker, or more generally, of colleagues in the workplace.

Must try harder’ isn’t going to work is it?

Consider how you can most help the speaker. Note ‘help the speaker’. This isn’t about giving an analytical evaluation to demonstrate how knowledgeable you are.

If this is in a group session, such as in a speakers’ club, don’t address your comments directly at the speaker. That will feel awkward for them.

Speak to the audience as a whole, as any learning to be gained will benefit all of them.


Don’t just show up. You need to prepare.

How experienced is the speaker? Are there any aspects they’d particularly like help with?

If this is in a speakers’ club, what module or assignment are they tackling? Make sure that you study it so you know what they are trying to achieve.

With a work-related speech, content may be as important as delivery. But if it’s being delivered as part of the presenter’s development in a speakers’ club or similar environment, then don’t worry too much about content. Focus on the delivery, the performance aspects.

Two Ways to Prepare

There are two approaches you can take, again, perhaps depending on the context of the speech.

You could think about all of the aspects that you need to consider and write down headings for the key things that the speaker might include in the presentation. This helps form an outline for delivering the feedback.

For example, when considering how body language was used, headings could be for facial expressions, hand gestures and eye contact.

It will act as a reminder of what you are looking for and can make sure that important aspects are covered in the feedback.

Make notes under your various headings while the presentation is in progress. Then they can be tidied up and written up in a structured way before providing your guidance.

If you are looking for a less clinical approach, just sit and listen to the speaker and make a note of anything that stands out.

You’ll probably have less to say as a result but it will let you focus on what’s made an impression with you.

Unless you are fairly experienced, it’s probably better to take the first approach and have a prepared list of headings. It will help to stop you worrying you might have missed something important.

Your initial feedback is likely to be verbal but it’s a good idea to follow it up with written guidance, as it allows the speaker to reflect and look back when developing their next speech.

Feedback Focus

Don’t try to cover too much. Sometimes, a speech has lots of points you can raise but just highlight the most important learning points.

Balance any aspects needing further work with two or three times as many positive points.

Remember, the improvement opportunities you mention will be perceived as negatives by the cave dweller in most of us unless discussed in a positive manner

Your feedback can, and should, include advice on how the speaker can improve. But it should be done sensitively.

Show Not Tell

The golden rule is to suggest how the improvement could be achieved, not merely state that it is required.

Unless you can demonstrate clearly how to make the change, then do not mention the issue.

And remember, there are no absolutes, everything is your opinion. Others in the audience may have a different perspective.

So rather than, “Fred should have raised his voice at this point”, it’s better to say, “I think it might have been even more effective if Fred had raised his voice at this point.”

By raising your voice you emphasise the point but you have expressed it as an opinion not a rule.

Raise Your Voice

No, not that loud!

Good Because

Highlighting the strong points is important. And it’s equally important to explain why they have added to the effectiveness of the speech.

“Did you notice how Mary paused after humorous parts of her speech. That gave us time to laugh and relax for a second before focussing back on the presentation.”

As people progress, review can become more rigorous but there still needs to be a lot of positive feedback.

Generally, speakers have put a lot of work into their speeches, so acknowledge it.

How To Deliver Speech Feedback

When you give your feedback, try to structure it in the same way you would a speech. Identify the approach you plan to take and the main points you’ll cover.

Then do just that.

And finally, reinforce those key points and try to end with a bonus. The highlight that stood out above all others.


Find Out More

Read about negativity bias, thoughts on how to overcome it plus cavemen and more. The linked article is well worth a read. Oh, and do make sure you take the selective attention test on the video before you read past it. You’ll really need to concentrate to come up with the right answer!

And when negativity turns into a fear of public speaking, here’s how to overcome it.

Last updated 27th June 2023



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