Mary Ellen Slayter is CEO of Reputation Capital. Before launching a content marketing firm in her home state of Louisiana, she spent more than 10 years working as a traditional journalist, primarily at The Washington Post, where she authored the Career Track column, worked as an editor in the business news department and worked at email newsletter publisher SmartBrief.
Feedback is a gift. And it's especially valuable for your creative team. Without that free flow of information, it's highly unlikely that your writers, designers, photographers, videographers and coders will be able to deliver a product that fulfills your vision.
As a managing editor, I often serve as the linchpin for that busy team of creatives. I've seen what happens when the feedback loop shuts down, stalling out projects and creating frustration on all sides. Over the years, I've developed a few tricks for getting the information flowing again. Here's how to give feedback to your creative team that actually works.
Control Your Feelings
We all like to work with nice people (we even made it a company rule at Rep Cap). The downside to all that pleasantness is that clients sometimes avoid giving us feedback so they don't hurt our feelings. Trust me, I no longer have feelings about things like editorial calendars, blog titles or email subject lines. Educated opinions -- yes. Feelings? No.
Keep everyone's feelings out of the equation by focusing on the product, without ascribing any sort of motive or other narrative to the effort. Stick to the goals and facts that everyone has already agreed upon, referring back to the creative brief as a guide.
Work From the Top
People will often jump right into parsing out words in a blog post or white paper or drilling into design details without stepping back and making sure the piece works on a conceptual level first. It can be more effective when the feedback starts at the highest level and works down to the specific:
- Does this product meet our goals?
- Are we using the appropriate format or structure?
- Is the tone/voice/feel on point?
- Are the details (sentences, phrases, words) correct?
Then, use language that communicates what you want the end product to be, rather than giving task orders. "The best kind of feedback is the kind that appeals to the creative process," says Cody Miles, creative director at Brandcave, a digital marketing agency. Provide feedback about what you want the piece to accomplish ("This photo needs to be more friendly and welcoming"), not what you want the creatives do ("Fix this photo!"). Bring the feedback back to the piece's original purpose and whether the result fulfills that purpose.
Build in Regular Touchpoints
Don't save your feedback for the end -- build it into the entire production process. For example, we start off all long-form content projects by creating an outline, which we share for feedback. After we write the first draft, we seek the client's input again. By the time we get through a second draft, we should just be discussing minor style points and phrasing. There are no surprises for anyone. These sort of regular meetings are critical for ensuring everything stays on track. The bigger the project, the more important these conversations are.
When our friends at STUN Design were hired to create the corporate identity and other work for The Creative Bloc, a collaborative workspace where Rep Cap is based, they met regularly. "We continually met with the creator of the organization so that we understood the core principles for the brand," says founder Chuck Sanchez. "Any time we were a little off track, we would get together and brainstorm to get back on track."
Learn a Little of the Lingo
I'm no graphic designer, but my career has required that I learn enough about how they work and the terms they use to communicate with them. That way, everyone is on the same page and we don't waste time talking past each other.
"It's not essential that you know how to code, but a strong understanding of the field will help you speak the creative's language," Miles says. "They'll feel more comfortable working with you, you'll feel more confident working with them and it will also help you from making poor design decisions."
Show What You DO Like
If you're struggling to find the right words to describe why something isn't working for you, try providing examples of what you do like. Your writer or designer will likely be able to recognize what makes your example different and will be able to incorporate that into the next draft.
This can also help you clarify why you dislike something, making it sound less arbitrary. "'I don't like red' comes off as a personal opinion rather than valuable feedback," says Amy Killoran, creative manager for I Love Travel, where she provides creative direction for all graphic designers and interns. "'This red is very similar to our competitor's red. We need to separate ourselves from their brand' is better feedback that gives background and direction to the change."
If your gut reaction is that something isn't working, speak up right away. You don't have to have your feedback perfectly articulated to get the ball rolling on a course correction.
"Be honest with them, and encourage them to be honest with you," Killoran says. Delaying feedback makes it impossible for creatives to make something the client is truly happy with, leaving everyone unsatisfied.
Instead of letting feedback stress you out, or thinking of it as conflict to be avoided, try thinking about feedback as progress. When you share constructive, action-oriented feedback based on your group goals, you open the door to better, faster work. And that should make everyone happy.