My heart was pounding, but at least I kept it together in the lobby, through the street, and until I got into my car to start sobbing. I knew I had fifteen minutes to let it all out and put on a happy face before I saw my kids. So I called one of my best friends and started to vent.
“I’ve never done so badly in a voiceover. I started out a little unsure, stumbled a few times. But then as the director started coaching me, I just got worse and worse. The more he told me what he wanted and started giving me line readings, the more flustered and strained I sounded. It was awful. Eventually I had to ask to take a break. Something I’ve never done. And when I looked at him when I got out of the booth, we both understood I was not going to be able to give him a usable performance today. And he sent me home. Total fail.”
Getting feedback is tough. And if it’s not given the right way, it can do more harm than good. It’s no wonder most people skip it altogether. The thing is, if we can’t give and receive feedback, our work, art, or family can never improve.
Feedback is vital for our development as individuals and organizations. In the introductory class I teach on improvisation, I get people in a very vulnerable situation—being put on the spot in front of strangers doing something new and then receiving gentle feedback they need to get better and have more fun.
Here are my tips for receiving feedback, in improv and life:
- Ask for feedback. If you are interested in feedback, let people know. Otherwise, they might skip it. I find it is usually the most talented people that ask me for feedback. Is that because it’s a lifelong habit of theirs and that’s why they are so good? Is it because they feel confident enough to ask? I don’t know, but there’s something there. The best performers ask for feedback.
- Write it down. This is my number one tip. If you just do this, you’ll be way ahead of most people. This gives you something to do besides talk back. It gives you time to digest the information you are receiving. It lets the giver of the feedback know that you take it seriously and are listening. It gives you something to come back to when you are in a calmer space, ready to receive the feedback. You can also look back and see if you’ve gotten a note more than once–this might be something to take to heart. One of my favorite improvisers to work with, Kevin Miller, has an awesome improv journal he carries around with all sorts of wisdom in it–feedback, notes, tips, games, and more–and he’s always evolving in to a better improviser.
- Shift from defensiveness to curiosity. If you have to talk, instead of explaining or excusing yourself, (which no one really cares about besides you,) focus on really understanding the information you are given. Ask open ended questions like: “What would that look like?” or “How could I have done things differently?”
- Take what you can and leave the rest. Privately. The feedback you are getting might be worthless, or it might be a total lie coming from a person in a bad place. It’s probably not, but it might be. If you decide that it’s not useful feedback, keep that information to yourself and say, “Thank You.” Then throw it in the trash pile of your mind, along with old telephone numbers and where you left your keys.
- Say thank you. It’s polite and it’s the right thing to do. For most of us, giving people feedback is scary and sticky and we’d rather not do it. So when someone takes the time to think about you, articulate their thoughts, and be brave enough to share, possibly risking your relationship, say “Thank you!”
As for my voiceover session, although I’ve had a lot of success in my voice work, the client was not able to use the performance I gave them. And I probably won’t be asked to work with that director any time soon. But I did get paid for my time, which I was happy about.
At least I got the feedback! (And I’ve got advice on giving feedback too!)
Do you have other advice for giving and receiving feedback? A model you like to use? Merlin Works is developing a course on it to be delivered this summer and we are thinking all about this stuff. Let us know!
The Founder of Merlin Works, Shana Merlin is one of the most experienced and effective improv teachers in Central Texas. The former Dean of The Heroes School of Improvisational Theatre, Shana has been an internationally touring performer and award winning teacher since 1995. Shana has trained with some of the top teachers in the field of improvisation including Keith Johnstone, and members of Second City, The Annoyance, IO, The Groundlings and more.