5 Ways to Serve Up Effective Feedback

When I was a kid, I had a contraption I used to help me practice my tennis skills during the summer. It consisted of a stationary base that I sat at the end of the driveway. Attached to the base was a flexible bungee-type rope, and attached to that was a tennis ball. I would hit the ball. The ball would bounce in the road, and thanks to the bungee it would return to me. I would repeat the process ad infinitum.

Giving Feedback

Image credit: Anthem Sports

I thought about that contraption today when I decided to write about feedback. Since I began editing for my current employer, first as a freelance editor in February and now as a full-timer, I am back in the business of giving feedback after a few years on the sidelines.

In my case, it’s a combination of giving feedback and negotiating details of our production process. It’s not Wimbledon, but it’s important to me and to my employer that what we send out in to the world doesn’t commit a fault.

Once you’re on the feedback court, here’s how to have a great game, set and match.

Direct is best

In our work, time is of the essence and the items on which we are collaborating are short. Since all of my communication occurs virtually (i.e., over Slack or email), I have the advantage of being able to send a message the recipient will be able to keep for future reference and the disadvantage of not presenting the feedback in person. Anything vague threatens to dilute the clarity of my recommendation.

The US Tennis Association says “[D]own-the-line shots are often more effective offensively but are more difficult. Crosscourt shots are easier … but also have the greatest margin for error.”

In editing, as in tennis, down-the-line shots (i.e., being direct) often work best.

Hesitation detracts from success

Once an issue presents itself and has proven to be something that needs to be addressed, hesitating to discuss it has the potential to hurt all parties involved. The person who needs the feedback doesn’t have the benefit of knowing what they need to change, and the more time elapses the less they will recall the situation in the first place. It also takes up bandwidth in your brain as the giver of the feedback, and who wouldn’t want to clear that kind of thing out to avoid mental clutter?

Tomaz Mencinger of TennisMindGame.com said quick reactions give a player “more time to get to the ball, make the right decision, balance yourself … and perform your stroke properly.”

In the giving of feedback, too, hesitating to say something can deprive you of a winning point.

Building Trust Matters

As a freelance worker in the four years between leaving Healthy Kids (May 2014) and starting my current position (September 2018), almost all of my work-related conversations have occurred over email, Slack, Facebook (one of my employers coordinated everything through a secret Facebook group before moving to Slack) or Basecamp.

Now that I am responsible for giving feedback to others and negotiating the fine points of grammar, style and various operational issues with other team members, I am reminded every day of the importance of learning to trust each other.

People who love grammar can be a bit wrapped up in its importance (ask me how I know), and unfortunately even in a world dominated by the AP Stylebook, there are still gray areas and people who mean well but simply have a learning gap or strong opinion or some other hurdle that presents itself when trying to iron out an area of disagreement.

Building trust is not always easy (it’s why I am a proponent of trying to help people get to know each other outside of the narrow confines of their assigned tasks), but ultimately it leads to a higher quality product.

I want anyone who gets feedback from me to know it’s about the specifics of the question, not about them as a person, to perceive my comments as a springboard to being better, not an attack meant to quash their confidence or success.

Writing about what makes the best doubles tennis partners, Bill Previdi of the US Professional Tennis Association said, “The willingness and desire to do more than your fair share, to share the credit and the blame, and to stay calm under pressure are the keys.”

No one on a team is going to succeed without communication, on the court or at the keyboard.

Accuracy is paramount

Be specific when discussing something that would best be done differently in the future. Although Karen Hertzberg’s How to give feedback that’s constructive, not crushing is about manuscript critiques rather than the type of editing I do, this point is true regardless of the type of content:

…your job is to determine whether the writer accomplished what they set out to do.

I like that outlook, because I think most writers, editors and copy editors bring a lifetime of accumulated knowledge about language in general, as well as personal convictions about what comprises effective writing, to their work.

It is important to bring into focus the mutual goals of the publication or entity involved when giving feedback.

And in my environment, although the ethos is “pristine editing,” I always remind myself that the ultimate reader may be opening their newsletter as they ride the train in the morning, or as they gulp down their coffee as the day’s demands start to weigh in. It needs to be intelligent yet digestible.

A ball that lands outside of the lines doesn’t help a player score. That all starts with that player’s choice of how to serve or return. Ditto for editing — what I do to make the feedback clear has much to do with its effect on the outcome.

Accepting and Integrating Feedback is Important Too

Many of the best leaders and supervisors have coaches themselves. Remember the contraption I discussed at the beginning of this post? I could have stood in my driveway for five summers, hitting the ball on the bungee until the bungee wore out and snapped, and not become a better player.

There was no one there to tell me anything about my swing, my reflexes, my approach.

“Everyone needs a coach,” said Bill Gates in this TED talk. (Take the 10 minutes to listen to the talk; Gates has a point.)

No tennis player worth their salt did it without being coached, inevitably meaning they got lots of feedback. That’s true in editing and relating to colleagues too — seek out those who can help you do a better job and be a more effective team member.

(Note: The recipient of the feedback has to be receptive too, of course. That could turn into a whole other post, so I won’t pull on that thread right now, but if someone is resistant to feedback, try to work with them on the “why” of that. Accepting and acting on feedback is pretty fundamental (to their ultimate professional success and your product’s quality level).

The Post-Game Ceremony

Here, I need to digress from the traditional post-match ceremony, where there is a winner and a loser.

Virginia Wade said (according to this website):

It’s difficult for most people to imagine the creative process in tennis. Seemingly it’s just an athletic matter of hitting the ball consistently well within the boundaries of the court. That analysis is just as specious as thinking that the difficulty in portraying King Lear on stage is learning all the lines.

Delivering feedback in a professional, respectful, constructive way is about so much more than “learning all the lines.” It’s also about helping everyone win and making each player have a  share of the spotlight.

Giving Feedback