Dear Captain Awkward,
I (she/her pronouns) do a lot of public speaking. I take this seriously and practice/prepare a lot, have worked with a professional speech coach, and often watch videos of my talks afterwards with a trusted friend to discuss ways I can improve in the future.
Although most of the audience feedback after my talks is positive, there is usually at least one man that will approach me to tell me why he thinks I’m wrong and what aspects of my talk upset him. (It is worth noting that I am a woman in a male-dominated industry.) Since I find speaking to be emotionally exhausting and tend to be self-critical, I’m in no mood to be criticized by men I don’t know (especially since I disagree with their points) directly after giving a talk. Do you have good scripts on how to respond?
Also, I do think speakers have something of an obligation to the audience (ie, since people have chosen to take time to listen to me, I owe them to take their time seriously and to prepare appropriately), but I’d like to shut down these uninvited critiques faster, while still being open to meeting people from the audience.
If you haven’t seen Nanette (content warnings for the creator describing homophobia & sexual violence she’s experienced apply) you may enjoy her bits about “feedback” that people give her after her comedy shows.
The thing you’re experiencing is so very common. I gave a talk at a tech conference last year (a talk about giving & dealing with feedback, strangely enough, you can read the notes here PeepasGOTOMay1). It was a super-stressful morning – I took a Lyft to the conference venue to make sure I’d be there on time, and we were involved in a (fortunately slight) car accident on the way, meaning my talk started a few minutes late and I totally freaked out the organizer-person responsible for me. So the talk went okay in the end (I think!) but it was also kind of a blur.
Afterwards, a couple of dudes followed me around the hotel banquet area for a while afterward to tell me how wrong I was about everything. Here’s what I did: “Hey, nice to meet you, I’m not really in a place to absorb or retain your notes – I’m trying to eat lunch and meet up with some people I specifically want to see, and I only have a very limited time to do that – so why don’t you send them through the conference app and/or find me on Twitter? Thanks so much!” and skedaddled away from them. There was a possibility that what they had to tell me was important and useful, in which case, send it my way! But I didn’t have either the time or the inclination to be loomed over and monologued at in that moment, and I didn’t have to submit to that, and neither do you.
In fact, one of the things I specifically covered in the talk is that it’s very hard just on a human level to absorb & apply feedback in the moment, and one useful tactic creators and presenters can use is to document all the feedback you get (take notes, it will give you a safe place to look and something to do with your hands) and then look at your work again and go through all the notes a little later, when you’re calm can approach things with more distance. Smart managers and others who preside over feedback sessions can build this into the process and remove the expectation that people will be able to absorb & respond immediately.
Anyway, there are some common fallacies about feedback, along the lines of:
- All presenters/creators want it,
- They want it all the time, right now, whenever it’s convenient for you!
- They want it RIGHT AFTER they’ve presented the thing,
- They want it from you, specifically,
- The act of saying or creating something publicly for an audience means that they must now listen to you in turn, for as long as you want to speak,
- All feedback is equally interesting and valid and must be acted on,
- And if you don’t want to engage and/or debate people it automatically proves you’re wrong, about everything.
It’s true that people who present or create things for an audience are opening themselves up to a certain amount of response to what they say and do, including unfavorable responses, and that part of learning to be a person with a public-facing job is learning to professionally absorb a wide variety of feedback and incorporate the useful stuff into what we do going forward. Especially in this day and age of internet comments and social media, we’re supposed to hang out a “we welcome your feedback!” sign, right?
It’s also true that we’re allowed to consider the source and use our own critical thinking tools to parse out what’s useful to us. We’re allowed to set boundaries around our time and attention. We’re allowed to be human beings who need to go to the bathroom or drink some water or need some time to gather our thoughts. (To be clear, I’m not talking about protest, here. If a public figure/elected official finds your humanity and right to exist free of violence debatable, you don’t have to be civil to them or let them finish their soup or their sentence.)
It’s additionally true that this stuff is highly gendered and operates along other axes of power and privilege. It’s not an accident that the Letter Writer is a woman and the people behaving this way toward her are men. If I ask all of you to remember and picture the people you’ve seen hijack author readings or talks or panels or film festival Q&As to talk about their own ideas because they are very sure that they are right and COMPLETELY CERTAIN that everyone wants to hear what they have to say (even more than the audience want to hear the person whose event they bought tickets to!) that it’s completely okay for them to take up everyone’s time, in fact, they’re doing everyone a favor by delivering their insights, welp, let’s be honest: It’s not women doing it to men. It’s not black people talking over white folks. It’s not transgender people talking over cis people. It’s not wealthy older folks being talked over by younger, poorer people. It’s almost 100% people who have relative privilege in the room flexing that privilege to talk over the people they think have to listen to what they think.
It’s why I like the Liz Lerman Critical Response so much as a feedback tool and structure, because it specifically involves consent. The creator is directing the process of presenting work and listening to feedback, there are guardrails around it and a recognition that the audience’s job isn’t to try to outsmart or fix or remake the work. The structure also encourages people to ask questions, which can be hella clunky in practice – “So what prompted this…(ridiculous) artistic choice (that I clearly hate?”) – but is also useful because it clarifies the question: What were you going for and is it even the same thing that I thought you were going for?
