Listen to Understand - Speak to Inspire


2 simple rules for consistently delivering better speech evaluations

Originally published by Ian Cunliffe, DTM 

As Toastmasters, we have a very important job to do. We are entrusted with the responsibility of empowering others to become more effective communicators and leaders.

Yikes! Did we really sign up for that? And if so, how do we do it?

We accomplish this, in large part, through evaluations. Effective evaluations are the beating heart of any successful toastmasters program. Yet many toastmasters find evaluations to be daunting.

This feeling is understandable. The task of evaluating another speaker can seem complex. After all, you need to:

  • Determine the speaker’s objectives
  • Identify her strengths
  • Spot weaknesses
  • Highlight missed opportunities
  • Provide specific examples
  • Make copious notes
  • Avoid losing track of what the speaker is trying to say while you are trying to figure out what you are going to say…

And then you’ll have to turn your notes into an impromptu speech that you’ll immediately stand up and deliver!

Feels complex, doesn’t it? Kind of like trying to… build an airplane… while it’s flying. (

But does it need to be this daunting? No… It doesn’t.

As the winner of this year’s District 96 speech evaluation championships, I attribute my success to having given a lot of evaluations over the last few years. Not all of my evaluations have been of a championship calibre… some of the early evaluations were truly ‘cringe worthy…’ But I’ve learned a lot in the process.

Perhaps the most important thing that I have learned about myself as an evaluator is that my evaluations tend to be much more effective when I consistently adhere to 2 simple rules. These rules are not the complete story for how to give an effective evaluation, but they will always get you started on the right foot.

Rule #1 – Listen to Understand

A common mistake that I regularly see evaluators make is that they are so busy ‘evaluating’ a speech that they are not truly listening to what the speaker is trying to say – the evaluator is listening so that they will have something to say when they get up to give their evaluation!

In cases where this happens we often wind up with a seemingly disjointed ‘laundry list’ of constructive criticism that is presented as an evaluation. These don’t tend to work very well.

Burying the speaker under a bunch of beneficial advice tends to have surprisingly little benefit. Sometimes advice can get piled on so high that the speaker has difficulty digging him or herself out.

At times we can get so busy evaluating every little repetitive hand gesture and filler word that our speech evaluation turns into a speech dissection. And while dissection can be an important tool for learning and understanding, it’s important to remember that dissection also has a very significant drawback – the things that we dissect have an unfortunate tendency to die during the dissection…

When it comes to constructive criticism, less (but more focused) criticism is usually more. And when we know what the speaker is actually trying to achieve, we can focus our constructive comments on just those few things that will provide the biggest benefit and support for helping the speaker to achieve his or her true purpose.

A good evaluation isn’t about finding a lot of ‘stuff’ to fix – it’s about focusing in on the right stuff for the speaker. And we can only do that when we are actively listening to understand the speaker’s message and purpose for speaking.

The next time you’re asked to evaluate, I’d like to challenge you to put your pencil down… and really listen.

Rule #2 – Speak to Inspire

Just giving people the tools for forward progression is not enough. Our job as evaluators is also to instil in the speaker an unshakable belief that they are going to be successful when they take that next step, and to ignite in them a burning desire to get out there and take that next step at the very next opportunity!

Each of us intuitively understands the validity of these 2 rules, but it can be easy to set these rules aside for a variety of reasons. Often at advanced clubs, I find that the responsibility to inspire is seen as an ‘optional extra’ – the speakers are deemed to be experienced and therefore only wanting/needing the ‘straight goods’ without a lot of ‘fluff.’ It’s an understandable view, but one that I still believe to be wrong.

The truth about personal development at any level is that we only grow when we take risks. And any time we take risks, we are vulnerable.

My friend, 2 time world semi-finalist Alan Warburton likes to say that ‘All the magic in life happens when we step 6 inches outside of our comfort zone’ and I agree with him.

And given that our goal as evaluators is to encourage speakers to grow, we need to be actively encouraging speakers to keep taking risks – we are in fact striving to get speakers to become habitual risk takers!

And that’s why inspiration and motivation are so important in any evaluation. If a speaker takes a risk and is evaluated in a careless or indifferent fashion, their likelihood of taking a future risk actually decreases. A desire to focus exclusively on the ‘straight goods’ risks stunting forward progress.

And when people stop progressing, sooner or later, they stop coming.

It’s an unfortunate fact that every year Toastmasters loses over 40% of its existing members. That’s an alarming amount of turnover.

Some of that number can be attributed to factors that are beyond our control, such as changes at home and at work. But a significant portion of that turnover must be attributed to people who perceive they are no long growing within the Toastmasters program. And that’s truly unfortunate, because the longer a person is in toastmasters, the more they should be coming to realize the vast scope of what Toastmasters International actually has to offer.

Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t know of ANY speaker who has ever come away feeling pumped from giving a speech, having received great tools for improvement AND the motivation to use them, who then then turned around and decided not to renew their membership.

Call me crazy, but I think there’s a correlation…

As Toastmasters, we DO have the power to change lives. We have the ability to empower others and to help people to become more effective communicators and stronger leaders. And we do it every day… we encourage people to reach higher, and it all happens when we listen to understand and then seek to inspire.