I’ve been training presentation and public speaking skills for more than ten years now and today I’d like to share one thing I learned which has had the biggest single impact on the results I get.   If you are curious to know what it it, then read on.

I still remember the first bit of feedback I got when I stood up to give a talk.   The giver, no doubt intending to be helpful told me that I had said “um” 42 times in my three minute talk.   It’s all too easy to be critical but the question is, does giving critical feedback work?  Does it have the desired effect of improving performance and changing behaviour?   I’ve been a manager and a trainer for more than 20 years and I have learned the hard way that most critical feedback, no matter how well meant, has the opposite effect.

Why should this be?   Well I’d like you first to follow the instructions in the following statement. Ll

What ever you do, – Do not think of a purple elephant!   Under no circumstances should you think of a purple elephant!

So what happened?  Of course you couldn’t do anything else but imagine a purple pachyderm.   It’s the way or mind works, we cannot not think of something.   Our attention inevitably goes to the thing that is unwanted or forbidden.

Now imagine you say to someone, “don’t keep saying um.  You have a habit of saying it at the end of every sentence and you must stop saying um if you are to improve.”   Immediately your attention is drawn to the very thing that you don’t want to do as an a result you do more of it!      “Energy flows where attention goes”

Now imagine i said to you this instead. “I want you to concentrate on saying nothing at the end of every sentence.  Put a pause in, as you think of the next thing you are going to say.”   Now notice what you focus on.

But there is more to it than this.   Critical feedback hurts!

When I started teaching presentation skills I used to give lots of “constructive” feedback which inevitably meant pointing out things that people were doing wrong.    No matter how sensitively I gave this feedback, I could see the pain in the eyes of my students and despite their accepting nods, Is till saw the same unwanted behaviours repeated time after time.

And then I went to America for an NLP trainers workshop. During those long hard three weeks we would all be expected to give lots of presentations but a the beginning of the course, Robert Dilts our tutor introduced the concept of “Positive Feedback Only”  He challenged us to focus on commenting solely on what we liked about the presenters delivery, structure or visual aids and other than that to phrase or suggestions for improvement in terms of  “what presenter could do more of that would make his talk even better”.

Initially we were all sceptical about this approach but we quickly discovered that it has a hauge impact on the presenter and people improved far faster than using traditional critical feedback techniques.

When I got back from the States I incorporated this approach into my own one day workshops and the impact was huge!   The degree of improvement I started seeing over a day was at least 25% greater than previously.   So if you need some help with your presenting here are some suggestions to help you get the most change in the shortest possible time;

  • Tell your audiences to keep any negative feedback to themselves but that you will be delighted to receive any amount of positive feedback.  My good friend Richard Wilkins does this at the start of every talk and it works a treat as well as getting a good laugh and lots of nods of agreement.
  • Encourage others to confine their feedback to two areas – What specifically did I do that you liked or that worked?  What could I do more of that would make it even better.
  • If you are looking for a trainer or coach, ask them how they give  feedback.  If the tell you that they will spend any more than 5% of the time telling you what you are doing wrong – walk away!


  1. You make some interesting points and certainly this is an approach when giving feedback personally. I would however say that discouraging negative feedback is robbing yourself of a valuable source of information. Perhaps it is better to accept that some people will communicate this poorly or in a way that could be hurtful but if you approach them from a mindset that you forgive them their shortcomings and try to take on board the positive aspect of the criticism (as you discuss with your “umm” example) then it is a lot easier to receive that criticism.

    • Gavin Meikle on 16/08/2010 at 15:03

      Thanks for the comment Stephen. You are right in that, if received with the right mindset, negative comments can be useful. NLP gives us the presupposition, “There is no failure, only feedback”. However in practice this can be a real challenge for many of my clients. Some people have received an overdose of well intentioned but none the less hurtful criticism when younger and as a result are hyper-sensitive. Your comment prompted me to review the research in this area and as a result I found a great video on the subject of positive emotions made by postivity researcher Barbara Fredrickson. I liked it so much I posted it on my blog https://www.inter-activ.co.uk/?p=1671 so your comment made a real difference!


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