To put it simply, feedback is useful, critique is applicable.
Feedback tends to be generalised, a mood-based response to what somebody said. ‘I really liked that’ or ‘I didn’t like it’; ‘I thought that was great’; ‘That inspired me/that didn’t inspire me’ or ‘I was bored by that’. All feedback but not hugely useful. It’s possibly a heart-based response, an emotional response.
Critique is a much more brain-based response. ‘That specific bit didn’t work’ or ‘that phrase really stood out’; ‘Have you thought about changing this specific element?’. It’s specific, it’s useful and it’s actionable whereas a lot of feedback tends to be too general.
A lot of the time people give fairly generic or non-specific feedback because they don’t want to hurt somebody’s feelings. Also, a lot of people don’t actually have the expertise in order to identify what was wrong – they know something wasn’t right but can’t put their finger on exactly what the issue was, articulate the problem or make a positive alternative suggestion.
Those who are able to offer critique, on the other hand, are able to say why they liked something specific and why it worked (and critique is as much about what is good as what needs improvement), how a specific element could be improved or how elements such as tone, mood and flow could be tweaked. Critique is usually more honest, too, and a lot of people aren’t actually ready to receive critique, or should choose carefully who they ask to give them proper critique. A lot of people only want feedback – a snap shot of what someone thought of their presentation – and on the whole, they want positive feedback.
I don’t believe in the whole ‘sh*t sandwich’ principle of saying something positive, something negative then something positive to leave someone feeling good – because they don’t hear the positive, they only hear the negative. A lot of people will even avoid saying the word ‘negative’ – using a euphemism like ‘constructive’ instead. Personally I tend to talk about what worked and what didn’t work – or needs more work.
True critique needs you to be absolutely honest with people and sometimes I do have to ask people’s permission to give them critique, to check whether they want that or just want feedback (which is usually what they’ve asked for, not understanding the difference). I will ask if someone wants detailed critique or do they just want to know what I thought, my overall impression.
Not everybody’s ready to receive critique – either in the moment or at their stage of their career. I certainly don’t give critique when someone has just come off stage, as the adrenaline pumping round their body means they’re in no fit state to listen or absorb it – I’d rather have a conversation the following day.
It’s also tough to give and (more importantly) receive true critique in group situations so I tend to keep critique for one to one conversations or small, trusted groups. Asking a large group or audience for feedback can lead to two dangerous things – ‘group think’ where everyone just says pretty much the same thing (if you hear the phrase ‘I agree with most of what’s already been said’ then you know group think has kicked in) and secondly, the maverick feedback-giver, who simply wants to stand out from the crowd and draw attention to themselves by giving contrary feedback.
Personally, I only pay attention to feedback if it comes from someone I’d also trust to give me critique. Feedback is someone’s opinion – and you are absolutely allowed to ignore it. Critique is someone’s expertise and should only be sought when you’re ready for it and when you really want to move forward as a speaker.