Email Cheat Sheet: How to Deliver Criticism

Illustration by Tomba Lobos for the book Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety.

Let’s start by noting that many types of criticism should not be delivered via email. If your critique relates to someone’s personal qualities or performance, that is delicate feedback that you will want to deliver in person. (For example, telling an intern that he didn’t handle himself well in a pitch meeting, confronting a colleague about why she missed deadline, or asking your boss not to cut you off when you’re speaking to clients.) If the criticism relates to work that someone has created, email discussions usually work fine as long as they’re handled with care.

When delivering criticism, the first step is to be kind. No one likes a blast of unmitigated negativity in her inbox. Try to start your email by appreciating some aspect of the work they’ve done, then give your recipient clear and constructive feedback that’s focused on how you can move forward. Don’t just say: This sucks. Instead, communicate specifically what’s wrong and how the work could be changed for the better. And when you suggest those changes, make sure to use questions — Could you? Would you? — so your recipient retains her agency, and it doesn’t feel like you’re barking orders at her.

Let’s say you’re working with an illustrator on some artwork for an annual report. She’s just delivered the first batch of sketches, and stylistically they’re not quite what you were hoping for.

Hi Tara — Thanks for turning these around so quickly! It’s really helpful to see some early sketches of your illustration ideas.
While these sketches are beautiful, I feel like the aesthetic is prettier and more ornate than what we’re going for. Could we do another batch of preliminary sketches that focus on taking a cleaner, more minimal approach?
I’ve attached a few sample images from other illustrators below to give you a sense of the minimal look and feel I’m talking about.

Another tip for giving criticism is to use the word “yet” whenever possible. Note the difference between saying: These designs are not where I want them to be. Versus saying: These designs are not where I want them to be yet. By adding that one tiny word you put the recipient on a timeline of learning and achievement rather than shutting them down cold.

Whatever type of critique you’re offering, remember that your recipient is a human who’s trying her best, just like you are a human who’s trying your best. Talk to each other as such and direct any critiques at the work, not the person, and you’ll be fine.

This email “cheat sheet” is from my new book, Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distractions, and Get Real Work Done. For 18 more email cheat sheets on everything from managing angry customers to reconnecting with old contacts to getting clients to pay you, pick up a copy here.