Jul 05 2013

Feedback on Feedback

There are many appealing aspects of the new media – its immediacy, the democratizing effect of lowering the bar on content production and distribution so that many people can participate, and the ability to customize the content you want. I especially love the interactive nature of blogging, tweeting, and even podcasting, the immediate feedback.

Having been on the giving and receiving end of such feedback for years now I wanted to share my thoughts on giving effective feedback. I am busy prepping for TAM, so this is also a good light topic to tackle.

The first thing to consider when giving feedback is – what is your goal? Why are you bothering? I find that feedback (meaning e-mails and comments not geared toward having a conversation about the topic at hand, but targeted toward the content provider) generally fall along a spectrum from simply expressing a feeling to wanting to change behavior.

I get many e-mails that can be summarized as either saying, “Love what you’re doing, thanks,” or “You’re a jerk, (although they don’t use the word “jerk”, if you know what I mean – btw, that’s a movie reference). That’s fine. People want to express their support or displeasure, and I get that. Just don’t expect the anonymous expression of raw displeasure to have any effect at all on my behavior.

Some e-mailers don’t seem to know what they want. They fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, giving feedback as if they have an actual point but only managing to make vague negative comments. To be honest, these ambiguous e-mails tend to be worthless.

The rest of this post will be aimed at that feedback in which there appears to be some hope that the feedback will be taken to heart and actually affect a change in behavior. If that is your goal, the following feedback on feedback might be helpful.

Here’s a quick list of what to keep in mind when giving feedback: Be constructive, be specific, give examples, offer remedies, give context, be objective, and be concise.

Context is important because you have to remember that if you are giving feedback to a blogger or podcaster you read or listen to regularly, you may have the feeling that you know that person, but they do not know you. Feedback and criticism is always as much about the criticizer as the criticizee – it is about the dynamic between a content producer and their audience generally, and the person giving feedback specifically.

For example, you have certain expectations and desires about what you want to get from the content. You also have a particular background – a scientist is likely to have different expectations and needs than someone who works in a non-science field. You also have a particular set of biases, and you have a certain relationship to the content – how long have you been reading/listening, and do you generally like and agree with the content, or not.

Some e-mails spend too much time on personal background, violating the brevity rule, but it is a good idea to start with a quick overview, a single sentence that summarizes your perspective.

Context is also about putting any criticism into proper context – “I love your work generally, but have this minor quibble, ” or “your blog has the potential to be great, but suffers from a major flaw I think you should address.” Don’t blow the criticism out of proportion. Don’t write as if one relatively minor error makes an entire post garbage. If your criticism is out of proportion, it won’t be taken as seriously.

Keeping the criticism constructive is critical if you want it to be taken seriously and get a response. Saying, “you suck,” is not constructive. Saying that the post or segment would be better if specific claims were sourced, or given better balance, etc. is constructive.

However, it is hard to know what to make of such feedback without specific examples. Saying – in this specific post you made this controversial claim without providing a source or reference, is much more effective than just giving vague feedback.

This is especially true if there is a subjective component to the feedback. It it always best to stay as objective as possible, but sometimes you want to give feedback about how a post or segment makes you feel, which is fine. You might want to convey that sometimes the writing or discussion seems angry or dismissive. These are subjective perceptions, however, and often matters of personal taste, not to be confused with objective standards. With subjective feedback it is especially important to give examples, because one person’s angry is another person’s restraint.

It’s also helpful to know that the content provider is likely getting conflicting subjective feedback. I get feedback, especially about the SGU, that is often directly contradictory – we are too harsh, we are too gentle, we have too much humor, we don’t have enough, etc. If you are respectful and constructive your feedback is likely to have more weight overall. If you are petty and rude, you will be easy to ignore.

Offering remedies – specific methods of improving or addressing the issue you are giving feedback about – has a remarkable clarifying effect. First, it forces you to be constructive, almost by definition. Second, thinking about possible fixes will likely give you a bit of a deeper perspective into the issue. It may become apparent that there is no easy fix, or that any fix comes with downsides, or at least the situation is more complex than it first appeared. If your position is, “I don’t know how you can fix this, but…,” you may be answering your own question.


I love getting feedback from listeners and readers, positive, negative, or mixed. It’s all interesting, adds to the interactive nature of the medium, and lets me know that I am not just whistling in the wilderness. Any response is better than no response. If I motivate someone enough to send me a negative e-mail, that’s great. I would get a bit worried if I never received any negative feedback.

I do get the impression that many of my e-mailers/commenters want to be heard, and they feel their opinions are valuable and can contribute to my work with their feedback. For those people, at least think about how you construct your feedback with the above factors in mind. Also – read your comment before hitting the send or submit button. I always do that myself, and will often delete parts that are unnecessary, make the tone harsher than I intend, or are simply gratuitous. I also often add clarifications or needed context. If you’re angry or emotional when you write the comment, read it 10 minutes later before submitting it.

So, keep the feedback coming. I do greatly appreciate it when people take the time to give me thoughtful feedback.

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