Feedback – How to give it and not get punched

I’ve written about this before, and it has attracted more interest and views than anything else I’ve ever touched on.

The reason is obvious. When we say feedback, we actually mean negative feedback. Yes, we give positive feedback, but no one has ever worried about how to do that.

We all want to hear “That was great!” And most of us, if not all of us, hope every time we do something that people will tell us we were fantastic. Even when we know in our heart of hearts it was lightyears from fantastic.

That is the nub of the problem with feedback.

You want to be praised even when your work is pants. And, consequently, you dislike the person who tells you your work is pants, even when it is.

So when you give negative feedback they will be a bit annoyed, a bit disappointed and they will like you a little bit less than they did.


The simple solution is to just tell people they are great, but of course that isn’t often an option.

So what is the least worst way to annoy and disappoint someone?


Rule 1

Focus only on improvement. Eliminate direct criticism. In my world of presentation, say “If you speak more slowly your message will be more memorable”. Not, “You talk far too fast I can’t remember a word you said”.

Not, “Cut out all that rubbish about the methodology, its boring”. But, “You don’t need the stuff about the methodology because the section about your approach is so strong.”

Rule 2

Never make it personal.

I dread the rehearsal where the great and good are brought in to watch and give feedback. Mainly because the great and good have often forgotten the line between feedback and being really rude.

One unfortunate was told, “You look like a storm-trooper from Easyjet, waving your arms around.”

That really didn’t help. What people want is good advice on techniques, not attacks on them as individuals. We are all touchy so tell them what to do, not what they are doing badly.

Rule 3

Give 3 times more positive feedback than negative.

If you praise someone 3 times and are negative once, they will think you are being harsh.  If you are negative 3 times and positive once, they will think you are horrible. Humans are drawn to the negative. Its more memorable, and longer lasting than praise. So balance negative feedback with tons of positive.


I will admit that in real life we often don’t have the time to praise enough. If I have 40 notes on a  presentation – all negatives – I just don’t have time to find 120 things to praise. But I try very very hard to wrap the negatives in positive statements. “This is going to be really good when you’ve had time to rehearse it.” (The problems are due to lack of rehearsal time, not your intrinsic lack of ability.)

And, I will try very, very hard to give positive feedback on every change, walking the tightrope of not praising myself for giving the right instruction…”That was good now you’ve done everything I told you to do. I am a genius.”

Theres a word for this – it’s coaching. Good coaching is helping people build on their own abilities but giving them techniques and helping them create intrinsic feedback loops so they can coach themselves.

It is a tricky thing, but if we do our jobs really, really well, our clients think they really did it all themselves.

Hmmm…. not always a good business model.