For many people, making presentations is fraught with a fear of being judged (which, let's face it, you are), concerns about being caught unprepared, and the risk of ruining your reputation. As British judge Sir George Jessel once remarked, "The human brain starts working the moment you are born and never stops...until you stand up to speak in public."

Regardless of whether you simply don't like it or you totally loathe it, making presentations is rarely something you can opt out of if you want to have impact and influence, persuade and sell, and advance your career.

While you might not learn to like public speaking more, you should learn to get better at it. But that's often easier said than done. Why? Because most of us face a significant barrier to improvement: we don't get useful feedback.

Like what?

"You should be more confident next time."

"I wanted more passion from you."

"You weren't clear."

"You needed to be more relaxed"

Or even "Great job! You nailed it."

Sound familiar? If so, that may be why you're not improving your delivery, your content, or your command of the audience. It's because the feedback isn't based on measurable, observable, and repeatable behaviors.

What makes good feedback.

Let's take the word "confident" to start. Most of us can agree that effective presenters appear confident. But if I were to give you the feedback that "you should be more confident" in your presentations, would you know what to do differently? No, you wouldn't, because confident is an interpretation of behaviors, rather than a behavior itself.

Here's what might be more useful:

"When you present, you rock from side to side. You should focus on standing still, or moving to different parts of the room during transitions between main points. This would make you look more confident."

"I notice that you use filler words, like 'uh' and 'like'. It would be more effective if you took a pause instead. This would make you sound more confident."

"When someone asks you a question you don't know the answer to, you start to stammer trying to articulate a response. You would seem more confident if you said, 'I don't know, but I will find out and get back to you by the end of day' and then moved on to your next point."

Notice the difference? Telling someone to be more confident doesn't help them understand what they're currently doing or what they could be doing that would be more effective. Helping someone identify the specific vocal, verbal, and/or visual behaviors that they should shift is significantly more helpful - and definitely more applicable.

Your response matters, too.

So what do you do if you want to become a better public speaker (just in case the universe doesn't conspire to eliminate all public speaking from your career), and someone tells you to be more "passionate" or "relaxed" or "confident"? Thank them for sharing that with you, and ask them to name specifically what they noticed you doing or not doing in your presentation, and what they might suggest you do differently.

And what if you're lucky (or skilled) enough to hear "Great job!"? Say thank you, and again, ask "What specifically did I do that made this presentation work well? I am asking so that I can do it again in the future."

Bottom-line: If you want to be a better public speaker, whether it's to speak at town hall meetings, pitch a client, or present your ideas internally, you need to ask for better feedback first.

Published on: Aug 28, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.