5 tips for responding to negative criticism

Grace under fire isn’t always easy – but it’s essential in today’s social world

[Image courtesy of Celestine Chua at Flickr Creative Commons]

I recently used a well-known holiday accommodation site for the first time. It has properties all around the world, from a simple spare bedroom in somebody’s home to an entire apartment or house.

And of course in the age of Holiday 2.0, guests rate the properties, and the owners… well they don’t go as far as giving stars out of five for the guests, but they can leave feedback about their overall impression. And they have the right to respond to negative criticism.

Several things struck me.

First, negative reviews outweigh positive ones. This is a well-known phenomenon, and I’ve touched on it here before. In fact a study showed some years back that one negative review carries the weight of 10 positive reviews.


Because it’s perceived as honest and realistic, in a world where review inflation is rampant. And where fear of reprisal encourages people to reach for the stars – all five of them.

And so it was with the search for my dream holiday apartment. 10 perfect reviews were outweighed by a single less-than-perfect one. ‘Watch out for the noise in summer’ influenced my decision, even in the depths of winter.

The good, the bad and the ugly

But what really struck me were the owners’ varying approaches to reviews. There were two properties in particular that attracted my attention.

The owner of the first responded to virtually all reviews, thanking those guests who were positive, and appeasing those who were negative. Her language was measured, calm and can-do. She came across as a warm, friendly, reasonable person who would sort problems out quickly and efficiently.

And even when a reviewer left an ill-tempered, nasty review, she responded with grace and aplomb. She was a shining example of how to handle criticism, and how to take the rough with the smooth.

The second owner was completely the opposite. She didn’t bother responding to positive comments, but zeroed in on the negative ones with deadly accuracy. She responded to negativity with negativity, and adopted a snide, self-righteous and pompous tone.

The thing is, the negative criticism was no worse than for the first owner. It was the way she reacted that really set her apart. Instead of trying to defuse the situation, she simply made it worse, drawing attention to the defects of the property – and herself.

So in this 24-hour, always-on social world, how should you deal with criticism? Here are my top 5 tips:

  1. React quickly and positively. Don’t just let a criticism sit there. Get in fast, control the conversation and manage the message. Criticism always hurts, especially if you think you’re doing a really good job, but that shouldn’t stop you moving forward and focusing on solutions.
  2. Never denigrate the criticiser. A negative response is worse than none at all. Maintain the moral high ground, and never respond in kind to somebody who’s negative. Instead, why not ask for suggestions for improvement and engage the criticiser?
  3. Mind your language. Keep it positive, upbeat and friendly. Remember the first rule of copywriting: write as you talk. So don’t go all stiff and formal, if that’s not how you speak in person. Instead, adopt a conversational tone that clearly shows you’re a reasonable person who’s easy to deal with.
  4. Don’t take it personally – even if it’s personal. Remember that all opinions are subjective – including yours. And in our virtual world, people say things online that they’d never say to your face. They can be extreme because they don’t have to feel any embarrassment or emotion. So take the same approach, distance yourself from the criticism, and think about how to turn the situation around.
  5. Remember the audience. In the digital world, the line between private and public is blurred. You’re not talking directly to the client any more. You’re potentially talking to the world – and the competition is watching too. So weigh every word before you respond, and remember that each one affects your company image and your brand.

I’ve now completed the feedback for my weekend stay. Apparently neither the owner nor guest can see feedback until they’ve both submitted it. That way, neither one has the advantage of knowing what’s been said about them, making the whole process more honest and transparent.

I rated the property very highly, and the owner too. I haven’t yet checked back to see if he’s rated me.  I’m sure I’m a model guest, but then as I said, all opinions are subjective.

Perhaps I’ll give it another day. Or two.

Can you be funny in serious business copy? Yes, but...

Humour can be a minefield. Make sure you tread carefully.

I’m a big advocate of humour in copywriting. It shows that there’s a real person behind your business, that you don’t take yourself too seriously, and that you’re not afraid to let your guard down with your customer or prospect.

Connecting through the written word is no different to being with somebody in a social situation: you send out signals about what type of person you are what it’s like to deal with you. But you do need to exercise your judgement when it comes to humour. It should be really obvious that it is humour – otherwise, it’s likely to be taken the wrong way.

I was reminded of this recently by two things. The first was a sign I saw on the Paris metro :

It tells passengers not to board when the closing signal has sounded – otherwise, they could get hurt. And in fact, I saw this very thing happen, when a middle-aged woman tried to win a race with the closing doors. She lost, and ended up on the flat of her back on the platform, surrounded by concerned onlookers.

The important thing here is that the signals are clear. The cartoon rabbit sets the tone, and the use of the familiar French tu (instead of the more formal vous) shows that they’re taking a less-than-serious approach to a very serious question.

They’ve used the rabbit for years on the Paris metro. I remember another sign saying the same thing, warning that you could get your pattes (paws) caught in the door. Funny, charming – and effective.

