How To Respond To Criticism in Public Speaking

The best public speakers are artists and performers. They understand there’s a dynamic energy that goes into a speaking engagement the audience responds to. They also learn the art of channeling nervous energy into the performance, because without this energy, a speaker can be uninteresting and even boring.

The artistic temperament is a sensitive one, often perfectionistic, and self-debasing over the slightest mistake. As such, we speakers have a difficult time receiving criticism. Granted, there are many types of criticism, most meant to be constructive, but some meant to degrade. Often though, we don’t respond correctly to honest criticism given by people who care and who are trying to help. As performers, we’re not only vulnerable, we’re constantly being evaluated. This can be high pressure, and can create an unhealthy environment where we begin to appraise ourselves as human beings based solely on how we’re received performance to performance. It’s hard to take any kind of criticism when you feel that way.

Here are some tips that can help.

Feedback is your Ally

Did you know that most people want you to succeed? It doesn’t always feel that way. But when you solicit honest feedback from friends, family, and colleagues, you’re about to get the most useful criticism you can. It’s not always easy to hear, but almost always invaluable. The impressions we believe we’re making, or the message we think we’re communicating, may be very different from the audience’s perspective. You need to know how others are perceiving you so that you can make the applicable adjustments.

Learn from the Negative, but focus on the Positive

You hear ten uplifting and encouraging words about your speaking engagement. You’re told it was effective, moving, maybe even brilliant. You feel wonderful. But then that one negative criticism comes. Then it’s all downhill. You take the one negative comment home and fret about it until depression sets in. All artists have the propensity to be this way. Do yourself a big favor by learning how to take the negative in stride, gather what you can from it, but then dwell on the positive. It will make a world of difference and motivate you for that next engagement.

Watch out for Defensiveness

We get defensive when criticized. It’s natural. You pour your heart and soul into a public speaking performance just to have someone tell you why it wasn’t so great. It could be insecurity, pride, fear, or even lousy parenting that causes a person to get defensive, but it happens. We’re also stubborn and want to do it our way. But know that being defensive will hurt your growth as a public speaker and performer. Defensiveness not only keeps you from valuable truth, it also alienates us from others who could help, mentor, or provide more feedback or opportunities. Learn to swallow your pride and not be so defensive.

Careful about taking Offense

When criticized, we have a terrible tendency to harbor bitterness and let an offense take root. But be careful that you don’t invent something that wasn’t there. An honest “molehill” comment, when stewed upon by an offended artist, can turn into a “mountain” of offense and perceived bad intentions. What’s the old saying about how bitterness is a poison that hurts more the container it’s in than the person it’s poured out upon? We need to forgive and move on. Harboring offense can wreak havoc in your growth as a public speaker because it will consume you far more than your desire to learn and become better at what you do. You’ll never be able to control what others say about you, especially those who are trying to make you feel bad. But one thing you can always control is your response. As a theatre actor and public speaker, I’ve known a few individuals are almost enslaved to some bitterness they hold against someone. You can’t feel the freedom of receiving new and helpful criticism until you’ve relinquished the past hurts of other’s criticism.

Be Teachable!

Okay, you have your degree(s) and experience, but do you know everything? Believing you’re above more schooling is arrogance. The most successful people are always trying to learn more, at any age. They understand there’s always room for improvement. That’s what makes them great at what they do. Most of us don’t appreciate that about successful people-we tend to think that success just came to them. Almost all critiques have some truth to them, so find that truth, accept it, and learn from it.

Learn to Fail Elegantly

This is certainly easier to say than put into practice. But let’s face it, the famous success stories we’ve all heard, from the Wright Brothers to Thomas Edison, were roads lined with “failures.” If a failure becomes a perceived personal Failure as a speaker or a human being, you’re not going to have the motivation to continue. A failure needs to merely be an event, not the sum total of everything you are. Arnold Palmer once said, “Even when the odds seemed entirely against me. I never quit trying; I never felt that I didn’t have a chance to win.” This needs to be our attitude.

Putting on the Face

Finally, as public speakers and performers, we like to put on the façade that we have it all together. But this often isn’t the case. We’re often nervous, un-confident, feeling ill prepared, and dwelling on the last mistake we made. So when criticism comes, we pretend we don’t need it and may even throw it back at the criticizer. We need to be more humble than that and accept the fact that we don’t always have everything under control. In a humble state of mind, good constructive criticism is always a boon and an opportunity to improve.

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Kelly Libatique is a professional speaker, technical trainer, and author. He has a Master’s in Education and a Bachelor’s in Psychology. He resides in the San Francisco Bay Area with his wife and Anne and two sons.

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