Now I understand what my audiences think about me

Dave Birss, writer, speaker, advisor
20 December 2017

A big part of my job is speaking in creativity and innovation. In the past three months, I’ve delivered keynotes in more than a dozen countries and I’ve already got a number of conferences and talks in the diary for 2018. 

I usually get some pretty good feedback after my talks. Which isn’t always a good thing if you want to keep improving. People don’t tend to share the negatives when they talk to you face to face. So in November, I decided to set up a post-talk survey so that I could find out what people found most helpful and what they thought could be improved. I was asking for honesty. And that’s always pretty scary. So it’s only fair that I return the favour and share the results completely honestly.

What the numbers say

The questionnaire asked people to rate three things on a scale of one to five:
  • Their overall impression of the talk
  • How helpful they found the content
  • What they thought of my delivery
And I was pretty blown away by the results.

Let’s get this clear. I know there’s a certain amount of filtering that happens here. The people who aren’t interested in creativity or innovation are unlikely to even be listening when I ask them to fill in a survey. And if anyone in the audience wasn’t that impressed, they’re probably not going to go to the effort of visiting a website and spending a couple of minutes filling in a form. 

However the results were still a lot more positive than I was expecting.

Out of the 85 people who responded, only one person said they didn’t want to see me speak again (and that person still rated my talk 4 out of 5!)

But these figures show there’s room for improvement.

And they start to give me an idea of what I need to work on most.

What the words say

As well as the ratings, I asked people to answer three questions:

  • The main thing they remembered from the talk
  • What they think could be improved
  • How they’d describe the talk in a sentence

These questions weren’t mandatory but most people still filled them in. Let’s start with the last question about how people would describe the talk. Here are some highlights:

I didn’t get any negatives in this section. It doesn’t mean that some people didn’t hate it. In many ways, I hope a few of them did! Because I’m asking people to change their behaviour. I’m telling them they need to take some actions that require effort if they want to get better creative ideas. And that’s bound to make some people feel uncomfortable.

I don’t want to be a happy-clappy motivational whoop-whoop merchant. So this might indicate that I need to challenge people a bit more!

Let’s move on to what people remembered from the talks:

You may not understand what many of these comments mean but I’m pretty happy with this. It shows that people remembered most of the key points I speak about.

But what I’ve left out here is the fact that several people wrote ‘Out of the box thinking’. I hope these people were screwing with me. Anyone who’s heard me speak knows that I detest that phrase. 

Surely they weren’t being serious!

Now on to the final question. The one that can hopefully help me improve. Sadly, this section had the fewest responses. Probably because it required the most thought. And many of the comments were saying nice things rather than giving constructive criticism.

But I did get some useful suggestions. I’ll take them one by one and offer my thoughts on how I plan to improve.

“Maybe a bit more video or music to make it even more lively”

This is a fair point. In the past, I felt I was padding out my talks with too many videos, so I decided to dial it back. I had probably dialled it back too much.

The talk this person had attended was an hour long in a pretty terrible venue. When I got this comment, I immediately started looking for places where videos might help me communicate my points. Two days later, I delivered a similar innovation talk with some more video content in it. That talk went down really well.

Great suggestion. Improvement made!

“To get a guitar and sing something ?”

I think this person was hoping for one of my musical talks about managing creativity. They’ll just have to come and see me speak elsewhere, with the aid of my guitar and harmonica. However, they’re not going to hear me sing. I come from the Bob Dylan school of singing (ie. it’s not very musical) and I don’t want to inflict that on my audiences. It would definitely result in worse reviews!

Nice suggestion. But I’m going to ignore it for now!

“More examples on the process itself”

In my talks, I’ve been explaining the creative process and how to use that understanding to come up with better ideas. But – this person is absolutely right – I’ve not been illustrating it with real-life examples. And I should have been.

When I got this comment, I spent quite a while thinking about how I could do this. Because complete examples are hard to come by.

But I’ve now worked out a couple of ways to tackle it. I’m going to be trying them out over the next few weeks to see what works best. I shouldn’t just talk about innovation, I should be innovative myself.

Fantastic suggestion. Improvement in progress!

“More time for discussing how to spur the emotion that gets you in a creative state of mind”

The areas of creativity and innovation are so broad (and so misunderstood) that there’s a lot to deal with. I can talk about how to get your mind into the right place to have ideas – and I’ve spoken about it extensively in the past.

It’s really difficult to pitch a talk to a broad audience so that it ticks everyone’s boxes. And I’m not quite sure how to deal with this. Especially when – in this situation – I only had 30 minutes to deliver my talk.

If I get this feedback more, I’ll prioritise this part of the subject and cover it more regularly.

Another thing I may do is create an online course for people who want to learn how to become better at coming up with ideas. If they want more of this kind of information, there will then be a place they can go to learn more.

Helpful suggestion. Still pondering it!

“The materials that were presented were not at a level for people who work marketing. Pretty basic.”

I was floored by this one. I regularly get complimented on my slides. Especially by designers. And marketers! So I showed my keynote presentation to some people I really respect to find out what they think.

They told me this remark was nonsense.


Debatable comment. So I’m going to respectfully ignore it.

“It would have been great to have had time to discuss/debate the points raised”

I totally agree. I love to take questions after a talk. In this situation, my Q&A was cut short because the conference was running late and they wanted to make up time.

But I hang around at events if I can, just so that I can talk to people in the breaks. And I give people my social details so they can ask me whatever they want after a talk.

Sadly, some things are out of my control. I am, however, going to make it even clearer that I’m available online for any questions afterwards.

This was a very valid point. Appropriate changes being made.

“A bit shorter presentation”

The timeslot isn’t something I choose. So I’ll turn this around and guess that for this person, I didn’t give them that ‘time just flew by’ experience. Either that or they were just desperate for the toilet.

However, two people at the same event gave me the feedback of:

“The time of the presentation should be longer”


“He should speak longer. Was really the best!”

So, on balance, I just have to take this one on the chin. If I get more comments about my talks needing to be shorter and fewer comments about how my talks need to be longer, then I’ll address it.

Valuable perspective. Continued monitoring necessary.

“Maybe tone it down a bit, for me personally it was way too energetic before noon”

This really made me laugh. I don’t know if it’s a serious comment (seeing as they also rated me 5/5) but I will absolutely not be toning my talks down!

Comment appreciated. And better hangover medication is recommended for the commenter.


I was really nervous about doing this survey. Firstly, that no one would go to the effort of completing it. (But, peculiarly, I have continued to get responses several weeks after some of the events.) Secondly, I was worried it would reveal that I wasn’t very good. Maybe I was just delusional and people were being dishonestly nice to me (in the same way as they tell a 6-year old that they were the most amazing sheep they’ve ever seen in a nativity play). But I come away from this experiment encouraged. I’ve got some practical improvements I’m now making to my talks. And I got a few laughs along the way. I mean, seriously, tone it down? No chance!