This post contains my opinions on how to give people great feedback.
For this post – giving feedback is not to be confused with reviewing something in an article format. Feedback is private and geared towards helping improve the work of the person who requested feedback. A review is something different. Additionally, this blog post focuses on giving feedback to friends who ask you to look at their work vs. other situations.
The best feedback method I’ve ever seen, and which I employ regularly, is called “the Sh** Sandwich Method.” I am sure it has a fancier title somewhere else, but basically how it works is like this:
1. Bread – say something nice about what you are providing feedback on
2. Sh** – say something about how the work can be improved
3. Bread – offer an additional compliment
This method generally lets you be very honest with people. By burying criticism in the middle, you allow people to walk away feeling like they did some things well and they need to improve other things – which is pretty much true of anything ever created. Some would-be givers of feedback find it hard to believe that this method allows honesty, because there are built in compliments for steps 1 and 3. Right, but if we flip it the other way around, there is a built in complaint section too. It turns out you can be fake by being overly complimentary AND you can be fake by being overly negative. So…just don’t be fake either way, ok? Good. Moving on.
For step 1 – don’t be fake. Say something nice about what you are reviewing that is accurate. If you hate what you are reviewing, then step 1 will be a challenge. However, it is a fact that most of the time, no matter how crappy something you are looking at might be, there are probably one or two things that are good. They might be very small things, but they are there. If you find yourself in the situation that you cannot find one positive thing about whatever you are supposed to provide feedback for, then you probably need a different blog post than this one… something with a title like “How to Weasel Out of Providing Feedback on Absolute Crap.” I’ll leave that up to you though.
Step 1 is actually super important because, often times people think they don’t need to include praise in feedback. You do need to include it. When people offer only information about what somebody else can improve, it gives the impression that there wasn’t anything good. If most of the work is good, you are giving somebody an inaccurate picture of what you think. On the flipside, if most of the work was crappy, the mention of one or two nice things makes it easier for the other person to hear the rest.
For step 2 – again don’t be fake. The trick for the “sh**” part of the sandwich, is to offer feedback that is productive and specific while at the same time concise. Since this can be complicated, I’ll provide some examples of bad and then good feedback statements.
Bad: “I am going to be honest/brutally honest…” – This isn’t a great way to start feedback because why would you point out that you are being honest for only the negative part of your feedback? Maybe you just said ‘XYZ is great. Ok now let me be honest.’ Does that mean the compliment was fake? If it was fake, try not to give the compliment. It also supports the ongoing misconception that honesty is about being negative. Just start your feedback without evaluating how honest/dishonest you are going to be.
Bad: “I didn’t like it.” – Ideally when you provide feedback you want to provide specifics about why you don’t like the work. Maybe you find a character’s actions unbelievable, or a certain scene is dull, etc. Say that instead.
Bad: “I didn’t like this very specific thing that you must fix in this very specific way.” – Being specific about problems is good, but telling someone how they should fix it is generally annoying. Parents do this. Avoid being parental, at the very least because it will just make the person receiving feedback shut down.
Bad: “I don’t think the main character should be a female bohemian. I think you should make the character a guy, and he should be an accountant…” – The problem with this kind of feedback is it just ignores the project. At its best, feedback tries to stay true to the vision of the story, film, artwork, whatever (I’m using script metaphors a lot in here since that’s what I’ve been focused on lately). Try to provide feedback that helps people make their existing story more than it was to start with versus turning it into a completely different story. This can be tough if you’re checking out a complete train wreck, but do your best to help fix what’s there rather than making something new.
Good feedback usually is focused on specifics and presented in a way that is solvable. Sometimes, you don’t need to offer a suggested solution, you just need to focus the person on the problem area. Some examples of good feedback:
Good: “I don’t like scene 5, it seems like a repeat of the jokes in scene 3 with nothing new added in. Also, XYZ character’s line seems too on the nose.” – This is great feedback and actually pretty close to a comment I got from a friend on one of my scripts. What makes it good is it is very specific. I was able to figure out where the problem spot was and determine a fix for it.
Good: “This character is not very likeable. It seems important that we like this person and care about what she is doing. Maybe you could make her more likeable by …” – This is great feedback because it presents a problem and offers solutions in the form of suggestions. By suggesting, the person receiving the feedback does not feel obligated to make corrections, or do them in a particular way.
While you are providing the “Sh**” part of the feedback sandwich, some other tricks are in the language you use. How much you can say depends on the relationship you have with the person you’re speaking with.
Useful Phrases: Phrases like “I’m trying to help you because I want you to succeed” or “You could improve this by” or “I suggest that for this section you ___” go a long way in making people feel that you are not attacking them, rather you are helping them.
Concise Language: Condensing your remarks makes feedback easier for people to handle because it makes the issue you state seem smaller. The more space a comment takes up, the more it seems like a big deal. It’s hard to balance being concise with being specific, and sometimes you end up doing a trade-off. Trade-offs might be taking specific instances of a recurring problem and stating it as one issue. For example, instead of telling someone each instance that a character’s dialogue sounds unrealistic, you might just say ‘this character’s dialogue often seems unrealistic in the story, you might want to go through and read their lines out loud to see if there are ways to make them sound better.’ If the person asks for specifics then you can offer more details.
Another trade-off you might need to make occurs if you need to give feedback on something that has tons of issues. Rather than providing a person with a list of every last thing that isn’t working, choosing two or three major issues can sometimes get through to the person better. Probably, the person will write more than one draft, so a few big issues to work on is enough. If you get to review a later draft, you can mention some of the other problems then. In this way the person doesn’t feel overwhelmed with problems to fix in the script.
For step 3 – wrap up with mention of the work’s good qualities.
For all steps, take time and care in providing your comments. Remember that if someone asks you to give feedback on their work, it is usually because he/she thinks highly of your opinion. It is often a compliment to be asked to provide feedback, so be sure to be respectful when you share your thoughts.
The best feedback is sincere, thoughtful, and provided in a way where the clear intent is to help someone else succeed.