The speech is completed; the speaker expectantly waits. A hush falls over the attentive audience. The designated evaluator steps to the lectern. A bright smile, a wink to the speaker and then, "Perfect! Flawless! Extraordinary! Wow! I mean, really, wow! That was the best speech I have ever heard! An impeccable masterpiece of linguistic magnificence! All hail the quintessential Toastmaster! We are but humble servants in your spoken presence." The evaluation produces raised eyebrows and a murmur rippling through the experienced members in the crowd, "Whitewash."
A few speeches later, another evaluator takes the stage, this one aimed at a new member who just delivered an Icebreaker. The chosen evaluator narrows a critical eye, takes a breath and begins, "You call that a speech? I thank my lucky stars I'm not your mentor. Good grief, I've seen more riveting presentations at management policy seminars. And, what was with your eye contact? Did I miss something important up there on the ceiling? Are we in the Sistine Chapel, or were you just looking for your main points? Did you even read your manual?" This time, a corporate gasp erupts, and senior members grimly acknowledge the diatribe in quiet, grave tones. "The atom bomb," one whispers to another.
While these examples are obviously exaggerated, too many Toastmasters evaluations drift dangerously close to either extreme: adoration or devastation. How can we arrive at the heart and soul of membership growth - the ideal evaluation?
The evaluation process distinguishes Toastmasters as a place for self-betterment. Instead of focusing only on the finished product, Toastmasters concentrates on the finishing process. In a world fraught with sharp-edged competition, Toastmasters creates a haven for mutual success, where we profit from each other's strengths rather than take advantage of each other's weaknesses.
So, how do we find the "sweet spot" in evaluations, where we can avoid creating either too much or too little confidence and truly help the speaker improve? We can begin by applying some tools of the trade, basic equipment that all evaluators should have on hand:
• Manual and Objectives: Clarify which manual is being used, what project is being completed, and what specific goals the speaker is striving to achieve. If you, the evaluator, know what the target is, you can comment much more effectively on how close to the target the speaker came with his or her presentation.
• Pen and Paper: While some Toastmasters feel evaluation notations are distracting, I find they keep me on track. By making some notes before the speech begins, you'll know exactly what you are looking for. By jotting down thoughts during the speech, you'll know what you saw and heard. The speaker benefits from a more focused, refined assessment; the evaluator gains by never being at a loss for words.
• Your Eyes and Ears: It's essential to remember that the speaker's growth has been entrusted to you as an evaluator. This means seeing and hearing past the speech and examining the mechanics of the presentation, which will require your complete, undivided attention from opening to closing.
With these tools on board, you're ready to evaluate. While no secret formula exists to ensure evaluation excellence, an acronym I like to remember is, "The Winning R.A.T.I.O."
While the word "ratio" sounds like a fancy mathematical term, it really just means a relationship. A proper ratio can be thought of as a balance between two or more states of being. It's a common concept used in more ways than we might think.
My favorite example is cooking. Anyone who has ever tasted or produced a great chocolate chip cookie knows just how handy the winning ratio can be. When it comes to the relationship between the amount of chocolate chips and the amount of cookie dough, the balance is critical. Too heavy one way or another, and discerning taste buds are not satisfied. Get it just right, like my mom always does, and chocolate-chip-cookie-heaven is the outcome.
Do ratios exist in Toastmasters? Yes, particularly around the evaluating process. Consider three very important ratios, or relationships, that are involved in every evaluation:
1. Speaker and Evaluator: Total objectivity must be the goal, whether the speaker is your best friend or someone who grates on your nerves. Stand back from personal feelings and deliver a professional assessment of the skills that were displayed. The proper balance is to focus on the speech and not the speaker.
2. Speaker and Audience: Keep in mind that the speaker receives the evaluation in front of his or her fellow Toastmasters and club visitors. Sugarcoated comments can leave the speaker feeling awkward or embarrassed, particularly if everyone, including the speaker, knows it was not an award-winning performance. Unduly harsh dialogue can similarly embarrass a person.
When member satisfaction seems to drift or when members make excuses or shy away from speaking commitments, a series of poor evaluations may be the culprit.
The correct blend of words should uplift and challenge the speaker while motivating and teaching the audience.
3. Speaker and Self: Self-development is the main product of Toastmasters training. Here, both sympathy and insult are equally dangerous.
So, just what is "The Winning R.A.T.I.O." and how can it help with all aspects of the evaluation process?
R is for "Raising up, not tearing down." Our task as evaluators is to lend a hand, not apply a boot. Even if the performance was mediocre, the member will make much larger strides with self-confidence than with self- doubt. While this is no exc e for an obvious "whitewash," the overall tone of an evaluation should be uplifting. Better to err on the soft side publicly - and take up other issues privately - than risk losing a member, or potential members, in the process.
A is for "Assistance, not embarrassment." No matter how tempting, avoid using speaker error as the basis for generating humor. Evaluations are not the platform for stand-up comedy. While some members think a joke will relax the speaker, the fact is that no one likes to be laughed at, even if it is "all in good fun." Rather than chip away at the member's self-esteem, you can rebuild that member's inner empowerment with a few minutes of support.
T is for "Technique, not content." I recall one member verbally attacking another in an evaluation because the speaker had talked about the fur industry and the evaluator was an animal rights activist. While we may not agree with a member's personal beliefs, the evaluator's task is not to examine what the speaker said, but how the speaker said it. Each speech project outlines specific techniques to master - those, and those alone, should be the focus of the evaluation.
I is for "'I' - not 'you' - statements." One of the easiest ways to protect the speaker's esteem, while still giving effective suggestions, is to substitute the word "you" with the word "I." For example, instead of "You could have used more eye contact in your closing," try "I believe that more eye contact could have added impact to your closing." A subtle difference? For the evaluator, perhaps, but not for the speaker. It's enough of a challenge to sweat through a presentation - no one wants to be pelted with a barrage of accusations. Replace the accusatory tone of "you" with the gentler tone of "I."
O is for "Objectives, not opinion." If there is any doubt about what to say, guidelines are provided in all Toastmasters manuals. Every manual speech has objectives to be met. That's not to say that the oral evaluation should simply be a reiteration of the written points; however, if the manual calls for the speaker to show how "Your Body Speaks", and the evaluator focuses only on vocal variety, neglecting to comment on the use of body movement, the point has been missed. The speaker has practiced to meet certain objectives, and that should be the subject of the reported feedback.
In finding the right balance between evaluation extremes, we can discover evaluation success - success that translates into speaker success. Properly crafted and delivered, evaluations become a living lineage, a history of self-improvement, handed down from one generation of clubs to the next, being passed from evaluator to speaker. For me, I've found that "The Winning R.A.T.I.O." can be a great help in that endeavor.
So, that's it. Pretty simple, right? By no means! Evaluations are as much an art as a science. Proper evaluations are hard work. They require quick and careful thought, and sometimes on-the-spot adjustment. I like to call them the ultimate Table Topic. Toastmasters offers many tips for evaluators, and all are worthy of careful study. However, in the end, when standing in front of the lectern, facing the club, and that all important speaker is relying on your evaluation, it's all up to you.