20 5.4 Listenable Messages and Effective Feedback
- List strategies for creating listenable messages.
- Evaluate messages produced by others using competent feedback.
- Discuss strategies for self-evaluation of communication.
We should not forget that sending messages is an important part of the listening process. Although we often think of listening as the act of receiving messages, that passive view of listening overlooks the importance of message construction and feedback. In the following section, we will learn how speakers can facilitate listening by creating listenable messages and how listeners help continue the listening process through feedback for others and themselves.
Creating Listenable Messages
Some of the listening challenges we all face would be diminished if speakers created listenable messages. Listenable messages are orally delivered messages that are tailored to be comprehended by a listener (Rubin, 1993). While most of our communication is in an “oral style,” meaning spoken and intended to be heard, we sometimes create messages that are unnecessarily complex in ways that impede comprehension. Listenable messages can be contrasted with most written messages, which are meant to be read.
The way we visually process written communication is different from the way we process orally delivered and aurally received language. Aside from processing written and spoken messages differently, we also speak and write differently. This becomes a problem for listening when conventions of written language get transferred into oral messages. You may have witnessed or experienced this difficulty if you have ever tried or watched someone else try to orally deliver a message that was written to be read, not spoken. For example, when students in my classes try to deliver a direct quote from one of their research sources or speak verbatim a dictionary definition of a word, they inevitably have fluency hiccups in the form of unintended pauses or verbal trip-ups that interfere with their ability to deliver the content. These hiccups consequently make the message difficult for the audience to receive and comprehend.
This isn’t typically a problem in everyday conversations, because when we speak impromptu we automatically speak in an oral style. We have a tendency, however, to stray from our natural oral style when delivering messages that we have prepared in advance—like speeches. This is because we receive much more training in creating messages to be read than we do in creating messages to be spoken. We are usually just expected to pick up the oral style of communicating through observation and trial and error. Being able to compose and deliver messages in an oral style, as opposed to a written style, is a crucial skill to develop in order to be a successful public speaker. Since most people lack specific instruction in creating messages in an oral rather than written style, you should be prepared to process messages that aren’t as listenable as you would like them to be. The strategies for becoming an active listener discussed earlier in this chapter will also help you mentally repair or restructure a message to make it more listenable. As a speaker, in order to adapt your message to a listening audience and to help facilitate the listening process, you can use the following strategies to create more listenable messages:
- Use shorter, actively worded sentences.
- Use personal pronouns (“I want to show you…”).
- Use lists or other organizational constructions like problem-solution, pro-con, or compare-contrast.
- Use transitions and other markers that help a listener navigate your message (time markers like “today”; order indicators like “first, second, third”; previews like “I have two things I’d like to say about that”; and reviews like “So, basically I feel like we should vacation at the lake instead of the beach because…”).
- Use examples relevant to you and your listener’s actual experiences.
Giving Formal Feedback to Others
The ability to give effective feedback benefits oneself and others. Whether in professional or personal contexts, positive verbal and nonverbal feedback can boost others’ confidence, and negative feedback, when delivered constructively, can provide important perception checking and lead to improvements. Of course, negative feedback that is not delivered competently can lead to communication difficulties that can affect a person’s self-esteem and self-efficacy. Although we rarely give formal feedback to others in interpersonal contexts, it is important to know how to give this type of feedback, as performance evaluations are common in a variety of professional, academic, and civic contexts.
It is likely that you will be asked at some point to give feedback to another person in an academic, professional, or civic context. As companies and organizations have moved toward more team-based work environments over the past twenty years, peer evaluations are now commonly used to help assess job performance. I, for example, am evaluated every year by two tenured colleagues, my department chair, and my dean. I also evaluate my graduate teaching assistants and peers as requested. Since it’s important for us to know how to give competent and relevant feedback, and since the feedback can be useful for the self-improvement of the receiver, many students are asked to complete peer evaluations verbally and/or in writing for classmates after they deliver a speech. The key to good feedback is to offer constructive criticism, which consists of comments that are specific and descriptive enough for the receiver to apply them for the purpose of self-improvement. The following are guidelines I provide my students for giving feedback, and they are also adaptable to other contexts.
When Giving Feedback to Others
- Be specific. I often see a lack of specific comments when it comes to feedback on speech delivery. Students write things like “Eye contact” on a peer comment sheet, but neither the student nor I know what to do with the comment. While a comment like “Good eye contact” or “Not enough eye contact” is more specific, it’s not descriptive enough to make it useful.
- Be descriptive. I’d be hard pressed to think of a descriptive comment that isn’t also specific, because the act of adding detail to something usually makes the point clearer as well. The previous “Not enough eye contact” comment would be more helpful and descriptive like this: “You looked at your notes more than you looked at the audience during the first thirty seconds of your speech.”
