I Believe So Much in the Power of Effective Feedback. I Also Believe There’s an Effective and Ineffective Way of Giving and Receiving Feedback
“You have: 1. hard glottal attacks, 2. breathiness, 3. too much rise and fall, 4. not enough variation, 5. too monotone — you need more light and shade, 6. you’re too softly spoken — you’re not reaching all four corners, or the back of the room, 7. you need to drive it more, 8. you need to get out of your head …” There were more, but I lost count after 8.
I was absolutely crushed by this feedback. I was ready to walk.
But let’s back up a little to:
My Story: Crushed by Feedback and What I Did Next
I was doing a Foundation in Drama course. I was doing this in the hope that it would help me overcome the crippling fear I had when speaking in public, and also the woodenness that took over my body and movement — or rather lack thereof.
This involved attending drama school every Saturday over the course of the school year. The day was made up of three classes: 1. Movement, 2. Voice, 3. Acting. I’d successfully auditioned to get a place on the course. For the audition, I was required to deliver a short monologue from a contemporary play. My audition piece was a monologue from Dancing at Lughnasa, a play by Irish dramatist Brian Friel. I’d chosen this because it was set in Ireland and played to my Irish accent.
When we began our voice class, we were required to deliver our audition piece again, and we were given feedback on this. This was our baseline from which, over the course of the year we would work to improve upon. I got great feedback. Actually, I’ve always gotten great feedback on my voice, unsolicited feedback. People would say to me: “You’ve got such a lovely voice”, both in person and over the phone. I’m softly spoken with an Irish lilt. I’ve been told my voice is “warm, welcoming, calming, interesting, it puts people at ease, my voice lets people know I’m interested in them.”
At the end of the first term, we were required to give a short recital of a poem. I chose a passage from The Ballad of Reading Gaol by Oscar Wilde. One of my favourite poems by one of my favourite poets. I put a lot of work into preparing my piece, not just learning the lines, but understanding the meaning behind them — understanding what was going on for Wilde at that time in his life. He has always been a man who has intrigued, inspired and influenced me. I really enjoyed all of this preparation, and although nervous delivering my piece to an audience, which was made up of my fellow classmates (I was still working to overcome my crippling fear of speaking in public), I was quietly confident, because of the work I’d put into it, and also because of the good feedback, I’d received on my audition piece.
The following week we all sat around in a circle as one by one we each received feedback on our recital. Mine came at the very end of the class of twenty students. Waiting for performance feedback would normally have been something that would have caused me to become more and more anxious as the time went by, especially feedback that was going to be delivered in front of a group of people. But because of the good work I’d put in, and because of the good feedback I’d always received on my voice, the quiet confidence I had helped to alleviate the anxiety I would normally have felt. So, when my time eventually came, I sat up eagerly awaiting feedback, which I believed was going to be mostly positive with constructive elements to help me improve. Instead, this is what came my way:
“You have: 1. glottal attacks, 2. breathiness, 3. too much rise and fall, 4. not enough variation, 5. too monotone — you need more light and shade, 6. you’re too softly spoken — you’re not reaching all four corners, or the back of the room, 7. you need to drive it more, 8. you need to get out of your head …” There was more, but I zoned out after 8.
Then one of my classmates began to chirp in his tuppence halfpennyworth. I gave him a look that said “kick me while I’m down, why don’t you?”, which he was completely unaware of, and he continued making his points, which I also blocked out. There’s only so much feedback a girl can take. I needed just one thing I was doing well, but that wasn’t forthcoming. I was ready to walk.
I didn’t walk. I didn’t leave the class. I saw the course through, but I did give up. I developed a couldn’t care less attitude. I did what I needed to do, no more. I lost interest really.
As part of our final performance, we had to work in pairs to deliver one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. I was paired with Jon, a wonderful young actor who had a really powerful strong voice. The pairing was quite clever on the teacher’s part. Jon and I complemented each other. He brought his range down to the softness of my voice and I brought power to mine to reach his strength. We also worked well as a double act, drawing out the wonderful underlying humour of Shakespeare, getting laughs in all the intended places from our audience.
I got a distinction on my end of year voice exam. But I didn’t believe it. I didn’t think I’d deserved it. I thought the teacher gave it to me to be nice, and that everyone got a similar grade (which actually wasn’t the case), to make the college look good.
