It’s good… but it’s not quite there yet.

It’s one of those dreaded conversations with your client. They’ve looked at the beautiful passage of copywriting you lovingly crafted after hours of research and painstaking refinement. Just when you thought you’d attained perfection they stamp all over it and leave you tugging jagged shards of criticism from your bruised pride.

There’s no denying it’s a horrible feeling when someone criticises your work. But it’s one that copywriters, designers and other creatives alike feel at some point in their freelance career; a nauseating mixture of shame, disappointment, embarrassment or even anger.

We seem to instinctively fear the prospect of failure in the eyes of our peers, perhaps because it’s seen as a sign of weakness or incompetence. Politicians make an art of steadfastly refuting accusations of U-turns after a change of heart, a simple misunderstanding or a genuine mistake.

Why it hurts so much

Honest misunderstandings and mistakes are down to poor communication. There’s a mismatch in objectives: the client wants a product to make money; you want it to be the magnum opus of your creative career. Your client’s head contains a vision of what they want and it’s your job to interpret that into something tangible. With all that tacit knowledge being transferred, there’s bound to be something lost in translation.

It’s a problem that’s compounded in our creative industry, where the perceived quality of our output is subjective and often hostage to the wildly oscillating whims of our clients. Plus, if you do your job properly and invest your heart and soul into a job, it’s no wonder you get upset when a client wants to tinker with your masterpiece.

How to handle criticism

There’s no easy cure for a bruised ego, but here’s a few techniques I’ve learned for damage limitation and positive thinking.

1. Look for positives

Most people have manners (clients included) and dress up their criticism. Some even go as far as suggesting improvements. So ask yourself, has the client really offended you? (If the answer is ‘yes’ then do you really want this person as your client?) Chances are they’ve been gentle about it so take a deep breath and be thankful.

After you’ve taken criticism on the chin, stop short of revisiting your work and looking for reasons to disagree with the client’s opinion. After all, their reputation stands more chance of being damaged than your pride and turning this into an argument won’t get you any closer to fixing things.

Focus on the good that can come out of this: the final product will be better, closer to the brief and you’ll have a happier client. Be grateful that you’ve got a chance to do something about it, unlike the alternatives: your client takes their business elsewhere or worse still; they become an expert copywriter/designer and take matters into their own hands.

2. See the big picture

Animated spinning email symbol

1995 just called, they want their animated GIF back

Do you feel the criticism is unwarranted or incorrect? Time to put aside exactly what the client said and try to understand they’re really getting at. Do a little digging around, look for the root of the problem rather than concentrating on solutions. A timeless example is the client who insists their web site lacks an animated spinning email ‘@’ GIF. Why? It turns out their customers weren’t sure how to get in touch through the web site. An issue better solved with clearer microcopy and an inline contact form (both easily deployed using WordPress).

If you sense tension or conflict, it helps to remember that this thing is bigger than both you and the client put together. It’s all about the reader, user, customer or whoever it is that consumes the product you’re building together. Whatever makes life easier and simpler for them is the right way to go.

3. Learn and improve

Make this an opportunity to avoid similar situations in the future. Be proactive and make a few notes on the situation to improve how you work, like:

  • Ask more questions at the start
  • Tighten up the brief and get sign-off
  • Add more review points

Each of these help you understand what motivates your client (or fills their head full of ‘good ideas’) so you can preempt problems before they happen.

You’re only human

Poor communication, misunderstanding and mistakes are as human as opposable thumbs, bipedalism and short-tempers. But what really characterises us is our ability to learn from experience. So prepare for and take lessons from criticism; use it positively to grow stronger and numb the pain. That way you can carry on doing what you do best: investing your heart and soul into your work. Plus, you expected this anyway, right? That’s why you costed in a redraft…