How to ask for feedback

I was in a conversation on Facebook recently with a woman I've known for a long time.

This lovely lady has a new venture she's working very hard on, and she's wondering if she can send it over to get my feedback.

(Incidentally, IttyBiz is on Facebook! Please come and click Like and validate our existence! Ahem. This was done for many reasons, most prominent among them that my mother and my kids have been nagging me for years. You'll be happy to know that now IttyBiz is on Facebook, they have moved on to nagging me about Pinterest and YouTube, respectively. I believe this has been the plan all along.)

Anyway, feedback.

If you are involved in any type of creative or innovative enterprise, you undoubtedly find yourself in a similar position. We're all desperate for feedback.

We ask our friends and family but they're non-commital. Or their answer is so pathetically simpering that it wasn't worth asking. Or, upon hearing their answer, you realize they were the wrong person to ask because they're utterly unqualified to even have an opinion.

Or the last time we asked, one of those things happened, and we're not going to do THAT again, and now we're in an echo chamber.

We ask critique partners, and colleagues, and mentors, and consistently, we don't get what we're looking for, or sometimes, we don't get anything at all.

In my chat with the lovely lady, I was able to put words to something I've been trying to articulate for a long time, and I thought I'd use the power of push button publishing to share it here today. Perhaps it will be useful to you.

Your best bet is to consider specifically if there's anything you want my opinion on. Like if it were a novel – what questions would you ask your beta readers? They can probably answer, “Do you think the protagonist is a self-obsessed jerk?” or “Is scene three remotely believable?”

If you just ask, “What do you think?” they're not going to know if you mean “Did it make you cry?” or “Do you think it'll sell enough in the next 24 months to enable me to quit my day job?” or “Can you please look for typos and plot holes?” And if they don't know what you want to know, they're going to avoid answering you in fear of getting it wrong.

“Give me your feedback” usually means one of two things:

1. “Please, for the love of God, tell me I haven't wasted my time.”

2. The polar opposite of that, “Please, for the love of God, tell me if I'm wasting my time.”

If the asker is in the first camp and you treat them like they're in the second camp, congratulations – you've ruined someone's life and probably your relationship along with it.

If they're in the second camp and you treat them like they're in the first camp, congratulations – you've completely annoyed them and now things are awkward.

But to make things more complicated, almost everybody who says they're in second camp is unconsciously in the first. They honestly believe they're in the second camp because they are fully confident they have created something near flawless and can therefore happily take whatever minor constructive criticism you dole out.

They say, “Be brutal. I can take it. I honestly want your feedback.” (I know. I've done this.)

This is probably not the time to tell them they've wasted six years of their life and you're pretty sure nobody on earth will ever buy this thing.

And to make things even MORE complicated, an opinion is just an opinion. So if I think they've wasted six years of their life and I'm pretty sure nobody on earth will ever buy this thing – I could be wrong. That's pretty much exactly what I thought about Steve Jobs and the iPad.


How to ask for feedback… and get a decent answer.

Put the burden of responsibility on yourself to figure out the job requirements in advance.

Imagine you were hiring this person from a freelancing site, and you were paying them by the hour.

You would be very clear in your job requirements. You'd tell them exactly what you were looking for and exactly what you were not.

We would never go to a freelance editor and say, “Tell me what you think.” We would not go to a marketing consultant and say, “Tell me what you think.”

Instead, we would say things like, “Is my offer clear?” (Not, “How can I make my offer better?” because “better” is subjective and has different definitions for different people. If you say better, do you mean “clearer” or “more appealing”?)

We would say things like, “Does my pricing sound fair and reasonable?” (Not, “Does my pricing sound good?” because “good” is subjective and has different definitions for different people. If you say good, do you mean “more attractive” or “more premium” or even “more intuitive”?)

We would say things like, “Is my About Page boring?” (Not, “How can I make my About Page better?” What do you mean by “better”? Do you want to sound like a bigger deal? Do you want to sound more qualified? More professional? More approachable? Do you want more calls to action, more jokes, fewer “coffee aficionado” references?)

“I'd love your feedback” is far too vague a question to ask somebody because what you mean and what they think you mean are almost impossible to match up.

Tell them exactly what you want to know. You may not know what you want to know, but that is not their problem. You cannot expect people to answer a question you yourself cannot articulate.

So if you want your feedback to be better (ha! better!):

  • give a list of very specific questions,
  • make sure none of them require psychic abilities, and
  • none of them require the use of the Subjectivity Rosetta Stone to answer.

Last? The art of giving feedback, according to Jack, aged 7.

My son, Jack, says this on the matter:

If they ask you “what do you think?” and you think it's terrible, you should probably pretend you thought they just wanted you to check the spelling. Then you can answer, “Well… it's spelled perfectly.”

So… your key takeaway?

Come and Like IttyBiz on Facebook, of course!