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Reflecting about Evaluations

As the 2009 Fall Speech Contest is fast approaching, I have reserved some thoughts on what makes a good speech evaluation.  Perhaps, you’re thinking about the structure of the evaluation:  it should have a good opening, a body and a conclusion.  And the focus of the content:  How does it address the speakers’ vocal variety, body language, or stage movement.   Or maybe you’re thinking that there should be a balance of ‘meat’ and ‘bread’ (Toastmaster metaphor for “room for improvement” and “strengths”).  All of that is required for a typical Toastmaster evaluation, especially for a contest.  But I want the readers to think deeper.  Are there other feedback elements that can significantly add value to the speaker, even though they may or may not be possible to achieve in a short and immediate feedback?

For the speaker, the primary objective is to convey a purposeful message to the audience in a positive, moving, and memorable manner.  So it is logical that the measure of a speaker’s success directly correlates to the extent to which the audience has received the message in question.  A scientific measurement of a speaker’s effectiveness might be surveying the audience, on how well they remembered the message of the speech.  A successful speech will have a higher percentage of audience recalling the message in a positive manner.  Unfortunately, from this level, we cannot determine whether if a speaker changes something in the speech, he will increase the ‘stick value’ of the message.  Therefore, we must take on a more subjective approach as an evaluator.

So now, what matters is the evaluator, and the variables that are involved are completely subjective.  It no longer makes sense to judge, in an objective manner, whether the speaker has enough eye contact, or body movement, or vocal variety.  And it does not make sense to objectively say that the introduction or conclusion is weak.  I would argue that most of these judgments are made on the basis of consensual agreement in the club.  If a member heard previous evaluators saying that a type body stance constitutes “not enough body language”, then he will use that as a measurement when evaluating future speeches.  Unfortunately, these consensual judgments have a habit of becoming a culture in a club.  So it is possible that what is considered as ‘not good enough’ or ‘strange’ may be judged differently at another club. 

I would argue that, it is only sensible for every feedback to be qualified with “according to my senses”.  For example, “Your eye-contact was not direct enough, because I feel that you’re not talking to us.”  “You are moving too much on stage, because that makes me feel distracted”.  Just as the construction of a speech and the methods of delivering a speech have specific purposes to influence the audience; the evaluator should assess the speech delivery according to how he/she has been influenced.    Is the introduction done in a manner that grabs your attention?  Why?  (And does ‘asking a question’ really always grab your attention’?)  If you think the conclusion is strong or weak, can you identify the elements that made you feel “Wow!” or “huh?”   To amplify the benefits to the speaker, the evaluator could also identify ‘ways to improve’ by suggesting additional elements that can make the message stickier—from the evaluator’s point of view. 

There was a speech about protecting the environment, in which the speaker mentioned two points: first, how many trees are destroyed for the daily chopstick requirements for one city, and second, how polluted the lake/ocean is.   From a subjective feedback, I pointed to the impact of the images of the trees, and how powerful it made me realize our destructive and wasteful nature.   But without a metaphoric image about the polluted water, that point did not make an equal impression.  I suggested that a similar image and metaphor could add more impact to the message.

Some would point out that this method of evaluation is not practical in 3 minutes of evaluation and not achievable when we lack the time to formulate the thoughts directly after a speech.  I would agree to a certain extent.  However, I wonder if it is due to a lack of training and conditioning on our part.  Is it possible, that if we try to listen better, we can take a step closer to it?  Is it conceivable that if we pay more attention to our senses, we can more intuitively achieve it?  If not possible within the context of a speech contest or Toastmaster meeting, can we strive for this feedback when we have a face-to-face session with our mentees?   The opportunity is there for us to improve.




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