Some you win…

The second example of humour was mine. Except in this case, it had less success than our bobtail friend.

I sent an email to a business acquaintance – not a friend, exactly, but not a stranger either. I’d met him in a social setting, and I thought we were on the same wavelength humour-wise.

But when it comes to humour, you can never be entirely sure. Which is why it’s always wise to err on the side of caution.

In this case, I should probably have put an emoticon to make it absolutely obvious that I was trying to be funny. But I didn’t, as I have innate reaction against unnecessary punctuation. If the words can’t tell the story and convey the tone, I say to myself, then you need to find other ones.

Except sometimes, you don’t.

And perfectionism – the search for the perfect word, phrase or tone of voice – is a failing like any other. Sometimes, you just need to bite the bullet and put in that exclamation mark or smiley. The belt-and-braces approach makes sure that your message comes out the other end as you intended it at your end.

And in my case, it didn’t. It took quite a lot of back-pedalling and borderline grovelling to rescue the situation. And all because I’m a stickler for grammar and the written word. As a former English teacher used to say to me, ‘when you know the rules, you can break them’.

I do, but I didn’t. My bad, as they say.

Handle with care

So what are the rules when it comes to humour? The bottom line is that there are none. Humour is entirely subjective, and what makes one person laugh can make another cringe – or worse.

The safest rule of thumb is to laugh at your own expense. Don’t make fun of your clients, prospects or competition –  especially not the competition, counter-intuitive as it sounds. That makes you appear defensive and insecure.

So laugh at yourself, and don’t spare your blushes. Keep it clean, make it obvious and don’t lay it on too thick. As with all things, moderation is the key.

And, unlike me, remember that rules are made to be broken. But do take the time to learn them first.

Top 5 New Year's copy resolutions

Spring cleaning in winter, planning ahead and just doing it…

[Image courtesy of bibliojojo at Flickr Creative Commons]

It’s that time of year again when the festivities are drawing to a close, the scales tell a sorry story of a few extra pounds or kilos, and the bank balance is considerably lighter than it was a mere two weeks ago.

It’s also when people decide they’re going to use that gym membership, learn Spanish, simplify their life or visit that must-see-before-you-die location. And if you’re going to use the New Year new broom to sweep clean your personal life, why not use it to dust off your copy too?

Here, in no particular order, are some ideas that might get you thinking about saying it – and writing it – better in 2015:

  1. Revisit old copy. This is especially relevant when it comes to websites, where copy has an extremely long shelf life. I often speak to clients who say they’re going to put up copy ‘for a year or so’ and will then expand/revise/review it. And guess what? They rarely do. It’s not their fault, and it’s not a criticism – it’s the nature of business. Resolutionsee what’s out there and make an inventory of it. If it needs changing, change it.
  2. Create a copy schedule. It’s the beginning of a new year, so why not take a new approach to your communication strategy? What are you going to be talking about on your blog in April? What direct mail campaigns will you be running throughout the year? Email marketing? Adverts? Don’t leave it all to the last minute, or leave yourself insufficient time. Resolution: Plan ahead – it’s always more upfront effort, but frees up time down the line, and gives you the peace of mind of knowing what’s coming next.
  3. Stop procrastinating. And yes, I know that’s general advice that’s applicable to almost any scenario, but it’s equally applicable to your copy. Stop and think for a moment: there’s something you’ve been putting off for a long time, isn’t there? Something that’s too much effort, that seems too difficult, or where you can’t even see how to begin? Resolution: just make a start. Never mind if you don’t know how it ends. The simple fact of making a start – any start – will make the process easier.
  4. Ask for those case studies/testimonials. This is related to the last point, because everybody I’ve ever worked for has a plan on the back-burner to ask clients for testimonial quotes. And they’re also going to – one day, sometime in the future – get down to writing those case studies. Resolution: make that day today. Or at the very least, a day this year. Testimonials are worth their weight in gold, as they’re somehow perceived to be more credible and trustworthy. Likewise case studies, which have the added benefit that they usually describe  a scenario that the reader can identify with.
  5. Cut it down (and take a break). This is an eternal resolution, and one that I can’t stress enough. I always start off with a lot more copy than I end up with. It’s the nature of the game, so don’t fight it. The first draft will always be wordy and include too much detail. Leave it overnight, or over the weekend, or the holidays. When you come back to it, you’ll soon see what needs cutting. Resolution: Don’t just cut – pare it back to the absolute essentials. Be ruthless, and write like an impatient reader (which is just about everybody nowadays).

There was a sixth resolution (Always focus on the benefits) but you know what? Five is a magic number, and six isn’t. And in any case, I don’t need to explain that one, apart from saying this: benefits = client, features = you.  That’s an equation that everybody can work out, and one you should apply to all copy.

Happy New Year.

