The Four Cornerstones of Feedback – Part 3/4

In the first two instalments, we examined the first two letters of the FAST acronym that forms the four cornerstones of effective feedback. Feedback must be both ‘from the heart’ and ‘actionable’. In this offering, we will explore the third cornerstone: feedback must be specific.

Cornerstone Three: Specific Feedback

Feedback that lacks specificity also lacks power. If the individual giving the feedback is not specific, they undermine their own credibility and professed expertise. They also rob the recipient of an opportunity to grow through the implementation of specific feedback.

Feedback that is non-specific shows a lack of due care and is not actionable, so this kind of feedback would fail to meet all three cornerstones.

Consider an example to clarify this principle. I regularly work with individuals suffering from fear and anxiety around public speaking. They are eager to improve but do not always have the knowledge or resources to do so. Following a presentation, if my feedback were poor, I might say the following:

That was a good presentation; you have shown improvement from last time. However, you are still using too many filler words; cutting down on these will see you improve still further.

Now that sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it? I explained that the individual had shown improvement and suggested an area to work on next time.

So much of the feedback we give each other sounds like this. It has the pretence of being specific and actionable, but it is fundamentally lacking in care, specificity and power.

Consider how this second example differs from the first:

James, this presentation shows significant development. I know you wanted me to focus on your stage presence; this has shown progress as your movements are now much more purposeful. You don’t wander as much and there is now an effective balance between moving to the sides of the stage and being planted in the centre – excellent work.

To move forward, I would recommend two things. First, you sometimes fidget with your hands in between gestures. Avoid putting them in your pockets or clasping them too often as this can be distracting for the audience. You can avoid this by imagining you are holding two heavy shopping bags. It will feel awkward for you but looks controlled to the audience. Between gestures and during a neutral stance, keep your arms by your sides by imagining you are holding these bags.

The second area for development is your use of filler words. When you are thinking of what to say, you tend to say ‘erm’ a lot. As this becomes more conscious to you, substitute these for pauses. A few seconds of pause builds anticipation in your audience and buys you thinking time. Take a pause between points to avoid filler words and build credibility as a speaker.

To summarise, this was a much improved presentation due to more purposeful stage movement. To move forward, use the shopping bag technique to avoid fidgeting and clasping your hands. Finally, use pauses to improve the pace of your presentation and cut out filler words, which will build your credibility further.

What a difference! This feedback shows care for the speaker’s progress – it is actionable, specific and powerful. It offers practical advice and solutions and is clearly adapted to the individual speaker, who is addressed by name. It is clear a conversation took place before the presentation in which the speaker and observer agreed on a specific area of focus. The observer was attentive to this area and diligently reported back.

Many people talk about the ‘praise sandwich’ in terms of structuring feedback. You offer praise, give the suggested improvement and end with praise. You can see the above feedback is not structured that way, though it does contain a very useful summary at the end so the speaker is reminded of the key take-aways. In the previous article, I mentioned that as a teacher I offer feedback to students in three parts: praise, recommendation and challenge. Whilst this ‘praise sandwich’ structure might boost the confidence of someone in the earliest stages of development, it eventually becomes a disservice as it gives a false impression of progress and can erode trust over time. People need to be shown how to improve. As long as it is delivered empathically and with a clear path to progress, there is no particular rule for the ratio of praise to recommendations. The sincerity of the one delivering the feedback is always more critical than how the points in the feedback are structured.

I am confident much of the feedback delivered in our workplaces and homes is well-intentioned, but can lack sensitivity, specificity and ideas as to how it can be applied. As we carefully consider the feedback we both deliver and receive, it is my hope that we will be both more attentive to the opportunities we give others to grow and how diligent we are in implementing the feedback we receive.

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