5.6 Listenable Messages and Effective Feedback

Learning Objectives

  • Describe strategies for creating listenable messages.
  • Explain the guidelines for providing constructive feedback.
  • Explain the guidelines for self-evaluation feedback.

We should remember that sending messages is integral to the listening process. Although we often think of listening as receiving messages, that passive view of listening overlooks the importance of message construction and feedback. In the following section, we will learn how speakers can facilitate listening by creating listenable messages and how listeners help continue the listening process through feedback for others and themselves.

Creating Listenable Messages

Some of our listening challenges would be diminished if speakers created listenable messages. Listenable messages are verbal messages that are individualized and intended to be understood by a listener.  While most of our communication is in an “oral style,” meaning spoken and designed to be heard, we sometimes create unnecessarily complex messages in ways that impede comprehension. Listenable messages can be contrasted with most written messages, which are meant to be read.

How we visually process written communication differs from how we process orally delivered and aurally received language. Aside from processing written and spoken messages differently, we also talk and write differently. This becomes a problem for listening when conventions of written language are transferred into oral statements. You may have witnessed or experienced this difficulty if you have ever tried or watched someone else try to orally deliver a message that was written to be read, not spoken. For example, when students in class try to give a direct quote from one of their research sources or speak verbatim a dictionary definition of a word, they inevitably have fluency hiccups in the form of unintended pauses or verbal trip-ups that interfere with their ability to deliver the content. These hiccups make the message difficult for the audience to receive and comprehend.

This is not typically a problem in daily conversations because we automatically speak orally. We have a tendency, however, to stray from our natural oral style when delivering messages that we have prepared in advance — such as speeches. This is because we receive much more training in creating messages to be read than in creating messages to be spoken. We are usually expected to pick up the oral communication style through observation and trial and error. Compiling and delivering messages in an oral rather than a written style is a crucial skill for health professionals to develop. Since most people lack specific instruction in creating messages in an oral rather than written style, you should be prepared to process messages that are not as listenable as you would like. The strategies for becoming an active listener discussed earlier in this chapter will also help you mentally repair or restructure a message to make it more understandable. As a speaker, to adapt your message to a listening audience and to help facilitate the listening process, you can use the following strategies to create more listenable messages:

  • use shorter, actively worded sentences
  • use personal pronouns (i.e. she/her; he/him; they/them)
  • use lists or other organizational constructions such as problem–solution, pro-con, or compare–contrast
  • use transitions and other markers that help a listener navigate your message (time markers like “today”; order indicators like “first, second, third”; previews like “I have two things I would like to say about that”; and reviews like “So, basically I feel like we should vacation at the lake instead of the beach because … ”)
  • Use examples relevant to you and your listener’s actual experiences

Giving Formal Feedback to Others

The ability to give effective feedback benefits oneself and others. Whether in professional or personal contexts, positive verbal and nonverbal feedback can boost others’ confidence and academic success, and negative feedback, when delivered constructively, can provide important perception checking and lead to improvements (Hanover, 2014). Of course, negative feedback not delivered competently can lead to communication difficulties that can affect a person’s self-esteem and self-efficacy. Although we rarely give formal feedback to others in interpersonal contexts, it is essential to know how to provide this type of feedback, as performance evaluations are typical in various academic and professional contexts.


Image of two people.  One person is giving the other person verbal feedback.
Figure 5.6.1. The ability to give verbal feedback helps personal and professional relationships grow.

You will likely be asked to give feedback to another person in an academic or professional context. As health-care-related settings and businesses have moved toward more team-based work environments, peer evaluations are now commonly used to help assess job performance. Since we must know how to give competent and relevant feedback, and since the input can be helpful for the self-improvement of the receiver, many students are asked to complete peer evaluations verbally or in writing for classmates after they deliver a presentation. The key to good feedback is offering constructive feedback, consisting of specific and descriptive comments for the receiver to apply for self-improvement. The following are guidelines for students to give feedback, and they are also adaptable to other contexts.

When Giving Feedback to Others

Focus on the behaviour, not the person. State the behaviour, describe your feelings, and end with what you want. This model enables you to avoid sounding accusatory by using “I” and focusing on behaviours instead of assumed interpretations. Example: “I have not seen you in class for a week. I am worried that you are missing important information. Can we meet soon to discuss it?” Instead of: “You do not care about this course!” (University of Waterloo, 2023).

Balance the content. Use the “sandwich approach.”  Provide feedback on specific strengths, reinforcing what the recipient should keep doing. Then present specific areas where growth or change is required and include specific strategies for growth or change. Additional positive statements follow this. The aim is to enhance confidence and keep opportunities for growth or change in perspective. Example: “Your presentation was great. You made good eye contact and were well-prepared. You were a little hard to hear at the back of the room, but you can overcome this with practice. Keep up the good work!” Instead of: “You did not speak loudly enough. However, the presentation went well” (University of Waterloo, para. 15, 2023).

Be specific. There is often a need for more specific comments regarding feedback on speech or presentation delivery. Students write “eye contact” on a peer comment sheet, but neither the student nor the faculty member knows what to do with the comment. While a word like “good eye contact” or “not enough eye contact” is more specific, it is not descriptive enough to make it worthwhile.

Be descriptive. It is challenging to think of an explanatory comment that is not also specific because adding detail to something usually makes the point more straightforward. The previous “not enough eye contact” comment would be more helpful and descriptive if communicated like this: “You looked at your notes more than you looked at the audience during the first 30 seconds of your speech.”

