How to Make a Criticism Sandwich

If we had no faults we should not take so much pleasure in noting those of others.” ~François de La Rochefoucauld

When I was handed my first course to review for The Teaching Company, I got out my red pen and bled it dry.

What a mess that professor was, and I let him know it by rewriting, reorganizing, and reinventing every paragraph. I felt very impressed with myself for being so much smarter and such a better writer than this award-winning (ha!) professor.

criticismSandwich   Since it was my first course for the company, I handed my notes to the person training me.

She said something like, “You clearly have a strong background in editing. This professor won’t have time to make all these changes, so it will be more effective to tell him the 2 or 3 things that will have the biggest impact on how well this teaches, and delete the rest of your notes. I really appreciate how hard you worked on this.”

I just got handed my first criticism sandwich.

The recipe is simple:

  1. Say something genuinely nice (and relevant).
  2. Say the most important things that need to be changed.
  3. Say something genuinely nice (and relevant).

Bread, filling, bread.

Smooth the way, offer the constructive criticism, bow out gracefully.

My trainer was telling me in the sweetest way possible that I’d gone overboard, that my notes were largely useless, and that I’d offend the professor so he wouldn’t listen to anything I had to say that was actually important. Unlike all my other self-important comments.

But if she’d said all that in that way, I wouldn’t have listened, would I? I’d be too busy feeling hurt and having to defend myself. Phrased her way, I got it. And when I highlighted only the most important points needing revision in the course, the professor got it. Win win.

We all reach a point in our writing when we need someone else to review it. And we also all have moments when other people need us to review their writing. (Or courses, or performance, or how dinner was…) We need those moments to have as much impact as possible, and we need to feel good about making changes.

Learning how to deliver the criticism sandwich is one of the most useful tools in my arsenal. It’s an arrow delivered with a marshmallow tip.

It really is as simple as the “recipe” I gave above. The trick is that it takes practice, and it takes awareness that you need practice.

I remember teaching the next new person about how valuable this approach is. To remind herself, she typed, “Kiss kiss love love” at the beginning and end of every review. She then wrote everything she needed to say in between. Before she wrapped up, she fleshed out the niceties and toned down the criticism.

It worked for her. You’ll find your own system, but find it you must, because you need help from other people and other people need help from you. You’ll get further faster with a little kindness along the way.

I wish I’d learned this lesson a lot earlier in life, but I’m thankful I learned it when I did. It has helped me help other people much more effectively.

Try the “criticism sandwich” approach. It’s delicious, nutritious, and much more satisfying than criticism alone.

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Contact Marcy for help crafting your online course. 

Marcy McDonald is an Online Course Producer. She helps Subject Matter Experts and Professors create online courses with better content, delivery, and production, for better teaching. She’s developed ~450 online courses for lifelong learners, worked in video and audio studios, and filmed in the field (literally).

Please send me your questions for future issues, and tune in next Friday for Issue #46 of “Everything You Need to Know to Create Outstanding Online Courses.”

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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