Tell Me Something Good (or bad), Tell Me That You Like It (or not)

Feedback, constructive criticism, critical evaluation –we can choose to call this activity any number of things, knowing one thing is certain: We all need its presence in our lives. Going through life without feedback is like trying to eat your dinner with no utensils –you may eventually get the job done yet not without a lot of unnecessary extra effort and a hell of a mess to clean up afterwards.

As a professor of Communication Studies, essentially I get paid to provide feedback and offer others critical analysis of their work–it’s my job. Over the years I have gained a reputation of being extremely straightforward in this regard. That is simply who I am, a very straightforward guy living a very straightforward life.  I attempt to instill in the minds of all my students that this straightforwardness is not driven by me wanting to be a dick or possessing some diabolical intent, rather it is driven by pure and positive motivation: I want my students to improve –and beating around the bush will simply not get the job done.

Of course I do utilize what I call the “critique sandwich” in my courses, as all critiques MUST begin and end with something positive and encouraging.

When I was recently requested by one of our college deans and head of research, Keith Wurtz, to be the faculty representative for his professional evaluation, I was eager to find out why.

When I asked him, he stated, much to my delight, “Because I know you will not hold anything back and you will be completely honest. I want to improve.”

Nice. That I will. And believe you me…it’s going to be a real challenge to find an area of weakness with that guy -he is good.

Wisdom seeks feedback. Excellence is always looking to improve. True professionals not only appreciate evaluations, they seek them out.

For many years I did not appreciate being evaluated and critiqued. In hindsight, I realize this was the result of my personal immaturity and insecurity. I am not a “woulda-shoulda-coulda” guy, yet I would be remiss not to observe that my growth as a professional and a person was at times stunted due to my resistance to feedback by people who knew better than I.

Pride. Thank the universe it tends to simmer with age. Today I love both good feedback and a big challenge.

Thus when my creative and very talented partner-in-life Rene’ asked me to pitch her screenplay, “Silence Broken,” to different production companies at the “Pitch SlamFest” in Century City last Saturday, I jumped at the chance -yet not without first asking her why she wanted me to do it.

“Cause Jimmy, you could sell snowballs to Eskimos. And you are cute.”

He smiled. Yet inwardly he knew she just didn’t want to do it. It is nerve wracking to say the least.

So off I went to pitch a total chick-flick-on-steroids (or would it be excessive estrogen?) screenplay full well knowing that part of this pitch included being personally evaluated on how well you pitched and where you could stand improvement.

I must say that being critiqued was my favorite part of the day.  The great thing about critiques is we have the freedom to do whatever we wish with them. Good and helpful feedback is the result of a myriad of factors; WHO is critiquing probably being the most influential factor of all. I wanted to hear what these typically younger females had to say as I am usually on the other end of the critiquing equation.

As I pitched a novel/screenplay written by a woman for women -a screenplay/novel that gay men have found way over the estrogen top- the question I would repeatedly be asked as they stared across at this macho shmuck was, “What motivated you to write this?” With a perplexed look on their face to be sure.

“I did not write it. I am pimping, err pitching it for my partner who wrote the novel and my son who wrote and butched up the screenplay,” I answered as they smiled. “I wouldn’t even go see it myself,” I joked.

My first pitch was rough. 50 years on the planet and I was doing something I had never done before, which I LOVE. The representative, Tracy, from Beachfront Pictures, was really sweet and very straightforward in her feedback.

“Don’t call it a chick flick as it demeans the value of the novel.”photo copy

“You must lead by stating it is a novel that is currently being shopped.”

“You have to address what is the driving appeal and storyline in the first act.”

Ok. So I did all that. I listened.

After a couple of pitches and some additional helpful feedback, I had it down. Thus when I got to my third pitch, Crystal from Electric City Entertainment responded with, “Oh my God…that was the perfect pitch!” And, of course, with the follow up question, “What made you write this novel?”

I then came clean and told her I am not a novelist rather a Communication Studies professor commissioned to try and sell this screenplay -we laughed. It appeared she genuinely liked me and the story (I can read bullshit, and trust me, there was plenty of it that day) and provided the feedback that very small production companies -like their own- find period pieces with “low context” plots (meaning there is a lot of splaining to do in many acts) too expensive not to mention that a good “B” level, 18 year-old main protagonist, that has to carry the movie, nearly impossible to find. Bullshit? Probably. If so, she was very good at it.

So after 7 or 8 pitches with several companies taking down my contact information, Rene’ and I got into Jimmy’s mid-life mobile and headed back to Awesometown with very realistic expectations knowing this was not about actually selling something, just the experience of pitching.

As we drove and lamented how tired we both were and could not wait for a nice nap, we both realized, at a level never before experienced, the value of truly and genuinely listening to what credible and credentialed sources have to say about us and our work.

I suppose when you finally know who you are it is not all that threatening.

Some things really do get better with age. And I prefer to eat at the banquet of life with a knife and fork.