Giving Formal Feedback to Others

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It is likely that you will be asked at some point to give feedback to another person in a personal, academic, professional, or civic context. As schools, companies, and organizations have moved toward more team-based environments over the past twenty years, peer evaluations are now commonly used to help assess  performance. I, for example, am evaluated every year by my students, and my two faculty directors. I also evaluate my faculty and teaching assistants and peers yearly. Since it’s important for us to know how to give competent and relevant feedback, and since the feedback can be useful for the self-improvement of the receiver, many students are asked to complete peer evaluations verbally and/or in writing for classmates after they deliver a speech or work on a project together. The key to good feedback is to offer constructive criticism, which consists of comments that are specific and descriptive enough for the receiver to apply them for the purpose of self-improvement. The following are guidelines for giving feedback.

When giving feedback to others

  1. Be specific and descriptive. I often see a lack of specific comments when it comes to feedback on speech delivery. Students write things like “Eye contact” on a peer comment sheet, but neither the student nor I know what to do with the comment. While a comment like “Good eye contact” or “Not enough eye contact” is more specific, it’s not descriptive enough to make it useful. What would be best is “Good consistent eye contact with the audience during your introduction. Eye contact with the audience diminished when you seemed less confident in what you were presenting in the last 3 slides of your powerpoint.”
  2. Be positive. If you are delivering your feedback in writing, pretend that you are speaking directly to the person and write it the same way. Comments like “Stop fidgeting” or “Get more sources” wouldn’t likely come out during verbal feedback, because we know they sound too harsh. The same tone, however, can be communicated through written feedback. Instead, make comments that are framed in such a way as to avoid defensiveness or hurt feelings.
  3. Be constructive. Although we want to be positive in our feedback, comments like “Good job” aren’t constructive, because a communicator can’t actually take that comment and do something with it. A comment like “You were able to explain our company’s new marketing strategy in a way that even I, as an engineer, could make sense of. The part about our new crisis communication plan wasn’t as clear. Perhaps you could break it down the same way you did the marketing strategy to make it clearer for people like me who are outside the public relations department.” This statement is positively framed, specific, and constructive because the speaker can continue to build on the positively reviewed skill by applying it to another part of the speech that was identified as a place for improvement.
  4. Be realistic. Comments like “Don’t be nervous” aren’t constructive or realistic. Instead, you could say, “I know the first speech is tough, but remember that we’re all in the same situation and we’re all here to learn. I tried the breathing exercises discussed in the book and they helped calm my nerves. Maybe they’ll work for you, too?” I’ve also had students make comments like “Your accent made it difficult for me to understand you,” which could be true but may signal a need for more listening effort since we all technically have accents, and changing them, if possible at all, would take considerable time and effort.
  5. Be relevant. Feedback should be relevant to the assignment, task, and/or context. I’ve had students give feedback like “Rad nail polish” and “Nice smile,” which although meant as compliments are not relevant in formal feedback unless you’re a fashion consultant or a dentist.

Material in this chapter has been adapted from “Communication in the Real World” is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

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