I’d been crushed. This caused me to lose confidence in my voice, and the impact went much wider and much deeper. I lost confidence in myself. The purpose of doing the course was to overcome my anxiety when speaking in public, to become surer of myself and less wooden. To a large extent, I had achieved this through the acting and movement classes.
The acting class particularly because it required us to be vulnerable. Vulnerable because week in week out, we were required to work with and perform to our fellow classmates. I still don’t know why, but the teacher always focused on performances that portrayed negative traits and emotions: i.e. greed, anger, jealously, shame, fear, and so on. It was heavy going, and there were times when we would have appreciated being able to work on something that portrayed positive traits and emotions. I think the teacher really wanted to push us, and to stretch us to really push ourselves. He would say that the Foundation Year in drama was designed to allow students to know if they wanted to follow through with further training towards a career in acting, to know if they had what it took. His feedback was always tough. He would say it’s a tough world out there for actors. This was his way of preparing us in knowing if this is what we wanted, in knowing what to expect. He was in effect toughening us up for the tough world that actors have to face and navigate.
He worked primarily with Stanislavsky’s system, which required us to search for inner motives to justify action and the definition of what the character seeks to achieve at a given moment.
All of this actually helped me get over my crippling fear of speaking in public. I felt that having done everything that was required from me in the acting class week in and week out, with performances that demanded being vulnerable. I felt if I could do that, I could do anything. And the movement class helped me overcome my woodenness. I was a lot more grounded, relaxed and free in how I moved. So, I’d achieved what I had set out to achieve through the Foundation in Drama class.
But I lost confidence in my voice, the most fundamental requirement of speaking in public. The feedback had completely crushed my belief that I could speak to an audience, in a way that would engage them. Being crushed took the confidence I once had in my voice away.
Three years later I did Acting and Performing for Radio, and Voice Over classes. These involved learning about: working on scenes, sound effects, monologues, commercials, audiobooks, voiceovers, and all kinds of microphone techniques.
My reason for doing the classes was because I wanted to develop a podcast, and I also had an idea for a radio programme. My intention wasn’t to speak on the podcast or radio show myself, because I didn’t think my voice was good enough. I wanted to get an understanding of what was involved so I could direct other people.
The classes were amazing. We had so much fun, and I learnt so much. Each week we’d either use the bigger studio to perform a short radio play (we each had our individual roles to include creating sound effects), or we’d record monologues or duologues in the smaller booth. Each week we’d have an assignment to prepare. We’d either have to write a specific piece or we’d have to research a written piece that fitted in with the focus for that week, e.g. commercial, audiobook, monologue, breaking news story. We’d explore voice types from seductive to suspenseful and many, many more.
Our performances were recorded and played back. We’d listen, give feedback on our own work, get feedback from each other, and from David, the teacher. David quickly noticed that I struggled to recognise anything good in my work, and I was dismissive of the good feedback coming from him and my fellow classmates. He gently challenged me on it, and I opened up about what had happened in my voice class. He, and everyone else in the class were genuinely shocked. They were actually slightly outraged on my behalf. They all chirped in to say what a great voice I had. David sensed I wasn’t believing what they were saying, and he was right. I thought they were just being nice.
He had them all put it in context: e.g. that week I’d chosen a passage from a suspense thriller, one of my classmates mentioned how my breathiness really brought that alive. He played back the recording from the previous week, when I’d chosen the L’Oreal ‘Because You’re Worth It’ commercial, and pointed out how the softness of my voice was quite seductive.
I began to recognise and believe what everyone else was hearing in my voice. Slowly over the remaining weeks of the courses, my confidence in my voice returned. I recognised what was good, and also what I could improve upon. This took me back to the textbook I had for the voice foundation class:
The Vocal Arts Workbook: A Practical Course for Developing the Expressive Range of Your Voice by David Carey and Rebecca Clark Carey
I returned to the eight points of feedback and began to look at them objectively: e.g.
- Hard glottal attacks: I was tightly clamping shut my vocal folds before any breath got to them — think words from German language e.g. Nacht (Night) words from Irish language too Buachaill (Boy);
- Breathiness: I was letting a little bit of breath escape before closing my vocal folds — think Marilyn Monroe.
