Tuesday, May 27, 2008

How to Ask for, and Listen to, Feedback

"If you recall, my basic advice on this topic is to listen to notes
without reacting negatively in the moment and to think about the ideas
underlying the notes. When you approach your rewrite, you'll find ways to
supply what the reader found lacking or correct what they found
out-of-tune that you will never find if you bristle and bridle when you
first hear their reaction, or if you react to the 'letter' of what they're
saying without making sure you understand the 'spirit' of it."
- Jane Espenson, screenwriter on Buffy, Firefly, Gilmore Girls, The O.C.,
and Battlestr Galactica

Unaided experience is a poor teacher, I heard that somewhere and it's
true. What is the most important kind of aid I need in shaping myself into
the scientist I want to be? Feedback. If you have any personal ambitions
to get good at something, you have an enormous hunger for feedback. Here
are some tips for obtaining the kind you need, of maximum helpfulness.

* Wording. Here are some ways you could word a request for feedback, in
ascending order of your likelihood of getting it: "Pretty good, huh?" "Did
you like it?" "What did you think of it?" "What were the good and bad
things about it?" "What's something that worked for you, and what's
something that didn't work so well?" "I'm thinking of making some changes.
What are some things I could change to make it better?"

* Facial expression. Keep your face mostly relaxed and intent, maybe
nodding once in a while. Don't smile in response to things you like,
because then it will be obvious when you don't like things by the lack of

* Make it clear you are looking for *feedback*, not encouragement. Convey
that you're not going to get discouraged, you're going to keep going with
the project, no matter what they say. It can't touch your ego, one way or

* *Under no circumstance* argue or make excuses - people will see that as
a sure sign you're not taking it as feedback but as judgment, since you're
arguing your case. Of course you might be sitting there thinking "this
feedback is idiotic." But don't let on.

* Ask questions (again not looking for reassurance) to clarify and to show
you're taking it seriously. Ask about specific parts you want feedback
for. Ask either/or questions, trying not to bias them towards one side or
the other in your wording: like "Did you want to see more of this
character or less?"

* Teach the difference between feedback and judgment. I
don't care what you thought of it overall, if you thought it was good or
bad: just tell me your reactions to different parts, and any ideas for how
to change it to make it better.

* At the same time, don't necessarily ask them for solutions (definitely
don't complain about how hard those problems will be to solve).
Their thoughtful reactions are what is most useful. In tv writing
terminology, people might say that some aspect of the script "bumps" them
- gives them a bad reaction, even if they can't articulate why. Here's
Alex Epstein, another successful screenwriter whose blog I love:
"All feedback is useful, if you know how to use it. If someone has a
problem, there is probably something wrong with your script, though it's
not always what they think is the problem. But most people's suggestions
on how to fix your script are crap."
The only people who can really help with how to fix it most of the time
are people who are good at the exact task you are toiling at. Those people
are gold.

* Tell them what level of feedback you want. If a friend is kind enough to
read a piece of writing and give notes, I'll be frustrated if they're
proposing sweeping changes to the theme and structure when it's well past
the point where that's possible. Conversely, if they're picking up on
typos when it's an early proof-of-concept type draft, that's also
annoying. So let them know your expectations.

* Finished stuff is more fun to read than something really messy and
preliminary, something to think about.

* Remind them to also mention things they reacted positively to, if
they're the type to zero in on the problems and just jump all over them
the whole time. Hearing what worked is useful, and it definitely helps me
to (secretly) feel better afterwards. (in toastmasters, where I learned
most of this stuff, we sometimes use a formula for feedback called the
"sandwich technique": start with specific positive points, put in a few
(not too many) points of improvement, then finish with some more specific
positive points)

* Coach them to talk in terms of specifics rather than generalities.

* Ultimately the best feedback you will get are from relationships you
will build over a period of years. It takes time to make people believe
that serious feedback of a particular nature is really what you want, that
you're not thin-skinned. And also that it will be worth their while, both
by seeing that they have a tangible effect on the final product (maybe),
and by showing that they are earning the right to your own high quality,
sensitive, kindly, thorough feedback. So it becomes an escalating ladder
of trust, going back and forth between you and these most valued of all
peers. (as a side note, giving unsolicited feedback is usually a bad idea,
risks being rude and condescending. So solicit feedback!)

* Say thanks!


lilmeg said...

Good post!

Jim Davies said...

All good advice for any field, not just science and art.

I would like to add that as you get feedback from certain people in your life, you will find that some have specialties. I have found that only a few people are even capable of making big, sweeping suggestions, and most are only good for the word-level editing level, or possibly the sentence level.

As you work on a draft of a science project, know who to ask when. Some will be good at the experiment design phase, before anything is written down, others at storytelling, others at fixing typos.

You don't want to burn out your readers either. If you rely on someone, it's good to ask them, after they've agreed to look at it, how many drafts they'd be willing to look at.