Written by Zach Grossfeld
Each podcast, article, or video I create for Auxoro is subject to the eyes and ears of my peers. Some feedback is tough to hear. Likewise, when other people show me their projects, I need to find a way to communicate my thoughts constructively. So, makes for good criticism? How can you constructively receive criticism? Here are some ideas that have helped me do both:
In our recent podcast conversation with filous, we spoke about criticism in the studio. In a productive songwriting session, artists and songwriters will give and receive feedback of all sorts. A song is a creative progression that evolves over weeks, months, and sometimes years. Without an honest back and forth in the studio, the final product will suffer. Learning to accept proper criticism is hard, and giving it can be even harder. I should know, I struggle with both.
Start With The Positives And Be Specific
This tip comes from filous and is not to be confused for sugar coating. Saying something positive does not mean to fabricate. After digesting someone's work (song, article, podcast, video, etc.) identify a specific aspect that you like and verbalize that to the creator. For example, "You use great transitions in that Instagram video" or "The verbs in the second paragraph are vivid." Then, let the creator respond. The creator will appreciate that you picked something specific, rather than responding with an overdone "That's amazing!" or "Really Cool!" Say what you think was cool.
As the receiver of feedback, don't let harsh criticism phase you. Not everyone will start with the positives. You may hear "I didn't like any of that," "Try again," or "This sucks." Remember, the goal of criticism is not to feel good about the final product. It's to exchange as much information as possible to create a better product. Push the person to give you more. "Well, what sucked about it? Why didn't you like that?" Check your ego at the door.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, don't let the person giving you feedback get off the hook with flattery or sweeping likeability. When someone says "That's cool!" or "I like it!" that does you no service. Poke cracks in their kind words and invite critique. "I'm glad that you liked the podcast, but I'm not so sure about the intro." Alternatively, a personal favorite, "What's one thing you didn't like about it?" Attack weak points and welcome others to tell you how you can make a product better.
Now, you have a foundation from which to build feedback. As the giver of criticism, a positive comment opens the door to more in-depth analysis. Approach the critique from an improvement standpoint rather than a demolition. For example, "The synths in the second chorus are too overbearing. If you tone them down, I think the song flows more smoothly." You could have said something like "Those synths are trash," but offering no lifeline can leave the creator with little room to build. Use language designed to connect the critique to the more improved product. Phrases like "make better," "bring out," "enhance," or "strengthen" can all be used to transform an identified weakness into a marked improvement.
Sometimes, you may think that a project is a complete waste. You hear a song, watch a video, and can't find a single redeeming quality. Don't make something up. An effective response could be "It seems like you've spent much time on this; however, I think you may be better off starting from scratch with a different approach." A comment like this acknowledges the effort without leading the person down a dishonest path. You should, of course, should go into greater detail explaining your suggestion to start over.
As the person receiving feedback, keep in mind that rarely is a person trying to tear you down hatefully. Even if the advice comes off as spiteful or ignorant, this person is likely doing their best to provide you with constructive criticism. You asked for this, so keep the overall goal of improvement at the forefront.
Honesty Is King
No matter what the tone of the criticism, the foundation of strong feedback is honesty on both sides. You are doing yourself and the other party a disservice by not being one hundred percent up front. For example, if the second paragraph of Jon's essay makes zero sense, tell him. "Hey Jon, I'm completely lost on this part. Is there another way you can say this differently?" Jon will respect you for the honesty, and you have learned to turn an uncomfortable interaction into a place of growth.
Last week, I recorded a podcast for Auxoro and my brother Matt told me that, sometimes, I was "leading" the artists towards a particular answer with my questions. In other words, I would ask a decent question, but then continue on and almost answer the question myself before I let the artist speak. Matt was right. I went back to past podcasts, and I could pick out two to three questions from each episode where I was "leading" on the guest. I'm glad that my brother evaluates each episode honestly and I appreciate his bluntness.
To prepare for honest criticism, the receiver of feedback has to be honest with themselves about why they want the input. Are you asking for feedback to confirm the greatness of your work? Or do you want to find weaknesses? Are you ready to set your ego aside and have someone possibly tear down something you've worked on for dozens, even hundreds of hours?
In an earlier podcast, Finneas O'Connell shared with me a hearsay story concerning Jack White. Allegedly, at a party, Jack White was droning on and on to Chris Rock about how many hours he worked on a song. It sounded like Jack tortured himself in the studio to tap the depths of his creativity. Then, mid-conversation, Chris Rock turns to Jack and says, "You know nobody gives a shit."
As harsh as that sounds, Chris Rock is right. Nobody cares how long you spend on a song, a painting, or an article. The audience only cares about the quality of the final product. When is the last time you listened to a song and thought, "Damn, I wonder how many hours it took the artist to finish this song in the studio?" You only care that it's a good song. Whether it took four minutes or four months is of no concern to anybody but the creator.
Sit in the Space
Moments after delivering blunt criticism, the urge often pops up to "cushion" what you've just said with delightful aftertones. For example, after saying "I don't think the hook is that catchy," you might feel tempted to cushion it with "Well, I mean, I don't know, it's good... I'm not sure, I don't make music so I'm really not the right person to ask." Turn the "cushion" switch off in your head. Say what you think, then let it sit. I promise, the other party will respond, even if it takes a few moments.
Even in podcasts, I feel the urge to cover all of the spaces with my speech. This habit makes for weak criticism and even worse conversations. Bite your tongue once you've offered your insight. Space adds effect. In your head, the space between words always seems longer than the actual pause. Five seconds feels like an eternity. Trust your initial analysis and be prepared to listen.