How Dare They Criticise Me! How To Make Good Use Of Feedback

“It’s great… exactly what I was looking for,” said my client.  “I’ll just ask my friends and family what they think, and I’ll let you know if they suggest any changes.”

I hate it when clients say things like that, because I’ve noticed that certain “friends and family” suddenly morph into Simon Cowell when it comes to commenting on other people’s creative work.

Don’t get me wrong; on the odd occasion someone will offer up a specific, insightful opinion that makes the work better, and I always appreciate it when they do.  

But more often than not, “friends and family” comments will include hazy and unhelpful opinions like, “hmmm… something’s not quite right, but I don’t know what”, or, “I’m not sure if that word is in the right place.”

“We love it, but can you get rid of the red duck?”

Comments like these remind me of a story I once heard about an advertising agency, who would put a small cartoon picture of a red duck in the corner of every client presentation they made. 

They did this because they knew the client would always want to suggest at least one change, so they could (consciously or unconsciously) stamp their authority on the work. 

Nine times out of ten the client would say, “we love it, but can you get rid of the red duck?”  The presentation would end happily, because the work would remain un-tampered with, and the client could feel satisfied about having had the final say.

So, the first problem with asking people for feedback is that some of them will only provide it either because they think you want them to say something rather than nothing, or to make themselves look a bit clever.

Drowning in the stormy sea of opinions

Then, there’s the problem of having too much feedback.  You see a lot of this with social media posts, for example when someone launches a new business and they share two different logo designs. 

“Which one do you like best?” they’ll ask innocently, only to choke and drown in the ensuing rush of contrasting opinions.

(I once had a client email me every single, wildly different, comment each of his many friends and family members had made about a piece of copy I’d written for him, and that he’d been happy with.  Do what you think is best with these,” he wrote. 

So I did, and that was… absolutely nothing.)

The answer?  Don’t ask too many people, be specific, and check for consistency.

I often quote Stephen King’s approach to asking people for feedback on his finished manuscripts, because it’s clear, sensible, and entirely useful.

He chooses five trusted people that he knows will be completely honest about the work, and then he checks their feedback for consistency.  If most of them have criticised the same part then it needs changing, but if there’s a general mix of comments, it’s simply their opinion.

It also helps if you’re specific about the kind of feedback you’re looking for, so don’t just ask a blanket, “what do you think?” 

Think about what you most want to know.  For example, if you're after feedback on your profile, or a piece of web copy, you could ask people if it sounds like you, or if they’d be tempted to contact you after reading it (and if not, why not?)  When they look at this or that logo design, what are the first thoughts that spring to mind?

Sometimes, you just know

As someone who has received all kinds of feedback on their writing work for the best part of two decades, I would add that you tend to know, deep down, if a piece of critical feedback needs action.  It’ll resonate in a seriously irritating way; not just because someone has dared to criticise, but because they’re right.

When that happens, let that initial voice of indignation (“who do they think they are!”) die down, then get on and do something about it. 

You’ll not only feel better, your work will improve so much that people will have to try a lot harder to impress you with their next lot of feedback.

And that has to be a good thing.

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