When It Pays to Praise

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butterI’ve gotten a few copy critiques in my day. I’ve given a few, too. And I’ve discovered there’s one essential element to making them effective: “ego butter.” Let me back up a bit, so I can explain by way of example.

Some years ago, I was part of a conference call with a freelance copywriter. He’d been commissioned for a small job, which was tweaking the lift letter on a much larger, longer control (one I’d written, in fact).

Leading the call was friend and mentor o’ mine, the inimitable Michael Masterson. The letter was, well, weak. Michael took control of the call and made a series of what I thought were brilliant suggestions. We all concurred, except for the freelancer.

After the critique was over, the receiving end of the call went conspicuously silent. “Hello?” we said, thinking he’d slipped on a kumquat or something equally plausible.

“Mail it,” he said. “Mail it and see if it works? Then I’ll revise it.” Clearly, he was peeved.

Not, dear reader, the protocol of a copywriter seeking much repeat business. This guy, no matter how slighted by the review, clearly lost his cool. With some guys, there’s nothing you can do. Their skin is so thin, you could pop it with a tossed marshmallow.

But here’s the thing…

While I despised that copywriter’s behavior, it does occur to me now that, at some level I couldn’t help but sympathize.

No, not all copywriters are the egoists and temperamental “artistes” like this guy might have been. But we are only human. Good copywriters put a lot of work goes into what they produce. Great ones put a little heart and soul into it too.

By the time we’re finished the first draft, we’re connected with the result. In such a way that criticism — even the good kind — can’t help but set one back at least a little bit.

The good writers, unlike our phone call friend, take it with a smile. But there’s a way to get an even better result. And it’s simple. You simply start with the positive.

Not excessively so, not insincerely. But clearly and immediately. “I liked the headline. And oh wow, the typing was nice. And hey, is this scented paper? Nice touch. Now, let’s talk about your lead. I think I see a way to make it even stronger.”

Pandering? Perhaps.

But what’s the goal of the critic? Is it to toughen the recipient’s skin or to get the best possible result?

(I, by the way, really DO think that the purest professionals become immune to most negative criticism. But when you’re in a situation where you’re giving direct review… still say this advice is going to get you further. Try it yourself and you’ll see. Or better yet, try the peer review technique perfected by my friends over at AWAI.)

Last modified: March 27, 2017

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