The Bad News Sandwich: How to Give (and Receive) Feedback

At Princeton Writes, we host writing and public speaking classes and workshops, and toward the end of each session, we ask participants to share their writing or to give short speeches in front of the group. This requires vulnerability on the part of the writers and speakers and compassion on the part of the audience.

Afterwards, we ask for feedback from the audience. This request is often met with silence. Audience members look away, readers and speakers shift awkwardly, until finally, someone starts.

To make it easier, we give the audience and the presenters guidelines to follow, so feedback can be constructive. First, we establish that apologizing is not allowed. If you apologize for your speech or tell the audience how bad you thought your writing was, they might decide to agree with you! Whenever you put yourself out there, you are giving your audience the gift of your time and talent and your confidence puts them at ease. Audiences usually want the presenter to succeed. They’re rooting for you!

Then, we ban simple generalities: you cannot just say you liked something or didn’t find it effective unless you are willing to say why. We ask for specific examples of what was compelling about a story or a speech, which parts created a connection, and how delivery affected the audience. We also ask how the stories or speeches could be improved.

It is often difficult for people to talk about what isn’t working in a story or speech. We are conditioned to be polite, but politeness doesn’t improve anything. Constructive criticism is a gift that helps writers and speakers grow.

One way to offer criticism with kindness is the “Bad News Sandwich.” This entails offering a compliment first for some aspect of the presentation, for example, “Your speech was very well organized.” Next, constructive feedback is offered, for example, “I couldn’t hear you very well. It would help if you spoke up.” This is the “meat” of the sandwich. Finally, another compliment is offered, such as, “You made great eye contact with me during your talk.” This provides a fuller picture of the speech and helps presenters open up to understanding how their words and ideas are received.

Once presenters and audiences get used to giving authentic feedback, they often ask for more. Criticism is valuable information to a creator. It helps guide the author or speaker in how to deliver their message clearly, concisely, and confidently.