Many years ago, I gave a 90-minute speech to 400 non-military researchers at the US Air Force. These scientists create planes and weapons for our military. The first 45 minutes of the presentation seemed to go really well. The audience was high energy, laughing when I wanted them to, and fully engaged. And then something happened. At the midpoint, the energy seemed to drop. For 45 minutes there was no laughter, only serious faces in the room. When my speech was done, I left the stage feeling deflated.

Afterwards I was talking with a number of attendees who had only stellar things to say. Admittedly, I was a little surprised. This prompted me to ask, "What happened in the second half of my speech? I thought I lost everyone." The response was a powerful lesson for me. He said, "The first half was fun and interesting. But the second half was where you provided the real value. This is when you addressed the issues that were critical to our long-term success. It wasn't necessarily fun, but it was powerful."

As a speaker, it is easy to confuse audience reaction with real impact. Every person emotes differently. Trying to read body language can often give misleading information. Therefore, feedback after the event can be more useful if it is the correct type of feedback.

Several years back I gave a speech in Las Vegas to a group of people in the insurance industry. Afterwards, attendees came up and told me how wonderful I was. Although that was nice for the ego, it didn't really give me any indication of value. This was not useful feedback.

Later, while sitting at the casino's bar, an audience member spotted me and asked if he could buy me a drink. I graciously accepted and we talked. The first words out of his mouth were, "That was a great speech." This is where most conversations end. 

But for us, this was the start. Over the next hour he replayed nearly every minute of my speech. Every example. Every point I made. He then proceeded to tell me how the speech impacted him and how he was going to change his business based on what I said. He also asked some great probing questions which allowed us to go even deeper, helping me identify some potential additions to my presentation.

No matter what business you are in, there is a lesson in this.

Every day I receive surveys from companies wanting to know my opinion. How did I enjoy my flight? Was the customer service agent helpful? Did the product operate as expected?

The answers to these questions often don't get to the true value. Numbers only get at the surface. If I received a 9 out of 10 for my speech, it provides very little useful information.

Stories are a better way to learn a customer's true experience, and the value they received. Of course, you can ask for examples on your surveys. But nothing replaces a conversation where you can go deep. Probe through dialogue. Gather real insights rather than platitudes.

I learned more about the impact of my presentation in that one conversation than I would ever would have received from a written survey. And I encourage you to do the same.

What are you doing to collect real insights about your products or services? Don't just gather testimonials about how great you are. Capture stories that help you learn about the impact you make, and the ways you can improve.