It’s why I hate snitch-tagging. If I talk publicly about not really liking a book or a show, I’m not out to ruin the creator’s day, personally, and there’s no need to bring it to their attention. They can find it if they want to, otherwise, shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh. If someone hates my site and my entire being, I don’t need to be personally invited to their venting on their personal feeds. There’s a safety & harassment aspect to it, too – tagging someone prominent or politically powerful into a conversation risks activating their followers and bots and trolls. Just don’t.
It’s why I run a moderated community space and believe in moderated community spaces – online, in classrooms, and in other public discussions and spaces. To your point, Letter Writer, about not wanting feedback from men in a male-dominated industry, I went to one of Kate Harding’s readings for her book on rape culture, Asking For It, and she just straight up shut down the “I have more of a comment than a question” brigade by saying “I’m not taking questions from men.” Oh, they tried it (they always try it) and she enforced it. “I’m not taking questions from men, especially men who haven’t read the book.” It was beautiful, and the resulting discussion was good, because it wasn’t dominated by the skeptics or people who were there to debate her.
Anyway, Letter Writer, I want to give you some specific tools to use the next time you run into this phenomenon:
First, you were likely taught and socialized to think that it is very rude to interrupt people (especially cisgender men). Unfortunately many people (especially cisgender men) were not correspondingly socialized to learn that it is rude to talk at someone without pause or checking in to make sure that they want to hear what you have to say. So sometimes you gotta say “Let me interrupt you!” or “Sorry to interrupt you!” or “Let me stop you there!” You just do. You will never escape them or get to talk if you don’t. They will survive being interrupted. As a woman, you have survived being interrupted all your life. It’s okay to do it back.
Second, if at all possible don’t get boxed in. It’s okay to physically move away, walk away, back away, move away from a wall if you’ve been cornered, and otherwise leave a conversation altogether. You just gave a talk to a room full of people, your time and attention are in demand by lots of people in that room, and “Oh, interesting, but sadly I can’t stay and talk right now, I need to catch up with [another person in the audience]“ or “Oh, interesting, forgive me for cutting you off but I must get a glass of water!” or whatever you need to do and MOVE YOUR BODY. They might follow! But you don’t have to physically remain available. [By the way if you’re reading this and we’re ever at the same event, invoke the hell out of me – “Great point, but forgive me, I have to catch Jennifer and ask her something important!” – I WILL COVER YOU. We can mimic an intense West Wing sort of walk & talk and talk about the weather or how cute cats are.]
Third, it is normal and reasonable to need time and space to absorb feedback, so use this knowledge and redirect people to a forum that is better and more convenient for you and makes it more likely that you can engage with or even retain what they want to tell you. “Sorry, I need to stop you there – It’s hard for me to absorb detailed notes right after a talk like this, especially when I want to talk to so many audience members. Can you email me your thoughts [email = whatever the least invasive/most public-facing contact method you have is] so I can give them the attention they deserve?”
Fourth, “The attention they deserve” might be a lot, and it might be little or none. True story, nobody from the conference who was Very Concerned that code reviews for programmers HAVE to be mean and torturous because how else can they be RIGOROUS and IMPARTIAL ever followed up with me later. But I get all sorts of emails all the time – Why did you mention that book or movie I don’t like? (You don’t have to like everything I like, it’s okay if we like different things!) Why did you unfairly malign natural family planning? But how do you know for sure that people who collect Nazi paintings (and knew enough that they should hide this fact from Jewish family members) are distressingly cavalier about Nazis, couldn’t they have a Really Good Reason? Literally 1000+ emails about how unfair it is to use the word “creepy” to describe any man, ever, because I’m “creep-shaming.” Emails that just say “You’re fat.” (Sure am!) It’s like reading teaching evaluations at the end of the semester, when the 3 students who love you and the 3 who hate your guts are the only ones who filled ’em out.
I get legit, sincere requests to do better, I do take audience feedback very seriously, and if I never listened or changed or evolved how I do what I do I would lose (audience)(livelihood)(sense of self as mostly not an a-hole). But, lessons learned in 7 years of blogging and 12 years of teaching emerging artists, I don’t have to engage personally and deeply with every single person’s opinion about what I should write and how I should write it in the exact way they choose. I just don’t. I don’t have to accept challenges to Reddit Debates (are these a real thing?) or give other people’s manifestos “equal time” and “free speech” on my website. I can mute and block people on social media and file certain polemics into the “Welp, this was your one email to Captain Awkward, hope you got what you wanted from this experience” folder because if I’m budgeting limited attention and energy, it’s gotta be for the people who generally like it here. So maybe take that with you, too, Letter Writer: You want to do a good job. You want to improve where you can. You actively take steps to get better at what you do and you solicit feedback and coaching from trusted sources. Ultimately, you were hired/booked for a reason and you’re here to reach the people who want to hear what you have to say, and you don’t owe your critics immediate, personal, on-demand compliance, especially not right after you’ve done a vulnerable thing that absorbed all of your attention and skill.
Good luck in future presentations and evasive tactics!