Discover more from Tom Kerwin
The secret to 10x feedback
My most valuable and worst-hidden technique for writers, designers and makers of all stripes.
For amazing, high-bandwidth feedback on your work, simply be with someone while they experience your work in real time.
I use this method when giving feedback to other writers and makers. I’m surprised by how many people are surprised by it.
UX SURGEON GENERAL’S HEALTH WARNING: If you’re giving feedback this way, bear in mind that it can be excruciating and frustrating for the person receiving the feedback. Only use this with people who’ve asked you for feedback.
“I assume you know that this is terrifying, right?” – @hobdaydesign
Here’s how to do it
When people ask me for feedback, I record myself reading what they’ve written out loud. Or using the thing they’ve designed. Then I send them the video or voice note.
That’s pretty much it.
I’ve done this with my own writing work for years. I sit with someone and ask them to read what I’ve written out loud to me.
More recently, I’ve realised that it also works asynchronously. You can use Loom, or just record a Zoom call with yourself, or even WhatsApp a quick voice note. No preparation required. No fuss or fanfare.
Power up #1: share thoughts and feelings as you go
“Oh! That’s making me think of idea X!”
“Hmm … sounds like you’re trying to say Y?”
“Wow that’s cool!”
“Hmm … this bit feels like throat-clearing.”
Power-up #2: the summary
At the end, summarise what you took away in your own words. It’s easy to believe that something made sense. But unless you’re operating in God Mode, you can’t know for certain that you took away exactly what the maker of the work intended.
Why this works
The secret to understanding feedback on writing and design is this quote from @neilhimself:
“Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” – Neil Gaiman
The 2 hardest parts of Neil’s advice
1) Getting genuine feedback mostly feels sucky
Most people who ask for feedback are secretly looking for encouragement: a pat on the back, or reassurance that it’s not their work but the world that’s at fault.
With the feedback approach I recommend above, you’ll see the warts-and-all reality of your work. Sure, you’ll get the giddy excitement when things start to click, but before you get there, there’s always more to fix than you expect. Even when you genuinely want feedback, this process will spark some RAGE.
“There’s a whole lot of Shawshank before the redemption” – Mark Kermode
2) Genuine feedback doesn’t give you easy answers
Mostly, when you ask people to give feedback on writing, they’ll give you editorial notes based on their own taste as a writer.
It's mostly, “well if I were you, I’d do it like this.”
This is a double whammy of bad: it’s hard work for them AND it’s not helpful for you. This is your work, not theirs.
To make your work better at the right level of granularity, you don’t need opinions after the experience. You need to know how someone experiences your work in real time. When do they stumble over an awkward turn of phrase? When do their eyes glaze over with boredom? When do they lean in with surprise? When does their face light up like the Superbowl?
When you watch someone experiencing your work, you get a Spidey-Sense for when what you intended to convey isn’t being conveyed.
So when people tell you how they think you should fix your work, you need to translate what they say to understand the problems they’re trying to solutionise. Always look for “the thing behind the thing”!
I’ve met a few folks who hate this sort of feedback because it's not “actionable”.
It takes time and effort to collect.
It’s not 5 bullet points that just tell you what to do next.
As we covered earlier, most feedback can’t tell you how to fix your work. Your audience’s job is to experience your work. It’s your job to figure out how to fix it.
Exception: learning from a master
IF you’re learning from a master AND you’re learning how to do what they do, THEN the master probably CAN tell you exactly how to fix the work. But even they can’t tell you how to be you. (Although they may be able to help you get out of your own way.)
Try it today
Got an early version of something you’re working on? Send it to a friend and say “please record yourself experiencing this. Narrate your thoughts and feelings like a sports commentary. You can just send me a voice note or video on WhatsApp.”
If you’d like to try giving this sort of feedback, I need beta feedback on my Innovation Tactics Pip Deck. Hit reply and say “I’ll give feedback!” and I’ll send you a secret link. I can’t wait for the frustration and RAGE ;)
Thanks to Corissa Nunn for experiencing this piece out loud and Mike Haber for nerding out with me about why it works so well. (Check out his cartoon about why feedback sucks and how to make it better.)
Not a subscriber yet? Join below for free to get new posts when they drop.