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Feedback: Breakfast of champions or just a power trip?

When feedback feels like a verbal onslaught instead of the basis for improvement it should be

The first time feedback really hit me between the eyes was on a pre-university course for those who wanted to gain entry to university via the backstairs without the traditional A Levels. I did the humanities and social studies course, it was either that or the sciences. I had no real talent for the latter, so it felt like the right decision.

Time and experience has taught us to fear feedback with good reason, and it's not just because it might be negative it's because it's all in the delivery. Because sadly, not everyone knows how to do good feedback, I mean, really, it's a skill.

"From the time your teacher wrote ‘see me’ on your homework to the dreaded annual appraisal at work, life teaches us to fear feedback. Unless you’re absolutely sure that feedback will be 100% positive – which is unlikely – you’re basically preparing yourself for at least some ‘bad’ news."

We had to write something for sociology, it wasn't a subject I stuck with long-term, I hated it, still do. But I gave it my all, I felt proud of what I'd written even though it'd been some time since I'd written anything remotely academic, such a proud little thing I was back then.

After a few days, I got the essay back, it wasn't too bad until we reached the end, where the tutor had left a comment that she may as well have tattooed on my forehead with a branding iron. My conclusion was 'pathetic.' I'll leave that there for a few seconds.

Looking back, it probably was pathetic. I'd always had problems finishing off an essay or story, for some reason I fizzled out like a damp firework. I like to think I've improved a little since then, but at the time it felt humiliating. It felt personal, why couldn't she have simply said it was bad, or poor, or needed work, practice, a religious conversion, anything, rather than say it was pathetic? You might accuse me of being over-sensitive and that's a fair comment.

Move on a few years since then, 3 years at university, 1 year through my MA, 1 year on a PGCE and nearly 10 as a freelance copywriter and countless courses and short training programmes have I gotten better at responding to feedback? I'd like to say that I have, but I know I'm still sensitive to the odd word or phrase. My argument is that feedback is personal if you make it so.

Good feedback, to me at least, is an equal amount of positive and negative, give them a good reason to try harder but don't leave them bloodied on the floor - but not everyone necessarily agrees. Research for this article has revealed some conflicting opinions on what really constitutes good feedback.

"Getting others to accept our feedback can prove challenging, especially when it’s critical. Worried that their feedback may lead to hurt feelings or diminished productivity, managers resort to face-saving techniques like the “praise sandwich” that end up doing more harm than good. The result is a tenuous feedback culture built largely upon evasion, confusion, and self-delusion.​​​​​​​"

Harvard Business Review. Feedback is a Two Way Conversation. June 1/2020

Is that what good feedback is - nothing more than a praise sandwich? By treading the middle path of a little bit of good and a little bit of bad,' am I really just too much of a coward to take on a full onslaught of useful criticism?

While this article on feedback is largely for everyone, including employees, there is some emphasis on freelancers. We take feedback from clients, each other and from members of the public when we publish on an online forum. Should we just quit being so soft and grow a pair, or are we right to demand a more constructive form of feedback?

In the Harvard Business Review, What Good Feedback Really Looks Like from 2019, they argue that constructive criticism won’t help people do better and get past their faults when you spend too much time highlighting their shortcomings, what you do instead is hinder their learning. Now I'm likely to be punching the air at this. This article is a response to a cover story from the same publication called The Feedback Fallacy, What should they be doing?

According to the authors Craig Chappelow and Cindy McCauley who based their conclusions on research carried out at the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) -

"Feedback — both positive and negative — is essential to helping managers enhance their best qualities and address their worst so they can excel at leading." HBR/2019/What Good Feedback Really Looks Like

So far so good, they go on to argue that negative feedback can only '"spark defensive reactions that cloud perceptions and dampen motivation."

In the original article The Feedback Fallacy, which both Chappelow and McCauley were responding to, Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall argue that by constantly praising every single thing a person does whether they're a freelancer or employee you don't help anyone thrive or excel.

"Underpinning the current conviction that feedback is an unalloyed good are three theories that we in the business world commonly accept as truths. The first is that other people are more aware than you are of your weaknesses and that the best way to help you, therefore, is for them to show you what you cannot see for yourself. We can call this our theory of the source of truth. You do not realize that your suit is shabby, that your presentation is boring, or that your voice is grating, so it is up to your colleagues to tell you as plainly as possible “where you stand.” If they didn’t, you would never know, and this would be bad."

