Why I Criticise

"PaleBlueDot" by NASA - NASA. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons

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“PaleBlueDot” by NASA. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Not all of my pieces are positive. Why do I write mean things about your company or your client? If you can’t say something nice, shouldn’t you say nothing at all?

That’s not how I work, and I’ll explain why.

This topic comes up from time to time, usually from PR or marketing people who have to answer to a grumpy client who pays them to get people to say nice things about them.

Trust Is Important

My readers, and clients, and the people who bother to pay any attention to what I might think only believe me if they can trust that what I’m saying is my actual opinion and not simply whatever some company wants me to say.

Trust is earned, and if I breach it, it’s a lot harder to earn back than it was to earn in the first place, because people will remember that I breached that trust. That’s part of why I’m so open about disclosing the gifts I’m given (and these are some of my most widely read pieces), and if I’m being paid to write something or not. In most of the places my writing is published, the independence from any one vendor is part of the platform, and I’d get kicked out if I breached that.

It’s possible that I could earn and maintain the trust of my audience by only writing positive stories. However, relentlessly positive stories about everyone makes it look like I’ll say nice things about anyone who talks to me, which tends to make people suspicious. That erodes trust.

By demonstrating to my readers that I will criticise as well as praise, I’m showing them that they can trust my opinion is my own. I will even criticise those who have paid for a piece if they’re paying for an independent opinion. If you want only my positive feedback, well, that’s what you pay PR for. I can do that, too, but it costs more, and it won’t appear in the same places, because this is my audience, and if you want access to it, you have to come through me.

I can only sell out my audience once, because then they won’t trust me any more, and I can’t earn money writing things for them or consulting to them. I’d have to charge so much money for that to make economic sense that you can’t afford it.

But there’s another important reason I write negative stories as well as positive ones: contrast.

Contrast is Important

If everything is special, nothing is.

If I write nothing but positive pieces, then it all starts to get kinda boring. It also makes it harder for my audience to figure out what to avoid. Imagine if you only had pleasure sensors, and none for pain. You’d hurt yourself a lot. Negative feedback is useful.

If I ignore anything negative, then I force my audience to guess at what I don’t like. It’s a lie of omission, and that’s getting close to a breach of trust once again.

Contrast also means that positive stories are more powerful when there are negative stories as well. A positive story will stand out more if there are negative stories around it. If you are doing something that I like, then my liking it carries more weight because of the things I don’t like.

You are not the only company I write about, so sometimes hurting your feelings is worthwhile for the greater good. Because it’s not about you.

It’s An Opportunity

I work hard to criticise in good faith.

For example: I’ve learned to focus criticism on areas that your target market should care about. If your product is aimed at Windows people, then I won’t lament its lack of Gnome integration. If it’s designed to do primary storage, then I won’t care that it doesn’t talk to tape drives.

But if your product or company isn’t addressing something that it should be, then I will point it out. Remember that this is just my opinion, and if you get ruffled by a bad review, consider why that is? Why do you care about my opinion?

A good critique should demonstrate how much I care about the topic, because I’m pointing out where you’ve done well (in the areas that you should) and what could be better (in the areas that you should). I care, because the people I’m writing for also care. In many cases, because I’m a practitioner as well as press/analyst/tech-marketer I often am the target market, or I’ve lived it personally. What annoys me about your thing is probably the same thing that will annoy your potential customers.

I criticise because what I most want is to love you and your product/service and if I don’t then you’ve let me down, and that makes me sad. I’m trying to help you be who I want to love.

My friend Chris Wahl wrote some nice words on this topic as well, which I encourage you to read.

It’s My Personality

All of this is how I justify doing what I’m naturally inclined to do. While I think I present a reasonable case for why continuing to do this is appropriate, it might not be.

There are times where I am too critical of people or companies. There are times when I am not critical enough. It is really hard to get the balance exactly right even once, let alone all the time. And who gets to judge? There isn’t an objective measure we can rely on to calibrate our snarkometers, which is a shame.

If you think I’ve been overly harsh, or not harsh enough, please let me know and explain your reasoning. I try to be pretty open to admitting when I’m wrong, though I have an ego like every other human and it can be painful sometimes.

Everything is a work in progress, and I’m trying to get better at what I do just as you are. It would be strange indeed if I was prepared to be critical of others and not accept criticism in return.

Hopefully together we can make the world a better place than we found it.

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