The book has exercises to help connect the voice and breath to overcome these challenges. It’s also filled with exercises to overcome the remaining six points.
Of course, I knew when I’d received the feedback that the book had the solutions to overcome all of these points. But because I’d received only negative feedback I was totally crushed, and instead of working to overcome them I gave up.
This book brings together all the factors that are needed to find one’s own authentic voice.
Words of Wisdom
I believe so much in the power of effective feedback. I also believe there’s an effective and ineffective way of giving and receiving feedback. I’ve never liked the feedback ‘sandwich’, because the crux of what needs to be said and heard can be lost within what is said around it — the dressing that surrounds it.
I believe feedback should be given context. For example, when the teacher said I had had glottal attacks and breathiness, she could also have drawn my attention to particular words on which these happened, e.g. in the English language, words beginning with a vowel tend to cause these problems. Of course, I could have found this out for myself by simply reading the textbook, but I didn’t have an awareness I was doing this until I got the feedback; and because I hadn’t received feedback to this effect when I performed my audition piece or throughout the first term, when I must have been doing it, I struggled in knowing what to do. I actually couldn’t hear myself doing it. This to me would have been constructive feedback. I also think it should have been limited to no more than three points. Three is a good and achievable number to work with. Any more makes it too challenging.
My teacher David and my classmates did put the feedback in context, e.g. how my breathiness brought the suspense needed for the story I was reading, how the softness of my voice brought the seductiveness needed for the commercial voiceover. David gave me feedback on my pacing which helped with many of the other points of feedback my voice teacher had given me, e.g. speeding up, slowing down, pausing, helped overcome points 3 (too much rise and fall), 4 (not enough variation), 5 (too monotone — needing more light and shade — different parts are different in tone and mood) and 7 (needing to drive it more — pace).
He did exercises with us that drew awareness to working with our diaphragm, which helped with point 6 (being too softly spoken, and not reaching all four corners, or the back of the room); and he made the class fun, which helped with point 8 (needing to get out of my head). I prepared well for the class, undertaking the weekly assignments. Then I let go by being present in the moment, which took me out of my head. I had fun and enjoyed the moment.
Because of my renewed confidence in my voice, I continue to work on improving it. I do this by working through exercises in The Vocal Arts Workbook. Sometimes I record myself speaking so I can actually hear myself speak. I then give myself feedback on what’s good about my voice and areas that I need to work on to improve.
The questions I continue to ask myself in WorkLife situations — good, bad, and challenging — are:
What have I learnt from this?
What does this mean in the context of my WorkLife?
What do I want and need to do next?
I then devise a plan to make what I’ve identified happen.
Sometimes your greatest challenge can become your driving motivation, to get you to where you want to be. That has certainly been true for me. Beginning from a place of wanting to overcome my crippling nervousness when speaking in public, and my woodenness, followed (eventually!) by wanting to embrace what was good about my voice, and to work towards improving what wasn’t has led me to where I am in my WorkLife.
I’ve created a WorkLife that allows me to combine my knowledge and experience of WorkLife learning and development with drama-based techniques, by collaborating with performing artists. Our work enables individuals and teams to be more active, spontaneous and flexible, freeing their minds to use their imagination in being inventive and original. The intrinsic nature of our work helps foster creativity, team spirit and emotional intelligence. I work with so many interesting people, helping them manage, develop and transition their WorkLives, and I work with an amazing team of artists in delivering the work.
Today’s featured book is: The Vocal Arts Workbook: A Practical Course for Developing the Expressive Range of Your Voice by David Carey and Rebecca Clark Carey
WorkLife Book Wisdom Stories:
The intention of the stories I share is to inspire you through people’s stories of their WorkLife experiences. Through these stories, you will learn about people’s dreams and ambitions, along with the challenges, obstacles, failures and successes they encountered along the road of their WorkLife journey. And how they used the power of book wisdom to help them find the inspiration and guidance to navigate their path to live their WorkLife with passion, purpose and pride.
My hope is that these book wisdom stories will help you throughout the chapters of your WorkLife Story.
I believe stories are a powerful mechanism for teaching, a powerful medium to learn through, and a powerful way to communicate who you are and what you stand for.