Back in the middle of the last decade I spent a couple of years working in management training. It was a remarkable time for my learning, even though I was supposed to be there for the learning of others.

Each month our performance would be assessed on the basis of the “happy sheets” – the feedback forms that participants would be asked to complete at the end of a particular engagement. Here’s what I learned when I was under close scrutiny to improve one’s scores. I wouldn’t possibly admit to have ever used any of these…

1. Make a connection

If you are working with a small group of people, then greeting them all individually (ideally with a handshake) at the beginning of the event will lead to better results. By building some sort of physical bond, we get people onside. Handshaking (in our culture) is an important way in which this happens.

Sometimes I would start an event where everyone would arrive at the same time. Some of my colleagues would end up performing a ridiculous charade of what turned into something akin to a reception line at a wedding. I couldn’t bear to do that, but I knew that as a result I’d have to work harder over the course of the event.

If you’ve got an audience in the dozens or even hundreds, building a bond in this way becomes fairly impossible. As a result, early on in your presentation, ask your audience some questions. Ideally get them to give a show of hands, or throw in some suggestions. That will get people engaged, and improve feedback overall. Questions also have the benefit of getting people to actively think, rather than just passively consume – so the audience will be more engaged overall.

2. Reveal something about yourself

Business talks tend to fall into two categories. The ones which drone on in endless corporate speak, and the ones where you get to know a little about the person who is speaking.

Talking a bit about yourself – not your CV, but about you, your background, your family – makes you human. People like humans better than PR mouthpieces. Well-judged humour can help here too.

3. Control the environment (or at least don’t mention it)

Fox’s Glacier Mints seem to be ever present in conference venues in the UK. They provide a useful purpose – addressing basic needs of the audience when hunger bites. Little things like that remove barriers to people being happy in an environment, and impact on scores at the end.

There are some things that aren’t in your control. Air conditioning, the quality of the lunch, the lateness of the day. If their not in your control, acknowledge them, but don’t go on about them. It’ll just draw attention to the fact that people have niggles (and a bad lunch or too hot/cold a room will impact your scores).

4. Hand out the handouts

When I was in the training game, we were under strict instruction to hand out course materials, pens, paper and so on when participants were sitting down – not just to leave them on the tables before they arrived.

The reason? Well, because something that is there when you arrive is just part of the furniture – something that is physically handed to you is a gift, and enters you into a bond of reciprocity which will be subconsciously repaid later (hopefully on the happy sheet).

Again in a big audience this is harder. But one of the things that I have now taken to doing is providing a custom link at the beginning of my talk (for example, for last week’s Spark the Change event) that provides the slides and links to other material. It’s not as good as a physical object, but again it begins that reciprocal relationship.

5. The power of suggestion

This one is properly devious, but does have an impact. Find out the words that are used on the happy sheet at the good end of the scale, and drop it in a few times before the end of your session. The subconscious power of suggestion is a strong one. I can honestly say I haven’t used this trick in many years…

Having shared all of that I now feel dirty. And so I should point out a thing called the Kirkpatrick Scale for learning assessment. Level 1, Reaction, is how people feel immediately after the event. That’s what happy sheets measure, and it’s easy to rig. The reality is that if something is going to significantly change your actual behaviour in a deep and meaningful way, you may  well disagree vehemently immediately after the event.  Happy sheet scores dip as a result. And that’s the happy sheet paradox… if your audience is extremely happy with the talk immediately afterwards, you may have merely been preaching to the already converted (or pulling out all of the tricks in your bag).


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