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No matter how you’re involved in the speech/debate scene, at some point you’ll probably be asked to give feedback to help other people improve. This post aims to make that feedback better.

“Fix patterns, not problems.”

– Tracy Wilk, former Google executive, quoting one of his former coworkers (also at Google).

If I could make that quote take up most of this page without ruining the formatting on your browser, I would. It’s important because it illustrates a couple of general principles: feedback should be generalizable and actionable. Feedback which is generalizable and actionable is focused on the next speech or the next debate round.

When feedback is not about a pattern that is likely to be repeated, it becomes pointless criticism. You gain no points for merely spotting something that a typical “good speaker” would’ve done differently if that thing is a singular occurrance.

Such criticism is usually like saying “you made a typo in the paragraph above!”, rather than the more helpful advice “always use spell check.” Another common example of this sort of unhelpful feedback typically begins by criticizing the logic of a specific argument. Three things make this problematic:

(1) People learn logic and argumentation by making arguments—and rarely by hearing a coach talk about why their specific arguments were wrong;

(2) The specific argument may not resurface—and thus may not be generalizable; and

(3) There’s nothing to do about a bad argument once it’s made—and thus it is not actionable.

Quick Tips

  • Use phrases like “You have a tendency to….” and “I think you struggle with…” Framing the matter in terms of a pattern will help you generalize your feedback.
  • Show, don’t tell. I typically ask students with overactive gestures to hold large objects—a shoe, for example—so they’re conscious of their hand movements. No one learns well from a coach who drones on. Do better by coming up with creative ways to show the speaker where they need to improve. Smartphones (easy video recording!) makes this super easy nowadays, but don’t be afraid to throw in the odd drill or unusual stunt.
  • If you feel like you’re talking too much, you’re probably talking too much. Make it a conversation. (“Have you gotten that feedback before?” “What have you done about it?” “Want to redo that section at a different pace?”, etc.) This will help you target the feedback to the speaker and their unique struggles.
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