“Could you read this?” a friend asked me, handing over the manuscript for his novel. “I’d love your feedback.”

So I did. I read all 200 pages and made detailed notes about story, character and voice. How the dramatic structure needed tightening, the personal stakes needed to be higher, the protagonist needed a lot more depth… but that the basic idea and bare bones of the novel were sound.

A week later, I handed back the manuscript — and that feedback. My friend looked stricken. “It goes to the printer next week,” he said. “I just wanted to know if there were any obvious mistakes or typos. And, well, I was hoping to hear you liked it.”

Whoops.

That was 15 years ago, but I still wince. And I’ve made some changes: in the way I decide whether and how to give feedback, and in the way I ask other people for it.

Whether you’re looking for another set of eyes on a draft of a speech, or want to know whether your delivery is getting your message across effectively, feedback can do you a lot of good. But you need to start with a very clear idea of why you want it. Because unless you’re asking the right person for the right feedback at the right time, you’re wasting their time and yours.

Here’s how to get feedback that gives you something you can use to make your speech better, whether you’re writing it for someone else or delivering it yourself. (And while I’m writing this with speakers and speechwriters in mind, nearly everything here applies to feedback for any kind of creative outlook or personal performance.)

The right person

It starts with knowing whom to ask. (If you’re looking for the kind of pedant who says “whom,” I may be your guy.) It’s convenient to just hit up whoever happens to be convenient — a spouse, cubicle neighbour or friend — but this deserves a little more thought than that.

Here’s how to know if you’re asking the right person:

  • They understand and support your goals. That doesn’t necessarily mean somebody who’s on-side with the specific objectives of this speech (they may not care one way or another if that street-parking bylaw goes through), but they want you to be effective at what you do.
  • They’re constructive. They aren’t just going to harp on what they think is wrong with your work, but help you build on its strengths. That doesn’t mean they tell you what to do — but you’ll have an idea of where to start.
  • They will tell you what you don’t want to hear. “Constructive” doesn’t mean they aren’t critical. When I ask my wife Alexandra for feedback on a piece of writing or a cartoon, it’s not because she’s nearby, but because I know that I’ll get an honest (and super-smart) opinion. Even if that opinion is “This doesn’t work, and here’s why.”
  • They have the analytical smarts you need to turn their opinion into something actionable. If they’re just going to say “I loved it!” or “Meh,” without saying why, then their feedback probably won’t be that helpful. But if they can tell you what they loved (or didn’t), you may be on the road to a better speech.
  • They can give your work the time and attention it deserves. A well-intentioned “Sure, I’ll give it a look” that ends up turning into a cursory glance may do more harm than good. Make sure they’re being honest with you about how much attention they can give your work. (And this should go without saying, but be prepared to pay it forward!)

The right feedback

This is where I see people stumble the most often, and I think I know why. You’re already imposing on someone by asking them for feedback. It can feel a little nervy to then add, “…and here’s how I want it.”

Maybe it is — but if so, it’s chutzpah for a good cause. Because when you tell someone up front what kind of feedback you want, and on what aspects of your speech, you’re making their job a lot easier. They won’t spend time reviewing passages that are already slated for a rewrite (or sections that are already locked down). And if you tell them exactly what to look for, they can direct their attention to it.

Here are some of the most important things to be clear about when you ask for feedback:

  • The aspects of the text or performance you want critiqued. Don’t make a reviewer think about tone, grammar, narrative structure and rhetorical power… when what you really want to know is whether you’ve explained gene modification clearly. (And if you’re just looking for reassurance that it’s any good? Hey, we’ve all been there. Just be sure you let your reviewer know.)
  • The parts of your speech that matter most. Are you more concerned about your opening than the rest of your speech? Looking for a second set of eyes on that section about stoat breeding? Then say so, and let your reviewer make the most of their time.
  • The things you don’t want feedback on. Some parts of your text may not be changeable — or they may be so subject to change that the current text is effectively a placeholder. There might be aspects of your delivery that you’ve made your peace with, and that you don’t want others raising. Quarantine those areas clearly, either flagging them in the text (“The following three paragraphs on the social cost of the kiwi trade will change — ignore”) or telling your reviewer.
  • How much depth to go into. Do you just want a gut-check, or a detailed analysis? Make sure your reviewer knows, so you don’t make them write a treatise when all you want is a few quick impressions — or the other way around.
  • When you need to hear back. Put yourself in your reviewer’s shoes. It would be heartbreaking to invest the time and energy to deliver a thorough response on Thursday, only to discover the last day for changes was Wednesday. Let them know when they should give you their feedback, and ask them to be realistic about whether that deadline works.
  • What they should know. Think about the information that can help your reviewer. Who’s the audience going to be? Who’s speaking before and after you, and what are they covering? What will your audience already know? What are their expectations? If it’s something that will help your reviewer make their feedback more to-the-point, pass it on.

The right time

When my friend asked for my feedback, it was really too late to matter. You need to make your request for feedback when it can make the most difference.

How do you know the time is right?

  • Your work is ready for feedback. You’ve polished it to the point where the glaring rough spots are sanded down. That way your reviewer won’t tell you to change things you’re planning to change anyway.
  • You’re prepared. If you’re looking for feedback on delivery (and that could be a whole post all to itself), do your reviewer and yourself a favour: practice first. You know how prepared you’d like to be when you take the stage? Aim for as close to that as you have time to get. You want feedback on the performance you intend to deliver, not on a shaky read-through.
  • There’s still time to use the feedback. That may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how often people (not just my friend) ask for feedback long after the ship has not only sailed but is within site of its next port of call. Will you have enough time to consider and assess what they say, and revise accordingly?

And once you have the feedback…

Now it’s time to use all that feedback. But keep in mind that — unless it’s from your client — feedback isn’t the same as direction.

Your reviewer may be flat-out wrong. Or they may have identified something that needs to change, but their suggested replacement isn’t what you need. Or their comment may point to a problem that lies elsewhere (“this passage seems slow” may actually mean you need to look at the speech’s whole dramatic structure). You’re under no obligation to make all the changes your reviewer suggests — or even any of them. Your only job is to consider them seriously.

And then weigh the value of their feedback, and decide if and when you’d be prepared to ask them again. Were they constructive? Did they get what you were trying to do? Did they hear and heed your directions about the kind of feedback you did and didn’t want? And were their comments incisive, clear and useful?

One last thing. Thank them. And then, if your perspective could be helpful to the kind of work they do, offer to do the same for them sometime.

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