10 Tips for Taking Feedback Like a Pro
How to make your clients feel heard while maintaining your creative integrity
Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the word we use to describe receiving notes from a client about a piece of creative work can also be used to describe the ear-shattering sound of a howling guitar.
If you operate in a professional creative context outside the arts then you know that making work is only half the story. Certainly as demanding, if not more so, is trying to amend that work to please the people who commissioned it while still preserving its intrinsic creative value.
Your skill at receiving feedback will determine how long, how successful, and how fulfilling your creative career is — however much we’d like to pretend that this isn’t so.
So here are 10 tips for how to take feedback in a way that will make you the first person your clients want to work with, while also ensuring that you don’t spend the rest of your career feeling like a worthless skivvy at the mercy of an utterly unpredictable and wrathful client god.
1. Be an active listener
You know that hoary, old piece of folk wisdom: We have two ears and one mouth, so why do we make so much use of the latter and so little use of the former? Really listening to what someone is saying is tough. Our brains think at four times the speed we process speech, so very often when someone is speaking to us, we’re not actually listening. Instead, we’re thinking about what we’re going to say in response. If you can train yourself to slow down and actively listen to what your client is saying without prejudging where they’re heading, you’ll surprise yourself — and them! Become an active listener and pretty soon you’ll be able to hear the subtext of what they’re saying, even if it is buried deep beneath opaque phrases like “brand stance” and “mandatory deliverables.” Active listening is a skill. Practice it.
2. Ask why
Your number one, A-priority job when your client asks you to make a change is to understand why. If they want to try a different opening shot in your rough cut, then of course you can do that. It’s not a problem. But before you make the change, ask why they’d like you to do it. The best clients understand that you need to know why they’re asking you to amend your work. The rest of them just tell you what they’d like you to do. As soon as you understand the underlying issue they’re trying to resolve, you get a chance to find a solution that keeps them happy. But more importantly, this also allows you to preserve the integrity of your magnum opus.
3. Show your trusted critic first
When Alfred Hitchcock completed the rough cut of Psycho, he showed it to a select group of close friends. They were united in their gushing praise of a film they felt was nothing short of a masterpiece. Delighted, Hitch then showed the movie to his wife, Alma Reville. After the final reel, Alfred turned to Alma, readying himself to bask in the warm glow of her approval. Instead she said simply, “You can’t let it go out like that.” On further probing, the Master of Suspense learned that Alma had spotted something his friends had either missed or more likely were too intimidated to point out: After the murder of her character, Janet Leigh was still visibly breathing. Duly humbled, Alfred made the change.
We all need a trusted critic. Maybe it’s your partner or a colleague you like and respect, but whoever it is, show the work to them before you show the client. They’ll tell it like it is. And that’s invaluable.
4. Take feedback face-to-face with the most senior person
I live in Wales. Most of my work is for clients who live a long way from Wales. The internet allows me to resolve this paradox. However, when it comes to feedback, I’m afraid that email, Skype, conference calls, and the like can be bad, bad things. We’re all sociable creatures who have spent millennia doing things face-to-face. Get someone in a room with you and you’re much more likely to be able to win them over. If you have to spend the first five minutes of a conversation hopelessly repeating, “I can hear you. Can you hear me?” the rest of your interaction is unlikely to go well. Also, the person who will sign off on your project should be the one in the room telling you what they think about it. Work as hard as you can to make sure this is the case.
5. Be your client before they arrive
You spent weeks trying to nail this idea. You stayed up all night preparing to pitch it. You missed your best mate’s birthday because you were fine-tuning the final layout. So far, this has all been about you. And that’s okay. But in the hour or so before the client shows up, take the time to put on their ill-chosen overpriced trainers, metaphorically speaking. Try to see the work from their point of view. Think about their professional and personal agenda. You’ve probably got a pretty good idea of what their concerns are going to be before they show up and if you have your answers ready before the questions come, you’ll be putting yourself at a very favorable advantage.
6. Have a second pair of ears
I’m not suggesting plastic surgery (though it would certainly throw off the client when they walk into the room). No, I’m encouraging you to have someone with you to listen to the feedback. The main advantage of this is that we hear only what we want or expect to hear, as I’ve discovered to my cost countless times. Everything else seems to float away and pop into nothingness like a soap bubble. Having someone else there minimizes the risk of you overlooking some really important detail in the client comments. It also allows one of you to write down the key points while the other person looks the client in the eye. Which brings me on to …
7. Body language
Sometimes, as a creative director, I’ve been on the other side of the table. I’ve been the “feedbacker,” giving my notes to a creative or design team on their latest work. And you’d be surprised how often that conversation can begin with the person you’re talking to sitting back with their arms crossed. It’s only natural if you feel exposed and vulnerable to display some negative body language. But it’s not going to do you any favors with Mr. and Ms. Client. So smile, lean forward, nod, and be open — though be careful not to overdo this or you’ll come across as a demented weirdo.
8. Bring it back to the brief
This project is, by definition, a commercial one because you have the clients who commissioned it sitting opposite you giving their feedback. So it should have begun with a brief. And if you did your job properly at the outset, you made sure you got this brief down to a few clear, simple sentences. Now, that brief should be your best friend. Before you show the client the rough cut, or the poster, or the script, recap the brief, remind them of why you’re doing this activity, and underscore just how blindingly well you’ve met that objective. If notes come in later that you don’t agree with, take it back to the brief and challenge their validity on that basis.
9. Always agree to make the changes
Controversial one, this. Let me explain what I mean. However daft the client’s suggestion is, you should agree to try it — but only once you’ve uncovered the issue they’re trying to resolve (see item #2). By agreeing to try the change, you immediately take the heat out of the situation. They feel reassured that you’re taking them seriously and any potentially adversarial mood dissipates. Once you understand their underlying issue and you’ve shown them their solution, you can then use the positive mood of bonhomie and collaboration to show them your solution and explain why, referring back once again to the brief, yours is the more effective. Plus, you never know, their solution could be a spark of genius.
10. Know the difference between blocking and advisory feedback
Let’s say you’ve diligently followed all the steps above but you’re still cowering beneath a cascade of client notes. What to do? Well, chances are you’re going to need some time without the client around to try to take stock of it all. Before they leave the room, find out which is blocking and which is advisory feedback. In other words, decide which of their notes have to be acted upon for the project to be approved, and which they’d like you to try but are not essential. This will allow you to use the little remaining time you have to focus on the big stuff. And chances are, once you’ve dealt with the big stuff, they won’t even remember the notes on the small stuff.
So there you have it: 10 hard won lessons about how to take feedback like a pro. Follow these steps and you should have your client eating out of the palm of your hand like a docile chinchilla nibbling creative sunflower seeds.
But if it doesn’t work out, remember: It’s not the end of the world. They pay the bills so ultimately, they get to call the shots. You can always have your director’s cut or your portfolio version. And, of course, as sure as night follows day, there’s always next time.