User Research

Managing Stakeholder Feedback: Lessons from Experience

Oct 24, 2022

Getting feedback on professional writing has many benefits; it validates the accuracy of the information, it can improve the clarity and focus of the text, and it gives materials more credibility. It does, however, take time and preparation to ask for and manage feedback. At the 2022 Federal Plain Language Summit, Stephanie M. Morrison, MPH, health and science writer and editor at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), presented five tips for managing reviewers when asking for feedback. View the slides (PowerPoint, 16.7 MB, 19 pages) from her presentation.

Each tip applies to various contexts and is adjustable to each writer’s style.

5 Tips for Managing Reviewers

Tip 1. Make it easy for the reviewer. Give them the information they will need upfront to provide feedback and answer their questions.

Two types of reviewers can require different approaches. 

  • Gatekeepers, such as your supervisor, agency leader, or office of communications, may know the task and won’t need much context for a request.
  • Subject-matter experts, such as analysts, researchers, scientists, and lawyers, may not understand the background of the task yet.
A venn diagram with two overlapping circles. The left circle is labeled Gatekeepers and lists four kinds: supervisor, agency leaders, office of comms, and legal department. A box to the left notes that this ensures appropriateness and consistency with agency style and policy. The right circle is labeled Subject matter experts and lists four kinds: analysts, researchers, scientists, and lawyers. A box to the right notes that this ensures accuracy, currency, and completeness of content. The blue shade indicates there can be some overlap in these roles.

So, when asking subject matter experts to provide feedback, help them to agree by making sure your request is brief and scannable, with essential information upfront. 

You can also specify how much time you expect the review process to take.

Tip 2. Be clear about your editorial process. This step can help avoid misunderstandings later.

Gatekeepers ensure tone appropriateness and consistency with agency style and policy in their reviews. A subject matter expert will ensure the content’s accuracy, currency, and completeness. 

With each group, clarify the review and the feedback process. For example, give clear instructions in an email:

Please flag any errors, unclear text, or missing information. It may be easiest to use the “track changes” feature to mark up the attached document and send it back via email. After your review, our division lead and agency director will also have an opportunity to weigh in.

Tip 3. Have a reasonable timeline. Make sure everyone knows what it is. Follow up when you say you will.

For all stakeholders, set a review deadline upfront. With subject matter experts, tell them when to follow up and make two separate attempts. Then, after a grace period, look for another reviewer or ask whether there’s someone else they can recommend to keep the review process going.

Tip 4. Build relationships. Ask if you can approach reviewers again in the future and keep a list of reviewers with contact information.

Tip 5. Always be grateful for feedback. Asking reviewers for feedback can be a great way to build your interpersonal and diplomacy skills. See each interaction as an opportunity to promote the value and helpfulness of plain language and to demonstrate how the audience will benefit. Even suggestions you do not use that were given in good faith are valuable—all feedback is a gift!

At times you will disagree with suggestions or feedback. It’s normal to feel defensive. Your goal is to move past the initial reaction and find what is useful in the feedback. Have a short conversation with the reviewer if you have the time, making sure to listen and ask clarifying questions while they explain the thinking behind their input. As a result, you might be able to work on elements of their feedback in a whole new way. Remember to thank the reviewer for their feedback, even if you don’t accept their suggestion.

While asking stakeholders to review and make suggestions on a document can be tricky, these tips will set you up for success when working with reviews within, as well as outside of, your agency.

Action

To connect with others, join the Plain Language Community of Practice. Visit the PlainLanuage.gov website to review its guidelines, and explore resources and examples across a variety of content types.