How To Use Negative Feedback To Get Better

One of the not-so-fun parts of being a motivational speaker is reading evaluations. It takes very thick skin to read what people really think about you. Luckily, I have wonderful mentors like Linda Larsen, who teach me how to embrace feedback and use it to my advantage. Which is just what I did this morning when I sifted through hundreds of evaluations from a recent event. The evaluations allowed for rating (1-10) and comments. I will start with the good news. Out of hundreds, all but one handful gave me all 10's and glowing comments on how I impacted them, inspired them, and motivated them. Following my own 10-10-80 rule (10% will always hate it, 10% will always love it, and 80% will reserve judgment, so focus on the 80) it was a success. Now let's talk about the others. 

Normally I read the negative ones really fast, stick out my tongue at them, quickly assess whether this is something I can or want to fix – and then I forget about them. Yes, I've come a long way from the days when one negative comment would send me to my room with a Hershey bar and a box of Kleenex. But today was different. Today I decided to really embrace the negative comments – whether valid or not. I'll share them with you, along with what this new process taught me and what I will take away from it to make me better.

1.  "I couldn't hear her."

Okay. That's super easy to fix. Bummer that she didn't hear a word, but good that I can help better educate my client on how to set up the room in a way that everybody has the best experience.

2.  "Hated her southern accent. Not everybody talks that way. Got on my nerves."

Believe it or not, some people think my accent can be changed like a blazer. While I'm sure I could go spend money on speech lessons, I'm not going to. It's not worth it to me. If you have a problem with my accent, get someone else.   I can educate my client on that fact that some people may not want to hear a southern accent, and if the client thinks that will be stumbling block, then I would recommend a local newscaster, as they have beautiful accent-free voices. (I have actually had clients say, "Oh, we can't bring you this year. We had a southern speaker last year."  I'm waiting for the day they say, "I'm sorry, Kelly, but we had a girl with big butt at the last conference.")

3.  "Not everybody from the south is like her characters. I was offended."

Despite the fact that my town (Prides Hollow) and its characters are fictitious, and despite the fact that I don't even tell you it's in the south, some people in the south think I'm talking about them, and that I am making fun of the south. This is a negative comment that I have wrestled with before. And in the course of looking at it from all angles, I came to the conclusion that if I'm not in my heart making fun of these people, then I'm okay with it. And I'm not. I love them. Every single one (even Crazy Man Harry). And if you look down on them – well, then maybe you're the one deciding they don't fit your normal.

This is why live action videos are so important for speakers. They show what you do and how you do it. Every one of my clients knows full well what I do and how I do it before they book me. There are no surprises.

4.   "Boring."

Hundreds of "Loved Its" and one boring. Not bad. Can't please everybody. I know attention spans are short, so I try to change my tempo about every five or ten minutes. I'm using every trick I've got in the book. I'm doing the best I can. But this comment will still inspire me to work a little harder, but still acknowledge that there is no way every single person is going to like what I do. Impossible.

5.  "I didn't learn anything that will help me in my business."

Now this one is tricky because this person is right. There was not one thing in my program that would help her in her work. Just as we had intended. These were preschool teachers. I know NOTHING about teaching preschoolers. Not one aspect of my program was intended to teach them how to connect with a three-year-old. Shoot, I couldn't even connect with my own three-year-old. And that is exactly what I told the client when she called me to speak. And it wasn't what she wanted. She wanted me to come make them laugh, entertain them, and help them feel good about what they do and the difference they make. And that is exactly what I delivered. So if the attendee was upset, that falls back on the client not me. Perhaps we could have set it up better, and better promoted the fact that the intent was to motivate. But we did promote it and describe the program as such. And I even prefaced the program(s) with the same comment: "I'm not here today to teach you how to better in your job. I'm here to teach you how to love yourself and motivate the adults you work with."   And HUNDREDS of comments reflected that this was in fact done.

So I'm putting this one in the category of things I can't control, and not worth worrying about. But I will also remember how important it is in that initial client conversation to discuss what they need and what you will do. A job well done is more about delivering on your promise to your client than whether you did what somebody in that audience thought that you should have done.

6.  "She was a total waste of my time."

Ouch. Still stings as much as when somebody else told me that last year. And the year before. And the year before that. Despite the fact that hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people love what I bring them – there are many (maybe even more) who don't. And such is life. And such is business. So I will work really hard to know what groups are a good fit for me, and how to find them, and which ones aren't. I did one job where 80% of the people were not happy. So I spent a lot of time figuring out what led up to that result – to make sure I never take another job like that again. But I'm sure there will be more. Just as there will always be more bad evaluations and unhappy clients.

But that's the whole point – that bad evaluations and unhappy clients are the only way we get better. Telling me I'm great, while affirming and wonderful, doesn't help me grow. In fact, just the opposite, as I run the risk of becoming complacent and coasting. So I should actually wish for the bad evaluation, seeing it for the gift it really is. And just as important – be able to separate advice that has to do with better customer experience, from advice that tells you how you should do your job from someone who has no idea how to do your job.

I hope this blog post helps you, even if you're not in the category of motivational speakers.  I hope this helps you take the negative feedback that comes your way as good news instead of bad. I hope this inspires you in the belief that people may not get what you do – but there will be plenty who will. But despite what I hope, this post might just be a total waste of your time. Ah……c'est la vie. 



Motivational Speaker Kelly Swanson - called one of North Carolina's funniest women by Our State Magazine. Kelly lifts the spirits of audiences from coast-to-coast using humor, storytelling, and lives of the characters from Prides Hollow - Kelly's make believe small town. This unique approach to motivational speaking allows Kelly to break through communications barriers and connect directly to the audience's imagination.
Her powerful stories and wacky wit will make you laugh, remind you that you matter, show you how to see beyond your obstacles, and teach you how to stand up and stick out in a crowded market.
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Motivational speaker Kelly Swanson's website

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  1. Kelly, I just love your vulnerability combined with a serious reflection of analysis on what you can and can't control. I can still remember the days when I was so afraid to put myself out there because I knew I would be judged, criticized and mocked. Once, like you, I learned that feedback is a gift, life changed. Yes, it still hurts, stings and even sets me back now and again, but I've learned through doing this over and over it's the only way to grow and go where I want. Just last month I was so afraid to put myself out there with a certain group, but showed up and did it anyway. I was a baby train wreck until about 3 minutes in and then I just decided to do my thing and take the hit if need be. I remind myself again and again that not everybody is going to like me, but that's okay. Learn from the feedback, control what you can control and go forward. You continue to take huge risks and stand in your truth which only continues to inspire me.

  2. Well, Kelly. THIS one is seriously brilliant.  Every single motivational speaker on the planet should read this. Every single person, also, who EVER has to (and should WANT to) hear negative feedback.  You so very well reminded us that every piece of feedback has a different message or lesson to bring to us.  Thank you for reminding me of how to view all those crazy, varying comments.  

  3. Well, duh, ladies. Where did you think I learned this? Hello! You two!


  1. […] reading a lot about feedback lately.  My good friend and colleague, Kelly Swanson, wrote a phenomenal blog post about how to receive, evaluate and extract the gold from negative feedback, and that got me to […]

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