How to Offer Critique That’s Friendly, Snuggly, and Downright Pleasant

Critique can be brutal. (What do you mean you don’t love my one-woman show?!) As much as it can hurt, it’s also completely necessary. If critique is managed correctly, it has the power to strengthen both work products and relationships. It sounds unlikely, but it’s true.

My expertise comes from the theatre — I helped develop a peer review program for performance artists in the Seattle area that’s in its 5th year running. The goal? Tough critique in a nurturing environment. It’s a tricky needle to thread, but a worthwhile one.

It all starts with the critic (that much maligned creature). Offering critique that’s too harsh, that’s unfocused, or that’s not aligned with the creator’s intention can bring the whole thing crashing down. Let’s not do that, shall we?

How to offer creative critique that’s helpful (not hurtful).

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that’s the idea, little dudes
  1. Always clarify the creator’s intention before you begin to give feedback.

It’s not about you. Full stop. If you don’t have a clear idea of what the person is trying to achieve, ask them before you offer any feedback. This helps you stay focused on the results they are looking for, rather than some other goal. Critique can go off the rails (fast) if people aren’t on the same page about desired results.

So, ask about the person’s intention.

An example of an intention?

To make members of our target market — millennials with student loans — laugh.

Great! Now you know that we’re trying to be funny, and we know who ought to laugh. Tailor your critique to this intention (not your personal sense of humor).

2. Stay focused on that intention/result.

This is a biggie. It’s the difference between,

I don’t like this tagline.

and

I don’t think this tagline is going to resonate with your target market.

The first one shuts down conversation, it’s a personal opinion with no rationale behind it. The second line is actionable, it gets us thinking about the intended audience, and can start a conversation.

3. Start by asking, “What worked?”

In a larger piece of work there’s almost always something positive to say. You can do it. Finding the pearls is an important part of critique, and can help make the negative feedback easier to swallow. Don’t know the person very well? Work especially hard to find something positive in your evaluation. Lead with it.

4. Answer the question “What was unclear or confusing?”

we usually don’t want people to make this face.

This question helps draw the focus away from flaws with the work product, and toward the effect it has on the audience. People are much more receptive to critique when it’s delivered from the perspective of a sympathetic audience member — so do your best to think from that perspective, even as you give detailed feedback about the work.

5. Ask if creators are receptive to rewrites/major changes/big ideas.

If you’re suggesting a big change that would take the work in a different direction, ask before you offer. Asking consent before suggesting serious changes shows respect for the other person’s creative process. In my experience, people almost always say “Yes!” when you check in with them first about this kind of critique.

Finally, be kind.

This should be obvious, but it’s worth stating. Try to modulate your feedback based on the creator’s attachment to their work product. If they’re in love with it, be a little more gentle, more generous. If you’ve got an established working relationship where you know that it’s OK to be tough, go for it. Everybody has got a different tolerance for critique, and that’s something you should actively feel out.

Just read the room, keep your eyes on the (shared) goal, and you’ll be fine.

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