Not every marketer has the luxury of time — or the gift of patience. When it comes to giving feedback on a project, some folks can’t help but get to brass tacks:
“This isn’t working for me.” “Can you crank it up a little?” “Get a better quote.”
If that’s your style of feedback, it’s understandable: You hired creatives expecting that they could perform at a certain level.
That said, though…
“Managers can simultaneously both overestimate and underestimate the power they have to impact the performance and egos of their team members,” says career coach Scott Singer, who worked in-house at Fortune 500 companies and on the agency side before opening his consulting shingle, Insider Career Strategies. “To quote Uncle Ben from “Spider-Man,” ‘With great power comes great responsibility.’”
Singer says that the most important part of managing is the feedback loop in order to drive staff engagement and performance.
Provide good writer feedback, and position your team to excel.
“If one side fails, the other side needs tools to fill the gap,” says conflict management professional and leadership consultant Dethra U. Giles. From that perspective, even if the creative has failed this round, you can still find a path to success — and it’s all in your approach.
We’ve put together a selection of not-so-great feedback that real-life writers and other creatives got back from clients and managers, explained what the issue with it is, and revised it to provide direction and understanding.
1. Not good: This isn’t working for me.
Why: This opinion is based on personal taste and instinct without any professional reference points.
Better: “Here are a few examples of pieces that resonated with me; I like the format of this case study, specifically the pull quotes. And in the second piece, I like how the author used A, B, C in the second piece to establish the subject’s authority. Could you try these tactics in your next draft?”
2. Not good: This doesn’t fit our brand.
Why: Actually, in situations where the creative team has been given a thorough brief, branding guidelines and tone pieces, and someone is still not getting it, you’re within your rights to give this feedback. However, on its own, it is pretty sweeping, and the result might be that the creative scraps the entire draft and starts over — with a huge hole in their self-confidence.
Better: “Please review the brand guidelines, project brief and the tone sample that was provided, and see if you can get [specific elements A, B, C] to match.”
3. Not good: Step it up/Amp it up.
Why: This feedback implies that a piece was either low-effort or low-energy, but in fact, it’s the feedback itself that needs a little more effort here.
“The feedback lacks any specificity and therefore actionable feedback,” says Singer. “By providing some more specificity, both parties can get the solution they’re looking for sooner. By the same token, no creative should accept such feedback without understanding what was intended — probing questions (Can you tell me what parts you like? What you don’t?) can help drill to the heart of the matter.”
Better: “I really like the overall draft, particularly parts A and B. I’d like to see some more emphasis on part C, specifically as I believe that it doesn’t have quite the impact of the others.” — SS
4. Not good: Need you to get edits on this back by next Monday.
Why: It’s missing all the niceties that would make it into a request or even a direction. It reads as a demand. At this point, you might be saying, “Yes, but as the client, I have the right to set deadlines without phrasing it like I’m asking for a favor.” And, you do. But Mary Poppins wasn’t wrong about that whole ‘spoonful of sugar’ trick, and it works on adults as well as children.
Better: “Let’s please set a firm deadline to have edits on this in by next Monday. Thanks so much, and I look forward to seeing the next version.”
5. Not good: Keep trying.
Why: Again, this gives no specific instructions or focus areas, and furthermore, it assumes the creator has endless time to dedicate to revisions, which is very condescending.
“Many believe that it’s their teams’ duty to read their mind and figure out why they’re thinking. It’s not,” says Singer.
Better: “I’d like to see you keep trying on this. Most of the article is strong, including A, B and C. However, where it’s falling short is in the area of [___]. I know you’re busy, so thank you for sticking with it.” — SS
6. Not good: Try something different.
Why: This is a clear-cut case of the client not having a clear vision.
“The client here is saying, I don’t really know what I want, and I am hoping you will stumble upon it for me,” says Giles.
She recommends that a strategy to disarm a contentious conversation immediately is to simply admit that you aren’t 100% clear what you want. But more than that, do your part of the work on the existing draft and identify what does work, what specifically doesn’t and what other works you’d like to emulate.
Better: “I am at a loss for what I really want, but here are some general elements that I want to capture. Also, here are some elements of what you have provided that I would like to keep. These are the elements I would like to have changed.” — DG
7. Not good: I deleted what you did and made revisions myself that we can use in the final version.
Why: While clients might actually think that they’re collaborating and just adding a final polish with their own tone, this can be a huge blow to a creative. It can be seen as the client denying the creative’s expertise and literally erasing their efforts.
However, Giles understands that from the client’s POV, especially a small business owner or thought leader who really needs their own personal brand to shine through, revising in this way isn’t necessarily an insult.
“What this might actually mean is, ‘I like what you do, but I really need for it to sound/look like I did it,’” she says.
Better: “I like what you wrote, but I want it to have more of my voice. I always want my audience to feel like they are getting something from me. Here is an example of how I would change what you wrote to make it sound more like me.” — DG
8. Not good: This section is terrible/useless/disappointing.
Why: Anything that’s so outright negative should be avoided. This kind of feedback might be satisfying in the moment, but is never constructive or helpful.
“Professionals often take feedback to heart, and even the most hardened individual is bound to be offended by calling something “useless.” It’s personal in nature, and completely minimizes the writer’s contribution — and worth,” says Singer.
Better: “The highlighted section isn’t as strong as the rest of the copy around it. I’d like to keep it if you strongly believe it adds value to the piece. Can you provide some more details or clarify your thinking around that part of the copy?” — SS
Yes, providing feedback is a part of business… but it’s also (always) about feelings.
Even though your time to craft feedback might be just 60 seconds, and you intend some comments to be almost throwaway, never underestimate the effect they may have on the recipients.
“What we are discussing here is not right and wrong, but understanding and misunderstanding,” says Giles.
Wondering whether you might have hurt some feelings unintentionally in the past? Read this post on the feedback that your team will never give you.