I think it’s safe to say we’ve all been there…
Screwing up the courage to share something you’ve been working hard on, and ask for feedback.
And then that feeling of being sucker-punched when someone reacts critically.
This happens often in copy and marketing, so I have seen folks develop an interesting self-defense mechanism to lessen the impact of the critical blows.
It goes like this:
I post up my work for feedback. I tell anyone giving me feedback I’m ONLY looking for input on this ONE SPECIFIC THING.
Inevitably, some helpful soul pops off with “I know you weren’t looking for feedback on X, but…”
It’s enough to make anyone want to take back their ball, pack up their toys, and leave the playground forever.
And it can be paralyzing – this fear of criticism, especially if the criticism is nasty and mean spirited. So today I’m sharing a few of my tactics for not only taking the punches in stride, but using them to my advantage (instead of using them as an excuse to shrink back and hide).
1. Consider the source
I finally watched Brené Brown’s Netflix special, the Call to Courage. Not only is she phenomenal at alliteration and catchy titles… she’s pretty kickass at reminding you to be brave.
She dug up this quote by Teddy Roosevelt that keeps sticking in my brain like a bad pop tune (emphasis mine):
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
So that said… all criticisms come from one of two types – the person in the arena, and the person who’s not. We have ways of dealing with both.
Is the critical person a so-called armchair quarterback? Someone who’s observing from the sidelines and is filled with judgment on how you could do better but has never actually done it themselves (or did it so long ago as to be laughable that they’re still leaning on it)?
Meh. Fuck that guy (or gal). Their perspective is literally worthless. It’s hot air escaping into the void.
Is the person someone doing what you want to do?
Eh… maybe sit on it until the feelings calm down a bit, then go digging through the criticism to decipher what stung and why, and figure out how it applies to you.
2. Look for the nugget
If the critic is NOT the aforementioned armchair quarterback (and note: these people can sometimes be well-meaning friends and family… whose perspective should STILL be disregarded if they don’t have experience in what you’re trying to do)…
Odds are there’s a nugget of gold buried in that craptastic-feeling criticism.
Your job is to put on your waders and dig through the shit until you find what you can use.
Some critics will drop more gold than others. Some will bury a tiny TINY little piece in a pile of ego and hubris so deep that you start to imagine just how boring they are at parties.
You have to learn to trust YOUR instincts. Because the only way to truly become an expert is to take the wisdom of those who have come before you, filter it through your own experience, and share your UNIQUE take with the world.
It’s not new. It’s never new… there’s nothing under the sun. But there’s only ONE of you. And the same thing could have been said 5 million times, but the way YOU say it is the way that resonates with someone and finally makes sense.
So pick and choose the nuggets that feel right, so long as you’re open to there being nuggets in feedback that stings.
3. Apply and adapt
Criticism is only useful when you actually USE it. So when you’ve considered the source and done your digging for buried gold… now it’s time to take action on it.
I remember this one time, my Copy Chief saw a piece of mine that had (what I thought was) a clever pun. He read it, pondered a bit, and said… I don’t get it.
So I explained it to him, and saw him smile when he got the joke.
Then he congratulated me on my cleverness and asked for a new draft by the end of the day.
I was completely and thoroughly deflated… you said you got it, dude! Why do I have to rewrite?
Because, he told me, you can’t follow the truck and explain the joke to everyone. And if I didn’t get it, I’m not the only one who won’t get it when they read it.
At first I was pissed – he said it was great! I think it’s brilliant! It should run and we should let the people decide whether it’s clever or sucks!
But the more I sat with it, the more I realized he was right.
He’s a smart dude. He’s seen all kinds of campaigns throughout his career. And the lesson he taught me that day has stuck with me throughout mine:
Clarity trumps cleverness, every single time.
If you can be clever AND clear, then you’re hitting folks with a double whammy. But if you can’t make it CLEAR, then you need to ditch the quips and get down to brass tacks.
That changed my entire approach to marketing and advertising, and allowed me to view clever (but often shallow attention grabs) pitches for the empty ideas they were.
I wanted to have substance, and for my work to hit home with people that needed to hear the message. And I know I’m a better writer and business person for it… because I applied that nugget instead of rebelling against it.
So that’s the not-so-awesome side of doing something new, and putting yourself out there in front of people.
Haters gonna hate. You take what’s useful and ignore the rest… and soon you’ll be so high up the mountain that their jeers will never even reach you.
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