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Stop being crap at giving feedback

This is a post about how bad we are at giving feedback, and how important it is.

Conference #1

A few months ago I wrote about my first conference talk. If you’re starting out you might find it helpful.

­­Now, I’m not going to humble brag, I’m just going to normal brag. I got told by several people that it was the best talk of the conference, a 10,000 person conference (no humbleness here. I warned you). My presentations are weird, my sense of humour is weird, and I ultimately want to entertain and educate. It’s borderline ‘nutty’ and eccentric. But I thankfully pulled it off.

But I knew there were flaws. Especially given that the whole presentation I felt I was in a chaotic state of mind. In an hour long presentation I didn’t get through all the slides, I rushed and skipped areas, sometimes I found myself standing awkwardly. The whole thing for me felt like a train starting to come off the tracks.

I wanted to know how to improve, especially the ways I wasn’t already aware of. I knew I had too much content, that’s obvious given I didn’t get through it all, but what didn’t I see, what did others see that I was unaware of?

Afterwards I went and sought feedback by giving them a framework. I sent an email with a template for critiquing me. This is really important as we’re crap at giving feedback. When you give people boxes, they fill them.

credit: Garfield*

The shittiness of giving feedback

We are so shit at giving feedback. Truly. Mostly we just don’t give it at all, and then do extremely horrible damage with hallway gossip. There are people I care about that were rolled off of projects and have never been told why… but yet I’d been told why.

Grow up. GROW UP! You have to learn to give feedback. It’s hard, but you have to do it.

Radical Candor

We need to find the strength to give feedback, good feedback, feedback where we care about the individual’s development enough to make sure they need to hear it and understand it. We also need to deliver it with care. I was recently introduced to the concept of ‘Radical Candor’ by Kim Scott, which can help us understand just how we give feedback.

credit: Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Radical Candor is when we care personally, and challenge directly. So we are direct, but we care about the person. It’s not easy, but it’s important, the recipient is treated and respected well enough that the message gets delivered in a way that recognises they are human, but also that recognises that they need to hear it.

Where we don’t care, but challenge, we are Obnoxiously Aggressive. We deliver the message but hack at the other person’s soul. These are spectacularly shit places to work.

Where we care but don’t challenge, we engage in Ruinous Empathy. We ‘care’, but we don’t do anything about it, it helps nobody and does more damage than good. Let’s call it as it is, it’s cowardly, it’s chicken. We don’t have the courage to tell our friend what they need to hear. We don’t care enough to overcome our fear, and we hide under the guise of ‘I don’t want to hurt their feelings’, yet we’re totally cool with hurting their, and our future.

Where we don’t care and don’t challenge… that’s the darker side of us, and most of us have this somewhere. It’s Manipulative Insincerity. Also known as toxic. We know these people, we’ve been these people, don’t be one, you’ll sleep better for it.

A feedback framework

Here’s what works for me with giving feedback. Start with the good, be specific. Then the bad, be specific. Then give ideas, solve the bad.

Also make sure you request feedback often. Ask for it and help them by giving a template of how to frame it.

It’s hard and I still tremble inside when I hear ‘can I give you some feedback’. I don’t like it, I should, it only makes me better, but the child in me comes out and for a brief moment I cower.

taking feedback whilst dying a little inside.

‘Thank you’, and nothing else.

A number one piece of advice about receiving feedback, you only have one response, ‘Thank you’. Yes it’s hard. Feedback is a gift that you can choose to use if you want to. There’s no defending or justifying, just ‘ok cool, thanks’. Trust me on this, you’ll save yourself stress and your defence isn’t helping unless you’re being asked to explain yourself.

Eventually I got some feedback, and I took on some and completely ignored others. That’s entirely up to you. You’re still you, and you don’t have to change everything or anything that you don’t want to, but you do want to know what you may be blind of.

Here’s the feedback I took on board

  • Be more sure on your feet
  • You look too much at the slides
  • Have confidence in what you’re delivering, don’t explain yourself twice
  • Combine your narrative more

Here’s the feedback I chose to ignore

  • Look at how XYZ presented. I ignored this because I HATED how this person presented, despite being an ‘important’ person, it’s not what I aspire to be. (Also the 3 people I saw asleep and the other 75% that were on their phone during the talk didn’t help my opinion.)
  • Sell more
  • You made it too much about ‘you’ and ‘your view’, talk generally as an industry view.
An actual slide I presented… btw it was actually a Jeff Bezos quote.

Conference #2

So today I presented after taking that into account.

It was the same nutty-ness, but it was again my own voice and style. Now I was armed with the feedback: I rarely looked at the slides, I paced around with two sure feet and spoke directly to the audience making deep eye contact. I had confidence in my delivery, I had several very dry jokes in there that could only work if I hit it with no hesitation. Tons of my slides were hand drawn the night before, such as the header slide attached.

So how did it go?

[If you don’t want to hear me brag about the talk, the short version is it went well, feel free to skip this paragraph, honestly.] Afterwards the conference organiser came and told me that it was the best talk of the day. I had several companies approach me asking how they could get me to come and do consulting with them, dozens of people approached me throughout the day complimenting how ‘fascinating’ it was.

There had been a significant improvement from talk #1… None of this would have been possible without authentically asking for feedback, and not just asking, but demanding it, and ensuring they know that by hiding it from you they’d be damaging you, not protecting you.

I believe that we can truly change organisations for the better by embedding this culture. It’s a paradox, we’d feel safer by knowing the truth. I love this podcast by Adam Grant on “How to Love Criticism” that investigates companies where criticism is part of the culture.

So, ask for feedback, show them how to give feedback. And — Give feedback! Care, grow up, and be direct. Imagine an organisation where we all had radical candor. We’d grow but we’d still be human.

*obviously not Garfield.

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