How to Make Feedback (Actually) Helpful

“The best communications are collaborations.”
Amanda Gubbins

A big part of any job is giving and receiving feedback. It’s where many of us spend a significant amount of time, and when it’s not done well, man, is it painful. Not all feedback is helpful feedback. Have you ever heard (or said) something like this?

  • “That font is too pointy.”
  • “We can’t use the color pink.”
  • “This writing needs to be more exciting. Can you add some exclamation points?”
  • “I want the presentation to be very high level…Can you add more details?”

How do you process comments like this to see if there’s something valuable underneath the surface? It can be challenging to separate personal opinion from helpful input. And let’s face it, it can be hard for anyone to distance themselves from projects enough to make edits—whether a writer or a designer. But the bottom line is that the best communications are collaborations. At some point we’ll all be in a position to give feedback, and at some point we’ll all receive it. So let’s take a look at some simple ways to filter feedback—both when giving and receiving.



Tips for Receiving Feedback


Ask good questions.

One helpful thing to remember is that many times the person offering feedback isn’t a communications expert, and they may not know exactly how to express what’s bothering them about a written piece or a design. Or, they may get distracted by something that’s not the real issue. So if I receive feedback that’s confusing or frustrating, I first need to get to the heart of it. Is it just a personal opinion? Or is there something else? There may be a valid concern.

I like to start by asking a series of questions. This might be as simple as, “Can you explain to me what’s bothering you about that design?” or “What did you have in mind to make that marketing email feel more exciting?” Questions like these can be helpful in illuminating the values of the person offering the feedback, or clarifying confusing comments.


Consider your feedback giver as a test audience.

It’s important to keep your audience in mind during the feedback and editing process. Often, the person offering feedback may be a good test case for you, if they have a similar background and mindset as your target audience. Or, if their background is different, they may still be able to offer helpful feedback about what is unclear. Think through how your piece can best build trust with your audience. Ask yourself if your draft is clear, consistent with other communications from your organization, and if the call to action is simple to understand. Working through these three qualifications with the person offering feedback may bring to light ways to strengthen your communication piece.  


Have a conversation.

Finally, even when you’re receiving feedback, be ready to coach kindly when necessary. You probably have a good reason for the creative choice you made. Explain your thought process or the communication principle behind what you did. Turning feedback into a two-way conversation can change a situation that feels like a confrontation to a collaboration. Even if you still don’t see eye-to-eye at the end of the conversation, you’ll gain respect as you share your expert point of view.  


Tips for Giving Feedback

 What about the other side? The way you give feedback is an opportunity to build or break trust. Always be sure to prioritize relationships and consider your tone carefully before submitting feedback. Here are a few tips for offering helpful feedback.  


Filter out personal opinion.

When in a position to offer feedback on a creative piece, resist the temptation to art direct or edit based on personal preferences. You can make the review process so much simpler by asking yourself a few questions before submitting feedback. “Who is the audience? Will this make sense to them? What is bothering me about that design? Is there something actually wrong with the layout, or is it just not my style? Is the look consistent with our brand?” Thinking through the “why” of your first reaction can help you prioritize revisions.  


Sandwich your feedback.

When a draft does need work, the “sandwich” approach is always helpful—place critical feedback in between sincere affirmations. Asking questions is also a good way to go. For example, if you’re choosing between two design concepts but underwhelmed by both, you might say something like, “I really like the clean look of the first graphic, but wish the theme came through more clearly like it does in the second graphic. Could we look at some ways to get the best of both worlds in the next draft?”  


Trust the expert.

Finally, there’s an element of trusting the expert. This does not mean overlooking a concern or withholding feedback. But, if you have a feedback conversation and the artist or writer can clearly explain to you the choice they made and the principle behind it—sometimes the best move is to trust their expertise.  


Ready to Practice?


“That font is too pointy.”

Receiving feedback: Consider asking a few questions to understand the concern. “What about that font choice seems inconsistent with our brand? Are you able to read it easily? Is there something about it that reminds you of a different brand in a way that might confuse our audience?” At the end of the conversation, you may need to coach about brand typefaces and why a consistent font is important to brand identity.


Giving feedback: Think through what bothers you about the font. Is it hard to read over the background? In that case, it’s definitely a valid concern to bring up! If you just don’t like the shape of the letter “t,” it might be feedback to keep to yourself. Consider asking a couple questions such as, “I’m having trouble envisioning what that will look like. Could you show me an example?”


“We can’t use the color pink.”

Receiving feedback: Your first question here might be “Can you help me understand your concern about the color pink? What does it communicate to our audience in their local context?” After you’ve established whether or not there’s a cultural reason to avoid a particular color, you may have a chance to provide coaching about why it’s actually a strong choice for your brand, or the feelings you’re trying to evoke with a particular shade.


Giving feedback: If this feedback is in any way related to a sports team, it might not be the best feedback. But, if orange clashes with all of the color versions of your logo, it may be a worthwhile conversation to have.  


“This writing needs to be more exciting. Can you add some exclamation points?”

Receiving feedback: We know editorial life can breed a certain kind of cynicism, but take a deep breath. While adding exclamation points is probably not the answer, this feedback may signal that there’s a disconnect between the tone of the content and the response you want to inspire. Take a second look at word choice and flow to find ways to strengthen the piece. Then, have a conversation about punctuation and professionalism. Pull out the editorial style guide if you need to!


Giving feedback: Ask yourself where the piece is falling flat. Then, take that feedback to the writer. Instead of adding exclamation points, you can brainstorm together how to bring more genuine emotion into the piece.


  “I want the presentation to be very high level…Can you add more details?”

Receiving feedback: Um, what? Just kidding. We’ve probably all received confusing feedback at one point or another. Ask questions to clarify what the reviewer is looking for in the level of detail and where exactly they want to see it. Ask for examples. Explain where you attempted to follow the original direction. Maybe the vision has changed, or maybe the reviewer is unsure of what they want and they need to process it verbally.


Giving feedback: Take a minute to review your feedback and recognize where it might seem like mixed messaging. Try to pinpoint the areas of the presentation that need work. Do some parts need more detail? Or does all of it need to be more focused on vision casting? Does the introduction need a story to illustrate the point? Offering specific notes will go a long way in getting the next draft where you need it to be.


Does this approach take more time and energy? Absolutely. But it’s always worth it. By making the effort to offer and receive feedback strategically, you will build trust, resulting in stronger relationships. Over time, it will become easier to collaborate together, and you will learn from your newfound collaborators. You might even come to enjoy the review process!

Amanda Gubbins
Amenable Alumna
Amanda is passionate about identifying the heart of a brand. Sometimes it’s hidden, and she enjoys sifting through the clutter until it’s clear. Her secret skill is being able to count aftermarket car parts in every parking lot.


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