But do I really want to know if my voice is grating and my suit is shabby, does it really contribute to anything constructive, to my work? If feedback is delivered to me in my role as a copywriter, as in feedback from fellow peers on my website copy, or on an article I've written, will I really find it useful if you point out my punctuation rather than focusing on the actual content, will it benefit my progress as a copywriter if you tell me my arguments in an article are weak and pathetic, or my copy lacks personality when you could be telling me how it could be improved and where it fails?

Should we be focusing more on the actual content and discuss the elements for which we want to see improvement, or use words that could be taken personally? Easy to say 'don't take it personally,' but if you're giving a keynote speech would you tell a woman she looks shabby and uninspiring or would it be more beneficial to discuss her speech and her arguments? Perhaps words of encouragement over how she should be standing or how she carries her voice (without telling her that her voice is grating).

Being part of a mastermind group you do see a big difference between one person's idea of good feedback and another's. You'll get really useful feedback from one and then nothing but a punctuation critique from another.

But what does it take to provide good actionable feedback? Because for me, feedback is where you're given a variety of areas for improvements that are actionable, it's being left with something positive (as well as negative), which is both constructive and useful.

And it's not just the actual feedback that you get it's how it's structured, we've all experienced the multiple doc feedback, the heady experience of eleventy million people critiquing your document. The answer - always find out who you are reporting to in a project from the get-go, and respond only to them.

So if John and Jenny from 2 floors down feel they want to get all warm and bombastic over your copy and get some power play in before drinkies at the weekend so they can practice their supervisory skills, remind them politely who you are reporting to according to the remit of the project. Not anyone who happens to be passing or whoever opened your email containing the first draft (unfortunately for you).

Other opinions seem to be along the same lines - Chris Guiton suggests that good feedback should be constructive and honest, while bad feedback is ill-judged, personalised and gratuitously offensive.

However, in the TNT article from 2019 below - they argue that -

"The idea that “bad feedback is bad” is an example of a conveniently distorted fact. Research tells us that the nature of the feedback – that is, whether it is positive or negative – has virtually no effect on performance. Studies say that positive feedback may lead to a decrease in effort, just as negative feedback may boost a person’s desire to achieve more."

So are we being a tad over-sensitive then? If we get a load of negative feedback then we'll want to try harder? Or is it a case of making sure that the negative feedback you do give should be as constructive as possible and more carefully worded? I would tend to agree with that notion.

A piece of work could be considered all bad, but if it's critiqued in the right way, you'll be more likely to get an improved piece of work the second time around, and someone who wants to work with you again. Semantics? Possibly, but feedback should always be about getting the best out of someone. Slam them down and you get nothing, you get a decrease in effort from me if you insult me, but a far better one of you give me bad feedback and tell me where I went wrong so I get it better next time..

Another reference to too many cooks spoiling the broth, and Uncle Tom-Cobblers-and-all joining the group feedback sesh. Again, remember to always establish who's in charge before you start a project and only send a draft to the person responsible for feedback. or persons if there are more than two. Ideally, it should be no more than three, I mean how many people does it really take to feedback on a piece of copy, even if it's 8 pages?

For me, the best feedback I've ever had has been from across the board, from teachers, university lecturers, work and coach mentors. People who knew how to deliver feedback that was rich with detail and equal to the task of critiquing your performance or work. On a practical level, this isn't always possible, but a balanced critique that gives as much as it takes away is just as good. Basically in short, choose your words carefully even when you're giving negative feedback.

Ralitsa Minkova, email strategist and conversion copywriter argues that it's important that when either you or someone else is giving feedback "that you leave comments that explain why something needs to change." Be clear and concise, don't criticise unless you can explain the reason why it doesn't work. She also says that backing your comments with a why provides a solid point for why you disagree.

And this from Rali is everything I've come to expect from a professional:

"Giving constructive feedback backed by solid reasons, in a respectful way without stepping on anyone's toes (and without using "I like/dislike/hate" phrases) is also how you can set an example for what great feedback looks like."

Because remember, whether it's good or bad feedback, in the words of Maya Angelou "people will never forget how you made them feel. And bad feelings lead to less business.

Thanks to everyone who contributed to this blog.


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