Lessons on Coaching: Why “Punch It Up” Isn’t Constructive Criticism

Anyone who’s agonized over a critical piece of marketing collateral knows that sinking feeling when you get this kind of feedback from higher-ups:

“Make it snappier.”

“NOT what I wanted.”

“Needs a total rewrite.”

Whether the comments are completely vague, thoroughly rude, or simply inscrutable, they have the same effect on a beleaguered marketer. I’d call it despair: When I’m faced with feedback on which I can take no action without begging for translation, I know I’m in for hours of extra work.

There’s one good thing about fielding craptastic commentary on your work: You learn how NOT to coach the people you give guidance to, and instead understand how to encourage great work from everyone around you. You learn that being abrupt and insulting doesn’t encourage colleagues to rise to the occasion. And you learn that coaching is a collaborative process that gives content developers ownership of their work, and makes them proud to join your team for the next project.

Herewith, my list of top do’s and don’ts for marketers who want to be known as worthy coaches:

Do offer positive feedback along with your critique. (Kind of like what you do with children but without the hugging.) The idea is to find something nice to say before you start pointing out the problems.

Don’t offer direction that no one understands (perhaps not even you). Saying “make it punchier” or “give it some life” is not providing feedback—it telegraphs the fact that you don’t really know what you’re doing.

Do ask yourself if you’re changing copy or concepts to genuinely make them better, or if you’re making changes simply because you’d do it differently. If it’s the latter, don’t do that! Let your content creators find their own voices. It instills confidence.

Don’t offer vague high-level comments without drilling down into problems (like, “This isn’t working” or “I know there is something wrong with this whole thing, but I can’t explain what it is”). Better to suggest alternative language or approaches. If you don’t like the way the writer is saying something, do you have a better idea?

Don’t offer feedback that has no resolution (for example, “I bet legal will hate this,” or “Not sure about the headline”). Explain what the content creator should do next, such as talk to internal stakeholders or do more research.

Don’t point out mistakes or inaccuracies without correcting them. “This is wrong” is not feedback.

Do be polite. Politeness costs nothing. Unnecessary rudeness will cause your colleagues to stop listening to you—and that’s not what you want, is it?

Remember that you get out of coaching what you put into it. If you spend only a few seconds reviewing collateral and slap on a few unhelpful comments, you shouldn’t be surprised that the next rev is still off-base. Review, comment, and properly edit for 30 minutes (yes, it’s a commitment), and when the final product gets kudos, you’ll look good, too.

By Chris Kent