Soapbox: On Giving Feedback

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soapboxI've written a couple of times over the years about asking for feedback - at what stage(s) it is most useful to do so, and how to manage one's own emotions so as to get the best value out of it. But it's also worth considering how to give feedback. This is something we work hard at in Magenta, with very clear protocols, because while (nearly) all feedback is meant well, it makes a huge difference how it is done.

Unless your intention is to deliver a fatal blow to somebody's confidence, bear the following points in mind.

Is now a good moment to offer feedback?

This is probably the most important point. Just because somebody has shared the products of their artistic labour, doesn't mean they are open right now to your opinions.

If they have been working on it at length, they may have mentally put down their tools, considering the job done, at least for now. If your response is essentially sending them back to the studio to work, they won't want to know.

How do I know whether feedback is welcome? is the question that inevitably arises. One good clue is whether they have asked for it. If they haven't, then you won't be rude by not offering any, and you might offend if you do. You can congratulate safely, but leave the detailed critiques until they signal they're ready for them.

Be aware that sometimes people say things that might sound like requests for feedback, but are actually requests for reassurance. You can usually tell this from context and body language. When someone says, 'What did you think?' in a social environment that doesn't offer opportunity to say much more than, 'Great job, mate!', then that's what they're asking you to say.

Yes, I know this is needy, and it irritates me too to tell these little social lies, especially if I wasn't actually all that impressed. But, you know, let's just be kind and recognise that everybody needs reassurance. Destroying somebody's confidence just when they're signalling it's fragile is not going to produce a more impressive effort in the future.

What kind of feedback should I give?

Positive feedback is always a good bet. Even if you thought it was the biggest pile of poo you've witnessed since Michaelmas, if you stop and think for a moment, there will be something you can honour. Identify and specify what has been achieved.

This is not just about protecting the artist's ego. It is about helping people recognise and thence take ownership of things they can do well. This will mean they will keep doing them.

For example, at an early comedy gig of mine, a friend complimented me on my skill in 'finding my light' - i.e. positioning myself on stage in such a way that I was well-lit. I hadn't been particularly aware of doing that, but I am now. Compliments can actually turn chance acts into skills to be deployed at will.

If there was something that you think could be better, still start off with what you think is good. This will reassure the artist that you are on their side, and that you do recognise their efforts. It will also remind you of the bigger picture so you don't get too obsessive about the flaws.

Then, when you do talk about the improvements needed, talk about what they could add or do differently, rather than what was wrong.

Compare:

  • It was too long and rambly
  • I couldn't hear the words
  • It was dull
  • It was a complete dog's breakfast

with:

  • It needs to be tighter
  • The words need to be clearer
  • It needs more variety
  • It needs tidying-up

See what I mean? Saying what was wrong gives the persistent subtext, 'Feel bad about yourself'. Making exactly the same point phrased as what to work on is just a helpful to-do list.


As you may have guessed, this post was written in response to receiving some unsolicited negative feedback on something I was feeling a bit fragile about. That I agreed with some of the criticism made not the slightest bit of difference to the 10 minutes of my life I spent in tears or the two days it took to dare to go back to the work in question. The rage was wasted emotional energy, and this post results from the need to turn the experience into something productive.

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