Many therapists I work with dream of expanding their practice to being a consultant and presenter. In our initial appointments they ask me with a lot of excitement about my experience doing these things. And I am usually very positive and optimistic about it. But although I am “living the dream,” there are many rude awakenings along the way.
One such awakening came this week when I received my evaluations back from a recent talk. Out of the 760 people who attended, 566 of them did evaluations. It isn’t often that I have a chance to get feedback from 566 colleagues at once. What struck me is how I tended to react to them and how I had to fight the urge to focus on the negative. If 535 people rated me as good or excellent, my eye was drawn more often to the 2 “poor” ones. No matter that .35% is a really small percentage, that fraction of a percent that delivered a poor rating was hard to overlook.
The comments were even more challenging, as I noticed that my eyes flew over comment after comment describing me as interesting, great, edgy, fresh, thought-provoking, relevant, a gem, and passionate. But boy did they stop when I read this: “His bias towards media enraged me,” or this: “Seems like he has a chip on his shoulder, perhaps because he was told he had poor social skills.”
Would-be presenters please take heed. When you put yourself out there, people will take shots at you. This will hurt, even when it is a fraction of a percent. Part of what hurts is the asynchronous and anonymous nature of these comments, because you have little recourse to respond, correct an error you may have made, or just plain defend your point of view. But if you want to do public speaking, you’ll need to get a thick skin.
Part of why you need a thick skin is to allow for the accurate appraisal of your work. Here’s how I do it:
I divide the critical comments into one of three categories: Absolutely Useful, Fair Enough, and No ROI.
- Absolutely Useful: These comments are ones that don’t make me defensive, where I can imagine myself saying to the person, “absolutely.” An example of this kind is “it was somewhat difficult to follow along in the booklet because he seems to have changed the order of slides.” This comment was extremely useful, as I can put more emphasis in my prep to not change my slides at the last minute. This is an easy fix, and will benefit the audience.
- Fair Enough: These comments do make me a little defensive, but there is some benefit in spending time to acknowledge or address them. I can imagine myself saying “your point is well taken, however…” For example the comment “limited research” is fair enough. Your point is well taken, however I was only allowed 45 minutes to present, and needed to choose from my copious slides only 60. Another commentator expressed that they wished I had spoken more about the impact of violent video games and how they are a problem. This is fair enough, however there are plenty of places people can get that information or misinformation, and few places that they can get my take. What I can take from these comments are points to consider weaving in or addressing when there is more time.
- No ROI. These are the comments that are clearly ad hominem arguments. A good clue is if they hurt my feelings or make me feel extremely defensive. “Seems like he has a chip on his shoulder, perhaps because he was told he had poor social skills” is an example of this sort. There is little return on investment of time or energy I should expend on this. Who knows why a person would think that comment would help anyone, but more importantly, how would it help make a presentation’s argument more effective? These need to be set aside ASAP to focus on more helpful comments.
The irony is that the most useful comments are usually not the ones that are extremely validating or invalidating, but matter of fact, like the slide order comment. The job of a presenter is to become a better presenter. Whether you like the information and opinions I present is none of my business really, my job is to present it.
In my opinion, part of what makes a person an effective speaker is also bound to make them hated: namely, their passion and conviction. Of course I am biased, of course I think that my point of view is important. Would you really want me up there talking about things I don’t feel or think strongly about? At an old internship of mine a colleague once asked me, “have you ever been hated by somebody?” At the time I thought I hadn’t, and said so. “That’s too bad,” she replied, “It’s very defining.”
Since then I have come to realize that I, like most of us, have in fact been hated. Merriam Webster defines the noun hate as “intense hostility and aversion usually deriving from fear, anger, or sense of injury.” People are hated because they are black, or white; LGBT or straight; rich or poor; Nazi or Jew. In everyday affairs we like to pretend this is not true, and when we do so it is crazy-making. It is often a bittersweet relief to a patient when we say, “you weren’t crazy, you really were experiencing hatred.” Finally, someone told the truth.
When I present about technology and video games, I speak out explicitly or implicitly about adultism. This comes across when I challenge people around the concept of screen time. One very prescient member of my audience stated that my message seemed to be focused on changing adult behavior, not child behavior. Bingo.
When it comes to gaming, technology, and education, we need to take a good hard look at how adultism is implicit in many of our practices. We think we know better than our youth, and we think we know better than they how they should spend their time. Back in grade school, well-meaning adults decided that my time would be better spent memorizing multiplication tables, drilling them into my mind, giving me A’s for knowing them. Yet, now I live in a world where I am never more than few feet away from my phone, laptop, or dedicated calculator, and I have to question whether that time couldn’t have been spent better learning other things. What we are taught as important is bound by the history and culture of the adults in power at the time, and it isn’t always a good thing. In retrospect, I’d have been more prepared for life if I’d learned about the subjugation of indigenous people in school rather than drawing hand turkeys.
So if you are passionate about something, it will give you the passion to devote time and energy to it, go above and beyond the workaday life that we often lead. But it will put you out in front of people who don’t agree with you, see you as a threat to what they believe as good and true. You will be hated. You will get tired and hurt and frustrated. And when that happens I recommend that you take some solace from loved ones and friends, and then get back to work.
Some posts, like this one, are written for me as much as for my colleagues and consultees. We all get discouraged and need to be reminded that we are choosing to strike a blow for freedom in whatever path we choose. But I want to give the last word to one of my commentators, who said exactly what I need to hear when I have moments of flagging confidence and doubt: “Mike’s presentation changed my outlook on technology in my professional and parenting roles. Thank you so much, from a FORMER technophobe!!”