Avoid these common mistakes when giving feedback on content

September 28, 2016 3:00 pm

How good are you at giving feedback? Whether you’re someone who creates content or someone commissioning it – as a client or an editor – it’s surprising how little consistency and training goes into this process given how critical it is to the success of any content project.

We’ve seen whole content programmes fail because of poor feedback in the margins of Word documents. It’s not about anything as grandiose as that big project wash-up meeting or comparing ROI to hard content data (if that’s even possible). (And, by the way, when does a content programme end?)

Feedback_megaphone

This is about the daily back and forth of versions of that blog post, article, white paper or fact sheet. It’s often about the back and forth between maybe one writer and their editor, or that editor and anything from one to 15 people on the client side. Yes, we’ve seen 15 people all have to be involved in a sign-off, sometimes with no actual decision-maker. Be honest, a little part of you has just died, right?

Thankfully we are lucky enough to mainly work with honest, decent people who only want a good result from their content. That’s our starting point. So what are some of the main problems?

  • Timely feedback: The biggest problem here is that feedback comes in, then writers start or even finish the next round of edits. Then more feedback comes in – late – on that earlier version. This has all kinds of implications for version tracking and potentially contradictory feedback but the only answer is to keep clients and third parties to strict deadlines. And that’s another blog post.
  • Imprecise feedback: One of the great things about margin notes or Comments (as Word calls them) is that various people can refer to everything from whole pages to missing commas. Some use that kind of space for general comments that run to hundreds of words. So be specific. Worst example of this trait is: “Can you make this better?” Bonus points – also feel free to positively call out what works. We’ve got some clients who are great at that.
  • Changing guidance: This happens a lot. Company X wants you to write about some of their biggest customers in Europe. Then after v1.0 is filed for review, they say they actually want customers in Asia-Pacific, so maybe “tweak those middle 1,000 words”? The worst case is that by v3.0 it turns out those European examples were what’s needed after all. That happens. This won’t just result in frustration and missed deadlines. It can actually turn into that thankfully rare beast – The Never Ending Project. Time to be honest and stick to the letter of your quote or terms of work.

While we think that editors and journalists are good at giving and receiving content-specific feedback, we’ve seen bad examples in the media as well as with companies doing content marketing.

Unsurprisingly, some of the keys to good, constructive feedback are the antidotes to the bad practice above. Be timely; have as few people as possible work on content and with the authority to make sign-offs, preferably with a single decision-maker; be precise and always suggest wording rather than just say something isn’t right; and stick to the brief – which either means putting in more effort early on or being honest about when a brief really needs to change, accepting sometimes that means stretching timelines and/or budgets. And agree early on about the feedback process so everyone is clear how it will work – it’s fairly standard nowadays for most content agencies to work to two rounds of feedback and amendments on a piece of content from the first draft being filed with the client.

One final word on how to give tricky feedback. Many of us have been on training courses where we learn about something that goes by the name of ‘sandwich feedback’ or ‘the hamburger method’. It’s said that during Gordon Brown’s time as prime minister those around him spoke of ‘Giving a sh*t sandwich’, which tells you something about how this really works. The idea is that criticism is given inbetween two lots of praise. Word to the wise – most people see through this, which makes it an even worse idea. It also takes too long.

So stick to the basics – be honest, timely, precise and reasonable in what you’re asking for.

* photo credit: With A Megaphone By A Wall via photopin (license)

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