Dancer and choreographer Liz Lerman created a process for getting and giving feedback called Critical Response over 25 years ago. Her framework places a premium on active questioning as a way to unravel how the creative work is being received in the world as opposed to what was intended. It provides a safe and structured way for creative work to be critiqued that empowers the creator while also giving freedom for all members of the critique to participate.
I encountered this approach when I was a student at NYU’s experimental theater wing, and have used it in my artistic process and in business settings for many years. I’ve adapted it slightly to be more applicable to business contexts – but the genius of the framework is all Lerman’s.
- There are two main roles that I will refer to: the sharer and the responder. The sharer is the person who has created a piece of work that they would like feedback on. This could be a writer, designer, developer, illustrator, videographer, strategist, or other marketing team member who has developed something that requires feedback. The responder is the person (or people) who are providing feedback. These are usually colleagues from within the marketing department but can sometimes be colleagues (or clients) from other parts of your organization.
- The responsibilities of the responders are twofold:
- not to bring their own agenda to work they are responding to
- have a desire for the sharer to do her/his best work. Responders are attempting to help the sharer create her/his work, not to create their own work. It is important for responders, as hard as this may be, to no bring their own bias and expectations to the process.
- The responsibility of the sharer is to be honest and open. The sharer needs to be very clear on where they are in their process and what they are specifically looking for feedback on.
- This framework prioritizes understanding how the work is being received over hearing opinions; opinions should be kept for the final step in this process.
- The amount of time per step varies based on how many people are part of the feedback session, how many pieces of work you are providing feedback on, and how fluent everyone is with this process. A basic rule of thumb is that you should spend the most time with the first few steps and the least time with the final step (the final step is actually optional). It should be possible to get through all steps in as little as 10-15 minutes.
The sharer presents their work to others and gives them time to look at it. The sharer should not provide extensive voice over about what they were trying to achieve. Ideally, they give a very simple description that provides enough context for those who are responding to be able to situate the work. For instance:
“This is an email design that was created in response to a need for a new way of introducing our core audience to a new product offering. The copy is not final.”
- Affirmation and Observation
Responders give the sharer either positive feedback about the work or key aspects of the work that affected them. The sharer will want to hear that what they have just completed has meaning. The sharer must work to really hear the comments. Responders need to try to make the palette of responses as wide as possible. Be specific and expansive in the use of vocabulary about the work. Responders should not say what they wanted to see, instead they should say what they did see (or hear). For instance:
“I was struck by the impact of that hero image. It really made me feel a sense of hope and possibility.”
- Sharer Questions Responders
The sharer has the time to ask the responds questions about the work. Be specific; nothing is too insignificant. The more the sharer clarifies what s/he is working on, the more meaningful the dialogue becomes. Responders should answer honestly, but again should not make suggestions (i.e. it is fine for responders to say that they didn’t like something and why they didn’t like it, but it is less helpful to say how they think the problem should be fixed. It is fine to for responders to say that they wanted more or less of something, but they should be careful not to make the work about them as this demotivates and dismisses the expertise of the person sharing the work). For instance:
Sharer: “What does this email design make you think about our brand.”
Responder: “That we are luxury.”
Responder: “That we don’t care about our customers.”
The sharer can ask for clarification if they don’t understand the answers they receive.
- Responders Question Sharer
Responders ask neutral questions of the sharer about the work. It is very important not to be judgmental in the phrasing of the questions. This is a chance for the responders to help the sharer step back and analyze the work. If given the chance, most criticisms can be stated or explored in this step in a neutral fashion. For instance:
“What was the reason for not using our brand colors?”
“Why did you choose the image of the angry person?”
“Who is the target audience for this piece of work?”
- Criticisms and Opinions
If there is a criticism that can’t be stated in the form of a neutral question, responders can express opinions about the work to the sharer after they have asked permission of the sharer. The sharer is allowed to refuse at any time. The opinions should be positive criticism, based on problem-solving techniques. It may seem redundant to ask permission for every single criticism, but it is very important. This gives the sharer control of this very sensitive step and creates a dialogue, albeit a very basic one. Each criticism should start with, “I have a comment/criticism/opinion about X. Would you like to hear it?”. The sharer can they say yes or no. For instance:
Responder: “I have an opinion about the typography hierarchy, do you want to hear it?”
Responder: “It isn’t clear to me which is the most important message because all of the fonts seem to be of a similar weight.”