- Be positive. If you are delivering your feedback in writing, pretend that you are speaking directly to the person and write it the same way. Comments like “Stop fidgeting” or “Get more sources” wouldn’t likely come out during verbal feedback, because we know they sound too harsh. The same tone, however, can be communicated through written feedback. Instead, make comments that are framed in such a way as to avoid defensiveness or hurt feelings.
- Be constructive. Although we want to be positive in our feedback, comments like “Good job” aren’t constructive, because a communicator can’t actually take that comment and do something with it. A comment like “You were able to explain our company’s new marketing strategy in a way that even I, as an engineer, could make sense of. The part about our new crisis communication plan wasn’t as clear. Perhaps you could break it down the same way you did the marketing strategy to make it clearer for people like me who are outside the public relations department.” This statement is positively framed, specific, and constructive because the speaker can continue to build on the positively reviewed skill by applying it to another part of the speech that was identified as a place for improvement.
- Be realistic. Comments like “Don’t be nervous” aren’t constructive or realistic. Instead, you could say, “I know the first speech is tough, but remember that we’re all in the same situation and we’re all here to learn. I tried the breathing exercises discussed in the book and they helped calm my nerves. Maybe they’ll work for you, too?” I’ve also had students make comments like “Your accent made it difficult for me to understand you,” which could be true but may signal a need for more listening effort since we all technically have accents, and changing them, if possible at all, would take considerable time and effort.
- Be relevant. Feedback should be relevant to the assignment, task, and/or context. I’ve had students give feedback like “Rad nail polish” and “Nice smile,” which although meant as compliments are not relevant in formal feedback unless you’re a fashion consultant or a dentist.
Giving Formal Feedback to Yourself
An effective way to improve our communication competence is to give ourselves feedback on specific communication skills. Self-evaluation can be difficult, because people may think their performance was effective and therefore doesn’t need critique, or they may become their own worst critic, which can negatively affect self-efficacy. The key to effective self-evaluation is to identify strengths and weaknesses, to evaluate yourself within the context of the task, and to set concrete goals for future performance. What follows are guidelines that I give my students for self-evaluation of their speeches.
When Giving Feedback to Yourself
- Identify strengths and weaknesses. We have a tendency to be our own worst critics, so steer away from nit-picking or overfocusing on one aspect of your communication that really annoys you and sticks out to you. It is likely that the focus of your criticism wasn’t nearly as noticeable or even noticed at all by others. For example, I once had a student write a self-critique of which about 90 percent focused on how his face looked red. Although that was really salient for him when he watched his video, I don’t think it was a big deal for the audience members.
- Evaluate yourself within the context of the task or assignment guidelines. If you are asked to speak about your personal life in a creative way, don’t spend the majority of your self-evaluation critiquing your use of gestures. People have a tendency to overanalyze aspects of their delivery, which usually only accounts for a portion of the overall effectiveness of a message, and underanalyze their presentation of key ideas and content. If the expectation was to present complex technical information in a concrete way, you could focus on your use of examples and attempts to make the concepts relevant to the listeners.
- Set goals for next time. Goal setting is important because most of us need a concrete benchmark against which to evaluate our progress. Once goals are achieved, they can be “checked off” and added to our ongoing skill set, which can enhance confidence and lead to the achievement of more advanced goals.
- Revisit goals and assess progress at regular intervals. We will not always achieve the goals we set, so it is important to revisit the goals periodically to assess our progress. If you did not meet a goal, figure out why and create an action plan to try again. If you did achieve a goal, try to build on that confidence to meet future goals.
- To create listenable messages, which are orally delivered messages tailored to be comprehended by a listener, avoid long, complex sentences; use personal pronouns; use lists or other organizational constructions; use transitions and other markers to help your listener navigate your message; and use relevant examples.
- Getting integrated: Although we rarely give formal feedback in interpersonal contexts, we give informal feedback regularly to our relational partners that can enhance or detract from their self-esteem and affect our relationships. While we also give informal feedback in academic, professional, and civic contexts, it is common practice to give formal feedback in the form of performance evaluations or general comments on an idea, product, or presentation.
- When giving feedback to others, be specific, descriptive, positive, constructive, realistic, and relevant.
- When giving feedback to yourself, identify strengths and weaknesses, evaluate yourself within the contexts of the task or assignment, set goals for next time, and revisit goals to access progress.
- Apply the strategies for creating listenable messages to a speech you recently gave or a speech you are currently working on. Which strategies did/will you employ? Why?
- Recall an instance in which someone gave you feedback that didn’t meet the guidelines that are listed in this section. In what ways did the person’s feedback fall short of the guidelines, and what could the person have done to improve the feedback?
- Using the guidelines for self-evaluation (feedback to self), assess one of your recent speeches. If you haven’t given a speech recently, assess another communication skill using the same guidelines, such as your listening abilities or your skill at providing constructive criticism.
Rubin, D. L., “Listenability = Oral-based Discourse + Considerateness,” in Perspectives on Listening, eds. Andrew D. Wolvin and Carolyn Gwynn Coakley (Norwood, NJ: Alex Publishing Corporation, 1993), 269.