Sunday, April 30, 2006

Good speech. Good speech!

Coaching is such a big part of the educational experience that on my current self-improvement kick I had to know more about it. Naturally, my dog provided the answer.

Shadow and I are taking agility training -- he gets the agility and I get the training. The idea is to have your dog run an obstacle course. It turns out to be an obstacle course for the human as well. What seems to work so well in practice at home seems to fall apart completely in class. I lead my dog to the hurdle. I say "Jump!" He shimmies underneath the bar. I motion toward the tunnel. He stares at the treats in my hand.

Under these circumstances it's hard to work on proper training technique. But this must be a common problem. Last week our trainer presented us with evaluation forms. Since my dog can't read, this must be for my benefit. The befuddled masters pair off and as I run Shadow through his paces, my partner takes notes: a plan of action for next time, and what went well.

"There's always something that goes well," the trainer said. "If you can't think of anything, but the dog didn't pee in the chute, write down that the dog didn't pee in the chute." And, from the perspective of someone who would have to pack up the obstacle course at the end of the night, that does seem like a good outcome.

Practice always seems to go so well for a speech, too. Then at the lecturn you stare at the crowd, your mind goes blank, your mouth isn't moving as instructed, it's time to wrap up before you're halfway through. There's too much going on to properly judge how you're coming across.

That's what makes speech evaluations so effective: A supportive observer -- not a neutral observer but one who identifies with the anguish of performance -- can give you an objective look at what's working and what isn't.

Coaches across business disciplines give similar advice to evaluators:

  1. Show that you care. Empathy makes a client more receptive to your observations.
  2. Consider the speaker's objectives. Discuss goals beforehand.
  3. Personalize your language. Make suggestions, not laws.
  4. Evaluate the delivery. Not the person or the conclusions.
  5. Promote self-esteem. Reinforce and inspire improvements.
  6. Listen actively. Pay attention to non-verbal cues as well as speech organization.
  7. "Tell and sell." Demonstrate techniques for improvement.

Speech coach Dilip Abayasekara, current president of Toastmasters International, makes similar points in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Evaluators. Gloria Auth, an Oklahoma City coach in business protocol, gives specific pointers in How to give and receive effective feedback.

I'd write more, but the dog is angling for another walk.

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