Outside of school, startup incubators, or organizations such as Toastmasters, it’s difficult to get a thorough critique of a presentation you’re working on or have recently delivered. And when we elicit comments from friends, family, or coworkers, it's common to get fairly superficial responses. It’s easy to put the blame on the person we asked, but remember, constructive feedback is not a skill we're born with and it's not often emphasized in school.

So how can we ask for feedback in a way that ensures we’ll get high-quality input that moves our presentation forward? The secret lies in creating an environment where people feel comfortable to constructively criticize our work and where we are mentally prepared to receive it with grace and an open mind.

Here are four communication tips that will pave a clear path for your peers and colleagues to share meaningful, actionable insights.

1. Be clear about your goals for the feedback session

If you don’t let people know what you’re specifically looking for feedback on, they’re likely to do a couple of things:

  • Settle somewhere on the safe side;
  • offer a no-holds-barred critique on the minutia (ideally we’re always open to all feedback, but sometimes, if we’re in a time crunch and feeling under pressure, we don’t want to hear that the composition for the image on slide 5 needs work.); or
  • get off track and focus on areas and ideas that have already been solidified.

So, make sure your critiquers understand the intent of the presentation and be crystal clear about what you want to resolve in the feedback session. Are you hoping for someone to help you flush out your intro to ensure a high energy start? Let them know! Need help assessing how understandable your diagrams are? Direct them there.

2. Ask specific questions to elicit honest feedback

How we go about asking for feedback has a huge influence on what we’re going to hear. Simply asking others “What did you think?” or “Did you like the presentation?” are vague questions and will draw equally vague (and often) safe responses. Instead, we have to pave the way for colleagues and peers to provide meaningful insight with good questions.

To formulate those we can borrow from ethnographic research principles and make sure we: include open-ended questions (yields more candid information and unique insight); avoid multi-part questions (they can overwhelm someone); and avoid leading questions.

Here are a few examples:

  • How did the introduction make you feel?
  • What did you think of the length of the presentation?
  • What was the main message/idea that you took away?
  • If you had to make two suggestions for improvement, what would they be?
  • Can you pinpoint any areas where you started to tune out?
  • What could I have explained more clearly or more in-depth?
  • What could I have left out?
  • What visuals stood out the most for you?
  • Were there any visuals that confused you?

With each question, don’t be afraid to dig deeper. For example, if someone lets you know you lost them during your intro, ask them if they remember what caused that to happen. Give them to time to answer on their own, but, If they seem stuck, offer up suggestions: (i.e. “was it too technical?” or “did I use too much jargon?”). The more finely tuned your questions, the more insightful the answers are likely to be.

Active listening is about fully concentrating on what’s being said—you're not trying to memorize what they’re saying, but rather listening with a relaxed mindset focused on understanding the message.

3. Listen to hear not to respond

How often have you been in a conversation where you’re not really listening but rather planning what you are going to say in response? In a critique setting, it’s natural to quickly move into defensive mode when we start to hear something we perceive as negative. Instantly, we stop listening to what’s being said and start crafting a justification or an excuse in our minds.

If you’re guilty of falling into this trap (like we all are), here are small changes you can make to become a better listener:

  • Focus on understanding your critiquer’s point of view
  • Practice summarizing what has been said back to the critiquer
  • Take notes—but keep them abbreviated. Stressing about getting everything that’s being said on paper will prevent you from absorbing the intent of the feedback in the moment. If you’re worried you may miss something, just ask if it’s OK if you record the session.
  • Ditch the distractions
  • Think about how you can improve physical and mental alertness during the session. For example, make sure you have something to drink and/or grab a snack ahead of time.

Active listening is about fully concentrating on what’s being said—not under the pressure of memorizing what they’re saying, but rather with a relaxed mindset focused on understanding the message.

4. Be open and receptive

This one sounds obvious, but think about it: Do you actually welcome critique? Many of us haven’t been trained in the art of receiving feedback and so reacting poorly to constructive criticism is normal and very common. What causes this negative reaction? Taking the feedback personally. Essentially it’s a fear response that happens when we perceive situations as threatening to our egos or our identities.

So, how can we re-frame the way we take feedback from others? Here are four ways help you shift your mindset:

  1. Separate yourself from your work. Who you are is not determined by what you can or can’t do.
  2. Assume the best intentions from your critiquers;
  3. Come from a place of gratitude — this doesn’t mean you have to agree with an assessment, but rather that it helps you continue to appreciate the time that’s being shared with you, as well as the feedback coming from more experienced presenters;
  4. View your emotions as a strength rather than a weakness. If you’re scared, nervous, or frustrated, don’t be afraid to say so.

Remember that perceptions and anticipated negativity will ALWAYS frame your way of thinking and inhibit your ability to see and hear objectively. Keeping an open mind and being receptive to the feedback you asked for is a great way to develop a growth mindset.

Leading your own feedback session with specific questions will help your critiquers offer detailed constructive input. You’re not always going to agree with the feedback you receive, but being receptive to the possibilities of specific feedback points will allow you to think wider than your current scope. Feedback, especially when you don’t agree with it, is almost always where growth and breakthroughs happen.