• Daiany Palacios

The story of a gift exchange: giving & asking for feedback at a community conference

Updated: 4 days ago

A couple of weeks ago I had the honor of participating as a speaker at the second edition of the DevOpsDays in Kiel (check my impressions of the event here).

I presented an ignite talk on why I believe that DevOps is an “Umbrella Term” for business evolution. Check it out:



But this post is not really about my presentation (although any feedback is of course always welcome! :P), but about the experience I had giving and asking people directly for feedback.


Feedback is a gift


Of that I am deeply convinced. And it should be treated as such. It doesn’t matter if we get criticism, neutral opinions, positive but not concrete opinions, or very specific suggestions for improvement. The point is, no one is really forced to give us any feedback. It remains a very personal thing for anyone who decides to share any comment with us or not. So when someone gives us feedback in any form, it should be appreciated.


Of course it is easy to try to justify ourselves whenever there is criticism. But something I have learnt in the past years is that we shouldn’t take a defensive attitude, but rather accept the comment and later on decide what to do with it.


In my opinion, when it comes to feedback, at first we should aim for quantity over quality. The idea is to try to get as many comments as possible and then of course, filter out. This blog post describes a very interesting method to filter out and try to get the most useful feedback from all comments received. The more feedback we get, the higher the chances that we are able to fish out some “diamonds” or “spades” that we can use to improve.

Letters to Santa: asking proactively for gifts!


Having presented already a couple of times before, I had already a bit more of self-confidence. But the previous times I didn’t really get any concrete information as feedback that would help me improve for the next time. I was lucky to at least have gotten some comments either from the organizers or indirectly from the audience through a couple of tweets. In general it was positive, so I was happy. But this time I didn’t want to just sit and wait for the organizers to (maybe) say something to me, or check my twitter feed like crazy searching for any comment.


This time, after I presented and the initial adrenaline rush was gone, I decided that I would take the issue in my hands. I would just approach people and ask them directly for their impressions of my presentation. This would be my special and (hopefully) productive way of starting to network at the conference.

I approached people with a smile, and after introducing myself I would just go straight ahead and ask the following:

  1. Did you hear my presentation?

  2. Did you like it?

  3. What did you like the most?

  4. Is there anything you think I could do better in the future?

I talked to some 20 people at least, I can’t remember exactly how many. But their reactions were very interesting.


They would just smile back at me at the beginning of the conversation and answer yes to the question if they had heard my presentation. Then everyone would tell me they liked it (maybe due to social pressure of me asking so directly?) but the interesting part of their reactions was when facing the 3rd and 4th questions.


Some of them were surprised, others reacted naturally and just took a bit of time to think, some were visibly a bit uncomfortable, some even would ask me: “what is this? A direct feedback session?!” To which I would just reply in the most natural way: “Yes! And please be honest, this is the only way I can find out how I can get better, by asking the ones who heard me, so you would be doing me a favor!”.


In general they would tell me comfortably what they had liked the most, but finding something I could do better was usually not that easy and comfortable. Of course there were things I could have done better, and I even got some very concrete suggestions from some of them. But what got my interest and fascination were the following two facts:

  1. People are not used to get confronted by speakers directly like that

  2. People are just not used to give concrete & actionable feedback.

Let’s address those two facts now one at a time.


1. Being asked directly for feedback


This is a situation that can be found in any possible context. But to keep a better focus, in this post I am going to stay concentrated in my particular one: conference attendees being confronted directly by a speaker asking for feedback.


Why is it so strange that a speaker wants to know how her presentation came across to the audience and what she can do to improve? It should be the most natural thing! But the problem is, speakers don’t usually do that. No wonder the surprise of the attendees when one decides to do it.


Now, the next natural question is: why don’t speakers ask for feedback? Well, hard to answer. Having been in that situation before I can say that sometimes it’s just shyness (at least that was my case). But I can imagine that some other times it can be a bit of carelessness, or maybe just following the status quo: just being OK with vague other indirect sources of feedback.


This should change. Especially in community conferences where it’s easier to get in touch with the audience. It would only bring benefits to everyone, not just to the speakers. Because at the end we would get better talks and an improved culture of feedback.


2. Giving concrete and actionable feedback


After hearing a presentation you can immediately know if you liked it or not. But putting into words what exactly you liked the most is not a usual thing to do (I believe), and trying to find an aspect to improve and formulating it concretely is something we even more rarely do (if at all). Why is that so?


Simple: we are not used to do that. It’s not an easy thing to do. But I am deeply convinced that it’s a skill that we can gain just by practicing whenever we have a chance.

It doesn’t mean that we should avoid giving criticism. It’s not about giving positive or negative feedback, but about naming a concrete/specific aspect that was good or can be improved. And even better if we are able to give a suggestion on how to improve.

Here a couple of examples of the feedback I got. It shows a comparison on what I consider vague and concrete:

  • “The topic was very interesting” vs. ”It showed me a new perspective to the topic I had not considered before.”

  • “It was a bit too fast“ vs. “I think you could have maybe added more breaks in between, some pauses so that we as the audience have the chance to process the information“.

  • “I liked your enthusiasm“ vs. “I liked that you started by telling your story, because it supports your enthusiasm and your call to action to people at the end. Only passionate people can be replicators of a topic.“

I hope it’s easy to recognize the differences. The second ones are the “diamonds” we should all be looking for.

The gift exchange: talking to the other speakers


As I mentioned, giving concrete and actionable feedback is a skill that can be learned just by practicing. Since I practice what I preach, after talking to many attendees, I decided to approach as many speakers as I could and give them my feedback on their presentations.

I did it also because I felt inspired by the vibe in the conference. It was a nice way of networking and it would serve me as well as a practice. Because I always try to do my best to give my feedback as follows: honest, constructive and concrete. Including suggestions for improvement in case I could think of any.


So I honestly didn’t do it with the expectation of getting the favor back. But it was great to see how, after hearing my comments, most of them would also give me some concrete feedback. It was a gift exchange! :-)

Conclusion


We should all strive for a better feedback culture. For this, the easiest thing to do is to start by giving. The more we practice the easier it gets to give concrete and actionable feedback. And I can assure you, eventually you’ll get also your gifts when you need them. I hope my post can give you a bit of inspiration to go out and cultivate the “feedback plant”. It will blossom sooner than you think ;-)

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