15.2 Giving Feedback to Others

Smiling audience
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From the perspective of a speaker, the audience members are vital in helping him or her to understand how they are doing both during and after the presentation. Knowing what it feels like to be presenting in front of a group is often motivation enough for many people to give non-verbal, verbal, and/or written feedback.

Non-Verbal Feedback

Boothman (2008) recommends listening with your whole body, not just your ears. Consider how confident you would feel speaking to a room full of people with their eyes closed, arms and legs crossed, and bodies bent in slouches. These listeners are presenting non-verbal cues communicating that they are uninterested and unimpressed. Meanwhile, listeners who are sitting up straight and facing you with an intent look are more likely to offer reassurance that they are engaged and your message is understood.

Eye contact is another non-verbal cue to the speaker that you are paying attention. You don’t want to use an unblinking stare that will make the speaker uncomfortable, however, attentive eye contact can indicate you are listening and help you stay focused. There are some cultures where maintaining eye contact would cause additional discomfort, so keep that in mind. Also, you may be someone who listens better with eyes closed to visualize what is being said. This can be difficult for a speaker to recognize, so if this is you, consider incorporating one of the following non-verbals while you listen with eyes closed.

Nodding your head affirmatively, making backchannel responses such as “Yes,” “Umhum,” or “OK” can help the speaker gauge your interest. Even the speed of your head nod can signal your level of patience or understanding (Pease & Pease, 2006). Leaning in as a listener is far more encouraging than slumping in your seat. Miller (1994) suggests the “listener’s lean” demonstrates substantial interest and “physically endorses” our message. That said, sending too many non-verbal responses to the speaker can be an issue…after all, a conference room full of people shifting in their seats and nodding their heads may translate as a restless audience that the speaker needs to recapture.

Verbal Feedback

While speakers sometimes want all questions held until the end of a presentation, asking questions when the opportunity presents itself can help you as a listener. For one, you have to listen in order to be able to ask a question. Your goal should be to ask open-ended questions (“What do you think about….?” rather than “We should do …, right?”). You can use questions to confirm your understanding of the speaker’s message. If you’re not entirely sure of a significant point, you might ask a clarifying question. These are questions such as “What did you mean?” “Can you be more specific?” or “What is a concrete example of your point?” These can help your comprehension while also offering the speaker feedback. When asking questions, approach the speaker in a positive, non-threatening way. A good listener doesn’t seek to put the speaker on the defensive. You want to demonstrate your objectivity and willingness to listen to the speaker’s response.

Finally, paraphrasing what has been said in your interactions with the speaker can be another useful tool for a good listener. Imagine the difference if, before you respond to an upset colleague, you take a moment to say, “I understand you are disappointed we didn’t consult you before moving forward with the product release…” before you say, “we didn’t have time to get everyone’s input.” Reflecting back the speaker’s point of view before responding allows the speaker to know you were listening, and helps foster trust that everyone’s voice is being heard.

It is likely that you will be asked at some point to give written feedback to another person in a personal, academic, professional, or civic context. As schools, companies, and organizations have moved toward more team-based environments over the past twenty years, peer evaluations are now commonly used to help assess  performance. Since it’s important to know how to give competent and relevant feedback, and since the feedback can be useful for the self-improvement of the receiver, many students are asked to complete peer evaluations for classmates after they deliver a speech or work on a project together. The key to good written feedback is to offer constructive criticism, which consists of comments that are specific and descriptive enough for the receiver to apply them for the purpose of self-improvement. The following are guidelines for giving written feedback.

When giving written feedback to others

  1. Be specific and descriptive. There is often a lack of specific comments when it comes to feedback on speech delivery. Students write things like “Eye contact” on a peer comment sheet, but neither the student nor the teacher knows what that means. While a comment like “Good eye contact” or “Not enough eye contact” is more specific, it’s not descriptive enough to make it really useful. What would be best is “Good consistent eye contact with the audience during your introduction. Eye contact with the audience diminished when you seemed less confident in what you were presenting in the last 3 slides of your PowerPoint.”
  2. Be positive. If you are delivering your feedback in writing, pretend that you are speaking directly to the person and write it the same way. Comments like “Stop fidgeting” or “Get more sources” wouldn’t likely come out during verbal feedback, because we know they sound too harsh. The same tone, however, can be communicated through written feedback. Instead, make comments that are framed in such a way as to avoid defensiveness or hurt feelings.
  3. Be constructive. Although we want to be positive in our feedback, comments like “Good job” aren’t constructive, because a communicator can’t actually take that comment and do something with it. A comment like “You were able to explain our company’s new marketing strategy in a way that even I, as an engineer, could make sense of. The part about our new crisis communication plan wasn’t as clear. Perhaps you could break it down the same way you did the marketing strategy to make it clearer for people like me who are outside the public relations department.” This statement is positively framed, specific, and constructive because the speaker can continue to build on the positively reviewed skill by applying it to another part of the speech that was identified as a place for improvement.
  4. Be realistic. Comments like “Don’t be nervous” aren’t constructive or realistic. Instead, you could say, “I know the first speech is tough, but remember that we’re all in the same situation and we’re all here to learn. I tried the breathing exercises discussed in the book and they helped calm my nerves. Maybe they’ll work for you, too?” Comments like “Your accent made it difficult for me to understand you,” may be true, but may also signal a need for more listening effort since we all technically have accents–changing them, if possible at all, would take considerable time and effort.
  5. Be relevant. Feedback should be relevant to the assignment, task, and/or context. Feedback such as “Rad nail polish” and “Great smile,” although nice compliments, are not relevant in formal feedback unless you’re a fashion consultant or a dentist.

Giving Formal Feedback to Others” from  Making Conflict Suck Less: The Basics by Ashley Orme Nichols is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Giving Feedback” from Professional Communications OER Olds College OER Development Team is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.


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Talking Business Copyright © 2023 by Laura Radtke is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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