Giving feedback on creative work is a tricky challenge, for two main reasons:
- Artists and creatives identify very closely with their work
When a creative worker puts a piece of work in front of you, it is as though they were putting a piece of themselves there to be judged – because of this, it is almost inevitable that they take criticism personally.
- The value of creative work is largely subjective
We all know this from arguments with friends about music and films – one personâ€™s masterpiece is utter rubbish to someone else. Shakespeare, Welles and Picasso are only â€˜greatâ€™ because there is a current consensus of opinion that makes them so, and fashions can change. So itâ€™s very difficult to make a final judgement with absolute certainty, no matter how strongly you feel about it.
But feedback is vital to producing outstanding work. Without some sense of how one’s work appears to others, it’s very hard to decide how to develop it. For Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, feedback is an essential ingredient in the experience of creative flow – when we sense that we are creating something valuable, it increases our pleasure and absorption in the work.
So feedback is essential, but how should we approach it? Specifically:
- How can we give genuinely constructive feedback on a piece of creative work, even if we aren’t experts in the medium?
- When we’re on the receiving end, how can we make the most of the feedback we receive from others – or at least develop a thicker skin?
‘Too many notes’ – the Emperor from ‘Amadeus’ shows us how not to do it
My favourite example of how not to give feedback on creative work is the Emperor Josef II of Austria, as he appears in Amadeus – a film I’ve previously written about as a parable of creativity.
The Emperor is not stupid, nor is he a philistine. He comes across as an intelligent and honest man trying to do his best for his subjects. And he aspires to culture, as an amateur musician and a lover and patron of music. The ‘musical King’ surrounds himself with composers and music scholars, patronises the opera, concert halls and music schools, and commissions exciting new works from established composers and rising stars.
And yet, as Salieri points out, “actually the man had no ear at all”. This is partly a deficiency of talent – regardless of the approach he took to musical studies, the Emperor would never be in danger of rivaling Mozart or Salieri. But it is also a deficiency of circumstance. Because of his position, the assembled musical experts around him are afraid to tell him where he’s going wrong, or even how bad his playing is.
For example, in the scene where Salieri has written a welcome march for Mozart on his first visit to the Imperial court, to Salieri’s dismay, the Emperor volunteers to play it to welcome the guest. Salieri groans inwardly, knowing his tune will be mangled, but in deference to the Emperor’s position he can only murmur “You do me too much honour, Sire”. His worst fears are confirmed when the Emperor gives a hilariously hamfisted performance – while Salieri can only tiptoe around him, desperate to correct the royal ear and hands, but not daring to venture beyond “Very good Majesty”.
And that, in miniature, is the Emperor’s life. He is surrounded by people who could help him if only they dared – or he dared – to sidestep protocol in favour of an honest assessment of his failings and suggestions for improvement.
In short, he is The Man With No Feedback.
You can see the result on his face, in the permanently wooden expression of Jeffrey Jones, who gives a brilliantly stilted performance. You can hear it in his awful playing. And it is glaringly obvious in his lack of refined judgment. He prefers Salieri to Mozart. He yawns at the Marriage of Figaro. And he provokes a truly toe-curling scene after the premiere of Mozart’s first opera in Vienna. The Emperor takes the stage in front of the admiring audience and proceeds to dole out praise to the young composer. At first he is effusive, telling Mozart it is “An excellent effort”. Mozart is pleased, hanging on his every word, looking for more.
Then the Emperor drops his clanger.
Mozart So then you liked it? You really liked it, Sire?
Emperor Well of course I did, it’s very good! Of course now and then – just now and then – it seemed a touch, er –
Mozart What do you mean, Sire?
Emperor Well, I mean occasionally it seems to have – oh how shall one say? (turning to Orsini-Rosenberg) How shall one say, Director?
Orsini-Rosenberg Too many notes, Your Majesty?
Emperor Exactly, very well put. Too many notes.
In his eagerness to present himself as an authoritative critic, the Emperor has made himself a hostage to Orsini-Rosenberg’s spite. Recognising he’s in trouble, he looks to Salieri for reassurance:
Mozart I don’t understand. There are just as many notes, Majesty, as are required, neither more nor less.
