I get it. Managing creative people is hard. I know because I have been on both sides of the equation, both as a contract writer and as a manager who assigns out articles to other writers.
A lot of the people who I write for love me. But I have also been in a situation before where someone I was ghost writing for did not like my work.
I was told to write two articles. On one of the two articles, I was told it didn't meet the expectations of what they were looking for and was given poor and unclear feedback. I didn't understand what they didn't like, so I inquired about it. They were vague in expressing what they didn't like. I tried rewriting the post. They were still displeased and tried to vaguely express what they wanted again. I resubmitted the article. Out of the two articles I was contracted for, I wasn't paid for this one and our contract was terminated. Now, we don't even talk to each other even though we are bothexperts in similar industries.
Could this have been prevented? Of course it could have.
Writing is a form of art, and as an artist or creative, you may have been in a similar situation. You submitted graphic design work or a storyboard for a video. You were given unclear feedback. The contract terminated and went to someone else.
But when you're in a managing role, you can't just go out there and hire new people every few months, especially when the approval process takes months like it does at my work.
So how do you deliver negative feedback to creative people?
These are 11 ways to deliver negative feedback to people
1. Be positive.
Ariel Williams, a writer whose work has been published in many different publications has been on the receiving end of feedback many times. As a creative, she knows what kind of feedback helps motivate her to get the project done right. She suggests to focus on the things that were good, then to offer suggestions to make it better by fixing the things that were wrong.
2. Ask questions.
When something is unclear, instead of being direct, try saying something like, "My friend doesn't understand that. Is there a better way to explain that in the paper/video/artwork? Do you have any ideas?"
When you ask questions in a nonthreatening manner, you are able to allow the creative to work on your side in addressing the issue to make it better. This way, you're working together on a common goal, instead of you portraying your dissatisfaction by their work.
3. Engage in an open discussion.
Ariel feels that these two things will help you break the ice without criticizing the work directly. This way, the creative doesn't feel hurt by the feedback they were given and instead thinks of ways for it to be better. This engages the creative person's thought process then helps them focus their time on working to fix the issues at hand.
4. Build a trust/safety relationship.
It's always good to know what the creative wants to hear, but what matters more is how managers ofcreatives get results. Paul Haury, the Vice President of Internal Operations at Fulcrum knows that negative feedback is just a complaint. And you can't just complain to the people who are working for you. From a management standpoint, you need to build a trust and safety relationship. This way, your creative knows that when you deliver feedback, their job is not at risk.
5. Give appreciation.
When you show appreciation for the time and effort someone puts into a project, it just makes them feel so much better about the work that they do. If you already built the trust and safety relationship, then provide appreciation, it just goes that much further. Your creative knows that they can trust and rely on your direction without feeling at risk of being canned or eliminated. This sense of ease helps prevent any type of hostile situations from arising.
6. Provide factual descriptors for doing better in a caring way.
When your creative has trust in your relationship and you've shown appreciation for their work, it is much easier to provide feedback to get the project done right. At this point, you will be able to provide factual descriptors of what can be done better. If a video isn't going in the right direction, a descriptor can be that the messaging is getting distracted from the point of the video. Or if the design work has a big giant dragon on the left of it, you can say that the dragon is drawing too much of your attention. By pointing out factual descriptors and focusing on the goal of the piece, your creative will be able to refocus their efforts into improving their work.
7. Set creative guidelines.
But how does this play out in real life? I manage social media for Keck Medicine of USC. When I started working on the project, I didn't have content to share so I had to write out blog content myself. It was tiring to deliver 20 articles a month and do social media as well for almost an entire year. So in the recent months, I was able to get a budget to hire three writers to help write our articles. We wanted to make sure the writers had direction, so Louise Cobb, the senior editor and I created some editorial guidelines and sent them over to the writers so they had an idea of what guidelines to follow. This helped our creative team get a basic understanding of what we were looking for.
8. Assign work slowly.
I could have given each writer their full load of articles to do in month one, but I knew we would have to heavily edit a lot of their content, especially if they weren't following our writing guidelines. So we started off assigning out articles one by one to each writer. By assigning one article at a time, we were able to give the direct feedback we needed to provide as quickly as possible. This way, we wouldn't have to go back in and edit a handful of articles, but we could get the writers to adapt to our styles and guidelines almost immediately.
9. Look at their work with your team.
After I received the first few articles from our writers, I got our editor involved. We noticed an immediate problem. The writers were writing our editorial posts in the style of an academic essay. The whole point of hiring writers was to go away from this type of writing style. If we wanted academic papers, we could have gone to the University for resources. Since we used a team approach to look over the work, we were able to craft out what kind of content we wanted instead.
10. Edit the work.
When Louise and I saw the articles, we saw they weren't very personable. I added in some anecdotes from my life into the articles they wrote. Louise cleaned it up. We both made comments and almost completely rewrote the first articles they wrote. There was so much red and green marking all over the word document that it looked like a whole new document.
11. Discuss the changes by phone or in person.
Neither Louise or I wanted to have the writers re-edit the initial pieces, because we felt it was too early to get them to rewrite something and it may be discouraging. Instead, we took it upon ourselves to finalize out the initial posts and put them live. The draft had comments and addressed what could be improved upon and was sent back to the initial writers. Since the piece was already live, it took the pressure off the creatives to go back in and try to recreate the piece again. But since the direction was clear of what we were looking for, and since they were able to see the piece live, it helped the writers know what to avoid the next time around.
To make the written points even more clear, we scheduled a call with each writer to discuss what we intended for our articles to do. The points we outlined were that we picked the writers because they were personable and fun, but it wasn't showcased in the articles they were writing. We made the assumption that they made the articles look like essays because we have USC in our name, but then reiterated that the goals of our articles were to be personable, easy to read and shareable.
Once they understood our objectives, editing wasn't a back and forth mission with the writers anymore. Instead, it was just fixing a few grammatical issues here and there. By tackling the problems early and getting the negative feedback out of the way, we are able to trust our writers to constantly deliver within the scope of the project, no matter what topic we presented.
If you follow these guidelines, you can get your creative team to work with you as well. And if you have the resources to complete their first projects for them, they will need minimal direction for future projects and deliver above expectations.
Have you ever had to deliver negative feedback to a creative? How did you do it? I'd love to learn more! Comment below.