Sorry, I Can’t Hear You Over All This Feedback

As a musician, the prevalence of, and reliance upon, feedback in the corporate world has always struck me as odd. For indie band types like myself (obligatory plug for my current project), feedback is confined to the realm of bad sound techs and dodgy jam space set ups. It’s the horrible noise that results when you point a microphone at a monitor, usually preceded by an urgent but too-late plea from the guy working the board to “Cover your ears!”

But for corporate types, feedback is an integral part of nearly every process we follow, every project we complete. Working together on a draft or sending a PowerPoint deck to colleagues to review is standard practice.

The key, however, is in preventing this routine business exercise from becoming something closer to its musical equivalent: an endless loop of noise feeding into itself. As someone who has collected, compiled, and provided it in both worlds—including an unfortunate round with my first band whose “notes” on our mixer’s first pass at the new tracks were so full of accusatory invective they required extensive editing before they could possibly be emailed to another human being—some helpful tips for those on either end of the feedback loop:

  • Be specific when providing feedback. Telling someone that a ten page document feels a “bit wordy” gets them absolutely nowhere. Instead, track changes in the document, and whenever you think something is omitted or needs more detail, WRITE your suggestion to improve it. And when providing notes on those dreaded 50-slide presentations, always include the slide number so the recipient has some hope of actually making the change you're suggesting.
  • Be even more specific when asking for feedback. Outline the areas you may have struggled with when you drafted the content in the first place, or call out portions that seem a bit awkward in order to seed the conversation and get more meaningful input. Always include the date/time you'll need to receive those inputs, and if there are instructions you need folks to follow (e.g., track your changes, highlight anything you touch) outline them as concisely as possible. Also be prepared that at least one team member will usually respond only via garbled email lacking both grammar and punctuation, despite best efforts.
  • Recognize that the colleague who drafted the document will only be offended by your feedback if you're a jerk about it. It’s not their personal thoughts or feelings—a professional will never be “precious” about their work. So avoid phrasing your feedback as though they've personally set out in their first draft to piss you off. Use a neutral tense rather than personal pronouns to ensure your input reads like suggestions to improve on, rather than a critique of, the original.
  • Don't assume everyone is born able to provide feedback. It’s not that it’s hard or can’t be learned, it’s just that it’s dumb to assume everyone you work with knows how to give valuable, actionable input. Just like it was dumb for me to assume my bass player could express his views on drum mixes without using personal insults. Be clear, be polite, and don't be afraid to use your phone to clear up whatever is bugging you about the draft rather than taking it out on your coworker in the Comments.

What about when you get no feedback? We’ve all been there—you send a draft and in return receive only tumbleweeds rolling across your inbox. No matter your level of confidence in your work, never assume you've managed to capture lightening in a bottle on the first attempt and that there are, in fact, no changes or suggestions that could possibly improve on the Nobel Prize-winning document you just flung over to your colleagues. Instead, assume they haven't read it.

Then, my friends, it’s time to get your nag on. Send a (polite!) follow up note to the original recipients to remind them you value their feedback. Be transparent with them about deadlines, and make sure to thank others on the same thread who’ve already chimed in. This is not only to make sure you get some input on the final version, but also serves as very handy “ass coverage" should a team member decide to (un)helpfully provide their feedback after you've published.

“Good” feedback is both a big ask, and a huge value that your colleague places on your view. Working together on stuff makes it better—or it can—when everyone respects one another, and the process. If you get asked, make the time and for the love of God, just follow the instructions. And if you're the one asking, be open, specific as hell, and enjoy the ride.

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