Be positive. If you deliver your feedback in writing, pretend that you are speaking directly to the person and write it the same way. Comments like “stop fidgeting” or “get more sources” would not likely come out during verbal feedback because we know they sound too harsh. The same tone, however, can be communicated through written feedback. Instead, make comments that are framed in such a way as to avoid defensiveness or hurt feelings.

Be constructive. Although we want to be positive in our feedback, comments like “good job” are not constructive because a communicator cannot take that comment and do something with it. A statement like “You were able to explain the client’s issue/problem/history so I could make sense of it. The part about health promotion was not as clear. Perhaps you could break it down the same way you made the client’s issue/problem/history to make it clearer for people like me who are outside the field of health studies,” which is much more helpful. This statement is positively framed, specific, and constructive because the speaker can continue to build on the thoroughly reviewed skill by applying it to another part of the speech identified as a place for improvement.

Be realistic. Comments such as “Do not be nervous” are not constructive or practical. Instead, you could say, “I know the first group teaching session is tough, but remember that we are all in the same situation and here to learn. I tried the Box breathing exercises discussed in class yesterday, which calmed my nerves. Maybe they will work for you, too?” Comments like “your accent made it difficult for me to understand you” could be accurate but may signal a need for more listening effort since we all technically have accents and changing them, if possible, at all, would take considerable time and effort.

Be relevant. Feedback should be relevant to the assignment, task, or context. Feedback like “cool nail polish” and “nice smile,” although meant as compliments, are irrelevant in formal feedback unless you are a fashion consultant or a dentist.

Giving Formal Feedback to Yourself

An effective way to improve our communication competence is to give ourselves feedback on specific communication skills. Self-evaluation can be difficult because people may think their performance was effective and therefore does not need critique, or they may become their worst critic, which can negatively affect self-efficacy. The key to effective self-evaluation is identifying strengths and opportunities for growth and change, evaluating yourself within the task’s context, and setting concrete goals for future performance. Here are some guidelines for self-evaluation of student presentations.

When Giving Feedback to Yourself

Identify strengths and areas of opportunity for growth or change. We tend to be our worst critics, so avoid nitpicking or over-focusing on one aspect of your communication that annoys and sticks out to you. Likely, the focus of your criticism was not nearly as noticeable or even noticed by others. For example, a student once wrote a self-critique, of which about 90 % focused on how their face looked red. Although that was important to them when they rewatched the video, it was not a big deal for the audience members.

Evaluate yourself within the context of the task or assignment guidelines. If you are asked to speak creatively, do not spend the majority of your self-evaluation critiquing your use of gestures. People tend to overanalyze aspects of their delivery, which usually only accounts for a portion of the overall effectiveness of a message, and under analyze their presentation of critical ideas and content. If the expectation was to present complex technical information concretely, you could focus on using examples and attempts to make the concepts relevant to the listeners.

Set goals for next time. Goal setting is important because most of us need a concrete benchmark against which to evaluate our progress. Once goals are achieved, they can be “checked off” and added to our ongoing skill set, enhancing confidence and leading to more advanced goals.

Revisit goals and assess progress at regular intervals. We may not always achieve our goals, so we must revisit them periodically to assess our progress. If you did not meet a goal, determine why and create an action plan to try again. If you did achieve a goal, try to build on that confidence to meet future goals.

Key Takeaways

  • To create listenable messages, which are verbal messages tailored to be understood by a listener, avoid long or complex sentences, use personal pronouns, use lists or other organizational constructions, use transitions and other markers to help your listener navigate your message, and use relevant examples.
  •  Although we rarely give formal feedback in interpersonal contexts, we give informal feedback regularly to our relational partners that can enhance or detract from their self-esteem and affect our relationships. While we also give informal feedback in academic and professional contexts, it is common practice to give formal feedback in performance evaluations or general comments on an idea, presentation, or teaching session.
  • When giving feedback to others, be specific, descriptive, optimistic, constructive, realistic, and relevant.
  • When giving feedback to yourself, identify strengths and areas of opportunity for growth or change, evaluate yourself within the context of the task or assignment, set goals for next time, and revisit goals to assess progress.


  1. Apply the strategies for creating listenable messages to a presentation you recently gave or one you are currently working on. Which strategies did or will you employ? Why?
  2. Recall an instance in which someone gave you feedback that did not meet the guidelines in this section. In what ways did the person’s feedback fall short of these, and what could the person have done to improve their feedback?
  3. Using the guidelines for self-evaluation (feedback to self), assess one of your recent skill completions, presentations, or communication skills.


Hanover Research. (2014, August). The impact of formative assessment and learning intentions on student achievement. http://www.hanoverresearch.com/media/The-Impact-of-Formative-Assessment-and-Learning-Intentions-on-Student-Achievement.pdf

University of Waterloo. (n.d.). Receiving and giving effective feedback. Centre for Teaching Excellence. https://uwaterloo.ca/centre-for-teaching-excellence/teaching-resources/teaching-tips/assessing-student-work/grading-and-feedback/receiving-and-giving-effective-feedback

Image Attribution

Figure 5.6.1. Personal Trainer by LocalFitness. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Attribution Statement

Content adapted, with editorial changes, from:

University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing. (2013). Communication in the real world [Adapted]. https://open.lib.umn.edu/communication/

Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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Professional Communication Skills for Health Studies Copyright © 2023 by Chute, A., Johnston, S., & Pawliuk, B. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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