Emperor My dear fellow, there are in fact only so many notes the ear can hear in the course of an evening. I think I’m right in saying that, aren’t I, Court Composer?
Salieri Yes. Yes, on the whole, yes, Majesty.
Poor Salieri is in agony, aware that he has forsaken his musical conscience by toadying to his paymaster, but he doesn’t see what else he can do. It is the Emperor’s New Clothes all over again. Except that Mozart, like the little boy in the fairy tale, refuses to play the game:
Emperor My dear, young man, don’t take it too hard. Your work is ingenious. It’s quality work. And there are simply too many notes, that’s all. Cut a few and it will be perfect.
Mozart Which few did you have in mind, Majesty?
As so often in this film, Mozart remains true to music above all other masters (or mistresses). He challenges the Emperor to back up his judgment by distinguishing between the quantity of the notes (‘too many’) and their quality (‘which few…?’). And His Majesty cannot do it. And everyone squirms with embarrassment – before Peter Schaffer lets us off the hook with the comic entrance of Mozart’s landlady and future mother-in-law.
How the Emperor gets it so wrong
1. He offers a second-hand opinion
It’s hard to defend someone else’s opinion. Because he has merely borrowed Orsini-Rosenberg’s judgment, as if it were a walking stick, he doesn’t know what it is based on or how to present it convincingly.
2. He pretends to expertise he doesn’t have
The Emperor pretends to be an expert when he is nothing of the kind. He is not a musician, nor even a qualified critic, but an amateur music lover. And there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you are honest about who you are and your qualifications to pass judgment.
For example, I’m not a graphic designer, so would never presume to give a professional designer advice on where s/he’s going wrong and how to fix it. But if I’m asked, I’m perfectly happy to give a layman’s view of how it looks to me, the kind of impression it makes and how it makes me feel. The Emperor could probably have done the same for Mozart – if he’d allowed himself to give an honest response about the feelings the music had stirred in him.
3. He fails to provide any criteria for judgment
Because he is merely regurgitating the Count’s words, he has no idea of the criteria on which the judgment is based. And unfortunately for him, the Count’s criteria are malicious rather than musical. So the Emperor is reduced to offering an ex cathedra judgment which is of no use at all to the artist. This is the kind of stance that infuriates designers when they ask for a brief and are told “I’ll know it when I see it”.
4. He is tactless
Because he has no experience of receiving genuine feedback himself, the Emperor has little awareness of how it affects Mozart – he doesn’t realise he’s touched a raw nerve and so is surprised by Mozart’s hostile response. With even a rudimentary sense of tact, the Emperor would have realised that all the occasion (and composer) called for were a few laudatory platitudes – there was no need to antagonise Mozart and put his own critical reputation on the line in public.
5. He is patronising
The one aspect of the Emperor’s approach that is slightly commendable is his evident eagerness not to discourage Mozart. There is no malice in his criticism, merely ignorance. But because his judgment on the work is flawed, he comes across as patronising and insincere when he tells him “don’t take it too hard”.
Back in the real world…
Back in the ‘real world’ of agencies and studios, variations on this scene are played out every day, as clients, account handlers, managers and assorted others deliver their verdict on the work placed before them by creatives. Paul Kitcatt, Creative Partner at Kittcatt Nohr Alexander Shaw, describes a particularly memorable encounter:
Old-fashioned ad agencies keep their Creatives away from clients. With good reason. I know one who, having presented his work and had it rejected, got up on the table and mooned the startled client. They’re animals, you see, and keeping them hidden adds to the mystique.
If things rarely get this bad, there is clearly plenty of scope for professional relationships to be soured by poorly-delivered or poorly-received feedback. The Emperor embodies both aspects of the problem: on the one hand he is like the artist or creative who is too important or sensitive to receive feedback and make good use of it; on the other, he is the manager or client who delivers bad news in such a clumsy fashion that he risks destroying the relationship.
I’ll address this double problem in two follow-up posts on giving and receiving feedback. For now, I’ll leave you with another classic line from the Emperor, the master of summing-up without coming to a conclusion:
Well. There it is.