Looking for the right answer? Make sure you're asking the right question.

Or why too much detail is almost always a bad thing…

Many years ago, I said to a client, “send me anything you think might be useful in helping me build up a picture of the project”.

I was thinking perhaps a PowerPoint presentation or a PDF brochure. Some sample sales emails, or an internal document or two. Nothing major, just bit more information so that I could really get my head around the company, their offering and their target market.

You can tell what’s coming, can’t you?

A couple of emails duly arrived, but the emails weren’t the problem – it was the attachments. Endless PDFs with exhaustive detail. Interminable PowerPoint presentations with more slides than you’d think humanly possible.

I scanned through them, but gave up in the end. I was swimming in a sea of detail, unable to see the big picture. Just for fun (in these cases, one takes what one can get) I counted up the slides and PDF pages, and the total came to almost 600.

Be careful what you ask for, I said to myself.  Because really, I brought it on myself. And back then, I thought more was better, and you could never get enough detail.

But over the years, I’ve realised that less is always more. When I’m researching a topic, I have to resist the natural temptation to find out everything. A little voice inside my head says you might need all that detail.

But you know what? I never do. But it’s knowing where to draw the line that’s important.

I’m not saying you don’t need to do background research for your copywriting project or marketing campaign. It’s just that you shouldn’t let yourself overcomplicate what could potentially be a simple question.

And even if you have all the details, it’s often instructive to remove them and see what you’re left with. To strip the problem right back to its basics, and see what you’re really trying to do.

I was vividly reminded of this when I watched Dan Myers’ TED talk Math class needs a makeover. I almost didn’t watch it because I have an aversion to maths, but I forced myself in the end.

And you should too.

It’s only just over 11 minutes long, and it’ll get you thinking about how you solve problems in your business. Even if you’re not a mathematician (and let’s face it – most of us aren’t) you’ll learn something really interesting.

My takeaways were:

  • Make it real
  • Keep it practical
  • Step back from the problem
  • Ask the right questions
  • Use multimedia
  • Get your intuition working
  • Form the shortest question you can

And of all of those, the last is the most important in a marketing context (Who am I writing this for? What’s the one thing this campaign should achieve? How will I get people to take action?). 

Short questions are simple questions. And that’s how you’ll find the simple solutions.

Enjoy the talk.

[If you’re reading this in an email, click here to see the talk on]

Top 10 tips for a successful sales letter

Think sales letters are out of fashion in the digital age? Think again.

[Image courtesy of Bev Goodwin at Flickr Creative Commons]

“Do people still send sales letters?” asked a client recently. He’d had limited success with e-mailshots he’d been doing, and was wondering if there was still life in the old dog yet.

There is – and now more than ever. In a world where everything’s gone virtual, there’s still very much a place for the physical.

Just a couple of weeks ago, I read a ‘real’ book for the first time in about two years. What a joy. Turning the pages, feeling the heft and weight of the book, the physical contact, and the sense of making progress (pages on the left read, pages on the right still to come).

The book created a lasting impression, and not only because it was a good read. It was also a sensory experience, and one that will stay with me for quite a while.

A physical letter can do the same.

Remember that what makes you stand out in a crowded field is being different. If everybody else is sending out emails, why not send out an old-fashioned sales letter to a qualified list?

The mere fact that it’s physical in a virtual world increases the chances of it being noticed.  And since there’s less physical competition, those chances increase yet further.

And yes, the cost is higher, but if the hit rate is too, then it’s worth it.

So what makes a successful sales letter? Here are my Top 10 Tips for sales letters that sell:

  1.  Keep it short. ‘How long will it be?’ asked a client of a sales letter a while back. Wrong question. ‘How short can it be?’ is what you should be asking.
  2. Tell a story, with a beginning (problem), middle (solution) and end (call to action.)
  3. Show them you ‘get’ them, by immediately addressing a problem or a need they have.
  4. Don’t cross the line by sketching out a nightmare scenario. Scare tactics are a double-edged sword, and can quickly frighten people off.
  5. Make it readable and easy to scan: include headings, bullets, bolded text, call-out boxes, and anything else that leads the eye through the copy.
  6. Include figures, because nothing sells like numbers. Be specific and realistic, otherwise you might be setting yourself up for failure.
  7. Don’t use overblown language, because that’s the sales letter equivalent of the foot-in-the-door salesperson, who just won’t take no for an answer.
  8. Keep it simple, by having one goal in mind that you focus on relentlessly. Don’t hit them with too many details, or make too many offers.
  9. Don’t say everything – because you can’t.  In any case, too much detail may actually put readers off contacting you, as they think they know enough to decide it’s not for them. So intrigue, tease and create a desire to find out more.
  10. Include a P.S. – because you can, and because it works. Repetition may be an obvious ploy, but it’s no less effective for that.

And when you’ve finished, the advice is the same as with all copy.


Then send. Happy selling.