Elements of Effective Feedback

Learning Objectives

Explain the elements of effective feedback.

So far, feedback that is nonverbal and verbal while in a communicative event was discussed. How about giving feedback to improve? Providing feedback whether written or verbal can be tricky. It seems simple as many think one should just say or write what they think about a performance, but it really isn’t. Providing feedback in a way that will be received by another person takes practice.

There is much written about what constitutes effective feedback. Even with all these recommendations, it boils down to five areas: be timely, behavior-focused, observation-based, specific, and reasonable.


A piece of paper is stamped with the date 2007 November 05. You have probably heard that “timing is everything.” Though it’s not exactly “everything,” timing does play a role in giving and receiving feedback.

Imagine that Imar completed a small project at the beginning of the performance period at work. As Imar didn’t receive any feedback, he made the assumption that the project was completed well and it was okay. Nine months later when Imar’s performance evaluation is conducted, he learns that there were significant problems with the project. The supervisor was not satisfied with the end product and wrote this into the evaluation. How do you think that Imar feels? Most likely, he is very upset and does not understand what went wrong. Since Imar had not received any feedback, he assumed it all went well. It is a big blow for him to learn that the project had significant issues. This lack of timely feedback could make Imar start to dislike his job.

This example teaches that feedback must be given close to the event. For presentations, this feedback should be given within a day or two after the event. If you receive an evaluation form, you should fill it out right away and return it. This evaluation allows for the speaker to learn what went well and where improvement can be made for the next presentation. For employees, once a project is completed, it is essential to learn what was done well and what could be fixed or improved. Waiting too long to give feedback leads the person (like in Imar’s example) to believe that everything went well or to wonder what others thought.

Therefore, when you give feedback, consider the timeframe for providing constructive comments. Make sure it is done within a short period after something is completed. The recipient will be glad that you took the time to provide feedback.


Providing good feedback should not focus on the person, but on the behavior. This means that when you tell people what they need to improve, it is better to talk about what they did and not who they are.

To illustrate, when Mia was giving her introductory speech, Mia was not looking at the audience. It is better to tell Mia that she could improve her eye contact rather than saying that she didn’t connect with the audience. To say that she didn’t connect with the audience makes it seem like Mia as a person did something wrong. The behavior here is what Mia did with her eyes. Not using eye contact could lead to not connecting with the audience but not necessarily. In truth, Mia just needs to look more at the audience.

When you are in a communicative event, you will notice that you feel like you aren’t engaged with the speaker. Ask yourself, “why?” What is the person doing (behaving) that made you feel this way. Answering why and observing the behavior will allow you to pinpoint what made you feel unengaged. Was it a word that you found offensive? Was it the speaker’s posture? Was it a nonverbal cue? Those answers will help you identify behaviors that got in the way of your engagement. Pointing out these behaviors help communicators improve and help them not take the feedback personally.


A woman looking through binocularsThroughout this section, we have discussed nonverbal communication, verbal utterances, active listening, and feedback. Each one of these areas require observation. Much of the observation is subconscious. However, to be an engaged communicator, conscious observation is necessary.

Active listening helps with fine tuning your own observational skills. Observing behaviors helps with deriving meaning, noting nonverbal actions, defining utterances, and providing appropriate feedback. Therefore, one way to improve your active listening is to pay close attention to everything that the speaker is doing. How are they moving, what do their words mean, how do you interpret their nonverbal behaviors, and so on?

You can use these observations to identify behaviors that the communicator can improve. These observations are how you can provide feedback that is meaningful. Once you observe the behavior and note that it needs improvement, you can specify to the presenter what it is that would help your experience as an audience member.


Behavior and observation dovetail into being specific. By giving specific feedback, the presenter is able to improve. They will know exactly what it is that didn’t work for you in their performance. Being too broad and unclear only confuses the person and they are more likely to disregard this feedback instead of exploring how to become better.

For example, let’s go back to Imar. Imar did receive feedback, albeit too late, on the project. He learned that the project didn’t run well. Reading this negative feedback in the evaluation had Imar scratching his head and wondering, “what does that mean? Didn’t run well.” How does this feedback help Imar improve? If Imar is comfortable, he can meet with his supervisor and ask what the feedback means and how he can improve the project. If Imar is not comfortable, he is not going to ask for clarification and thus improve his performance, which might end badly for him as an employee.


Being reasonable means using your common sense when giving feedback. Don’t focus on too much all at once; that can overwhelm people or make them feel inadequate. Conversely, don’t focus on too little either. It is hard to improve if only one comment is given, like “it didn’t run well.”

Children on a see-saw with their familiesIt is important to take a balanced approach. You want to give the person some behaviors that really worked well along with those that need improvement. You should consider what is the right amount for both. If you give too much positive feedback, they may feel that the improvements are not important. If you give too little positive feedback, they might think that they did a terrible job. You don’t want either reaction.

One good idea is that for every two behaviors exhibited, one area of improvement is noted. If there are more positive behaviors than needed improvements, you can balance this by stating four things done well and two to improve. It is better to weigh heavier with the positives than negatives. In every speech, something is always done well. It is easy to know what didn’t work for you in a speech. So, make sure to actively listen and observe behaviors and you will find things that work—good word structure, nice gestures, good posture, nice vocal volume, professional clothing, and so on.

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