Do people want your opinion?

Dear Direct Response Letter Subscriber:

One of my inviolate rules of business and personal conduct is: don’t give unsolicited advice.

Why not?

Many people think that by giving someone unsolicited business or personal advice, they will be helping the person, building a relationship, and creating a desire in the other person to want to become more involved with them.

In fact, the opposite usually takes place.

Nine times out of ten, giving unsolicited advice does not help the people on the receiving end of your pearls of wisdom.

It annoys them and drives them away from you, rather than bring them closer to you.

And it creates in them a desire to avoid you, rather than become involved with you.

So … should you give unsolicited criticism?

Most of the time … no.

In her book “The 7th Sense” (William Morrow and Company), Doris Wild Helmering presents criteria to differentiate constructive criticism from “inappropriate” (petty, denigrating, and useless) criticism.

According to Helmering, constructive criticism has three components:

1. There is a contract between the people involved. The person who is making the critical comment is involved with the project or product, has some authority, and has been invited to do so.

Examples include customer complaints … recommendations from fellow team members … and suggestions from experts you have retained to advise you.

2. The negative feedback addresses a specific issue (e.g., “This advertisement ignores the current slump in tech stocks” vs. “This stinks”).

3. There is direction for change (e.g., “Why not talk about why now is a time to pick up good stocks at bargain prices before the market picks up again?”).

To be constructive, your criticism must have all three components present.

Inappropriate criticism, on the other hand, has one or more of the following characteristics:

  1. It is uninvited. There is no contract. It is unsolicited.
  2. The feedback is nonspecific or broad based.
  3. The commentary is without direction for change.

A recent Dilbert comic strip gives a tongue-in-cheek illustration of inappropriate criticism:

Boss: “Everyone says our Web site is ugly.”

Dilbert: “Really? Every person on Earth said that? Even Tibetan monks?”

Boss: “Maybe it was just one person.”

Dilbert: “And you confused him with the entire planet?”

If we follow Helmering’s guidelines, you have a right to voice your opinion about a product to the company from which you purchased the item.

You have a duty or obligation to criticize wrong thinking when a client has hired you for your ideas, expertise, and track record.

You do NOT have the right to voice an opinion about a service you’ve never used … or a product you’ve never owned … unless it somehow interferes with your activities or freedom.

Even when you are entitled to voice criticism, there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.

Here’s the right way:

When giving negative criticism, say what you like about the work before you say what you don’t like.

This preserves the recipient’s ego, softens the blow, and ensures a positive working environment.

In a course I took while an employee at Westinghouse, my boss Terry Smith taught the following method for criticizing creative work.

First say, “Here’s what I liked” and recap at least three positive points.

(If you look hard enough, it’s impossible not to find at least three good things to say about almost anything.)

Then, say “Now, if it were mine to do….” and proceed with your list of specific criticisms.

The phrase “if it were mine to do” implies that what you are telling the recipient is your opinion, and not an accusation of incompetence or shoddy work on their part.

If someone gives you inappropriate criticism, especially comments that attack you as a person or demean you as a professional, say to that person, “Is there a reason you are saying this to me in this way?”

This alerts them that you are aware of their demeaning tone and you want it to cease.

Also keep these points in mind:

  • In marketing, the most useful criticism is based on knowledge of what’s working in your marketplace right now, based on recent test results the critic may be unaware of.
  • The second most useful criticism is based on knowledge of what has worked in the past for your offer, based on your years of test experience.
  • Beware of sources offering you unsolicited advice, the gist of which is to say that your current marketing stinks and they have great ideas for improving it. If they’re so smart, why do they spend time going around to people and giving free advice?
  • If a major campaign element is a point of contention — free gift vs. no premium; list price vs. discount — consider an A/B split test to get the answer.

I’m a direct marketer. As a group, we like to brag that our discipline isn’t subjective like general advertising because test results prove what works.

But the process of creating and determining what to test in the first place is loaded with subjective decisions at every step — from initial copy and concept through design and list selection.

By giving criticism more effectively during the creative process, we can help ensure a campaign or direct mail package that has the best chance of proving successful in the test phase — and therefore the best chance of being rolled out profitably.


Bob Bly
Copywriter / Consultant
590 Delcina Drive
River Vale, NJ 07675
Phone 201-505-9451
Fax 201-573-4094