A Note to Coaches – How to Give CONSTRUCTIVE CRITICISM Effectively – Part 2


Now for the other side of the coin…

Coaches and parents must consider the best ways to offer feedback.  What do we say, when do we say it, and how should it be said?

We have already determined that no one really enjoys being criticized. Young forensic speakers are facing fears that many of us adults have never overcome ourselves. Nevertheless, we have been communicating longer than any adolescent and have had considerably more time to develop our sensibilities about the communication process. What a privilege to help them do the same.

Here are a few tips to help guide any critique session. Before offering advice or criticism, we must ask…

Is it warranted? Do we really need to say anything? I recommend beginning with questions like, “What did you do well? What are the strengths of this speech? What still needs work?” Have the students begin with their own evaluations. This is the best way to guarantee that they are developing their personal instincts about communication. In addition, you will be able to discern what they are ready and able to hear during this particular evaluation. It may be that no additional comments are warranted from the coach at all, especially if the students are able to discover, assess, and correct themselves.

Is it timely? Consider the timeliness of your feedback. Are the students already too fatigued to hear you? Has a session run long? Have they been forced to listen exclusively and not been able to offer their own insights about their performance? Are too many corrections being offered? (I recommend only 1-3 suggestions during any given critique.)

Is it solicited? Does the student WANT your feedback? If not, then do not offer it. The trick will be to avoid acting hurt or wounded if your input is not welcome at the time. Caution – do not take this personally! There are so many thoughts and feelings occurring in the young speaker. Wait. Pray. Let the students “own” their decision to defer and receive criticism from someone else at another time. Move on.

Is it specific?  Aim to hit a definite target, not dispense insights like the wild spray of pellets from a shotgun. A single, clearly articulated perception is far better than lots of sweeping generalizations and dissatisfied observations.

Is it helpful? Have you actually proposed a solution? If you notice that the speaker needs to change course or make specific corrections, be sure to provide suggestions. Nothing is more frustrating than for a student to hear, “Something is wrong, but I just can’t put my finger on it.” As coaches, we must point the speaker to new resources or provide a fresh resolution.  With this is mind, we will keep our own observations in check and be less likely to casually express dissatisfaction. We hold ourselves accountable when we are sure to provide remedies as well as render criticisms.

Is it balanced? Finally, it is best to verbalize things that we like as well as what we think needs improvement. Without both kinds of insight, the evaluation will be lopsided and carries the potential of feeling painful to the student. Many personal development experts recommend inserting critical comments between opening and closing positive observations. Some call it the “Oreo cookie” approach. The critical “filling” will be more digestible when surrounded by the sweet, sincere praise of things the evaluator identifies that are already being done “tastefully.” (Yes, I risk overdoing this metaphor!)

There you have it. Critical feedback should be warranted, timely, solicited, specific, helpful, and balanced. When it is, students will communicate all the better, all the more quickly.

Thousands of years ago, Paul of Tarsus and two young comrades, Silvanus and Timothy, penned an epistle to a church in Thessalonica where they included helpful guidelines that can still easily be applied to those of us who coach budding orators today. They wrote,

“And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone.” (1 Thessalonians 5:14)

As the New Year launches and tournaments continue in full force, I hope that we will labor to be patient with the timid and meek among us – even those who outwardly seem to exhibit confidence and bravado. Seth Godin says, “Deciding to lead, not manage, is the critical choice.” (Tribes, 44) If we are able to forego managing students and instead lead and guide them by providing sincere, inspirational insights, there is no limit to the powerful influence that their “voices” will have in the coming generation.