The Joy of Criticism

In the next two weeks I will be performing what I call “the presentation”. It’s a PowerPoint deck lecture on how to use social media, specifically LinkedIn and our new Academy of Art University partner, Behance.  We have created a public gallery with this company to showcase student content. I am continually amazed at the quality of work our high-performing students create; this is a great way to put it on display. The Behance-embedded user interface loves LinkedIn, and constantly updates the user’s LI profile with a thumbnail of the latest posting.

I have made this presentation twice already, in person and in an online webinar.  I need to tweak it a bit to give it better flow. I will give it a couple more times in an intimate classroom setting, and I will be asking for direct student feedback during the lecture.


I will implore the students to be critical, and to give me unfiltered feedback. They will be hesitant to speak with candor for a couple of reasons. I could be seen as an “administrator”, and their comments could be interpreted as disrespectful. Perhaps they feel they are not qualified to speak up, as many of the students are novices. Most students play around with Instagram and Facebook, but few drill deep and learn the art of making authentic professional connections.

I am going to beg them to call me out when I fall flat.

Criticism is often considered a negative word. It implies harsh judgment and fault-finding. It feels like it’s exposing the target to humiliation. While critical speech can indeed be deeply personal and hurtful, I view it through a different lens.

I will tell the students that nothing they can say to me will be taken personally. They are asked to judge the information, and the way that information is explained, not to tell me I’m an idiot. The performance and the performer are two separate subjects. I will not mumble, sweat through my shirt or laugh nervously when something goes awry during the lecture. I have no fear of public speaking, so I’m not worried about “me”. I want the information to be delivered in a way that is compelling, commands attention, and has a strong finish.

When the students are critical, they are not attacking me. They are sizing up the presentation and what they are getting out of it. I want to make the lecture good – I can’t do it without criticism!

I have a friend who is very critical of me on a weekly basis. J is my Skype-enabled sounding board for my career and personal life. He’s not a life coach or a therapist – he is a simply a friend who can speak to me with complete candor. The “criticism” is given in the spirit of trust and with the agenda of helpfulness.

J can’t hurt me, because I know he won’t throw shine on me to spare my feelings. That would be a monumental waste of time for both of us. I have invited this criticism from J to keep my feet on the ground, to remember to be grateful for what I have, and to not feel self deserving. I can also vent, if I’m feeling mad or frustrated. When I disagree with J, I tell him so, and he knows I’m not attacking him either.

This not to say that I am impervious to a personal shot from someone. We all get butt hurt occasionally. I’m talking about separating the personal from the professional.


When I ran a couple of radio stations and websites in my former career, I encouraged criticism from the audience and web visitors. The comments were withering, angry and deeply personal at times. My colleagues would ask me, “Doesn’t that bother you?”

I would reply, “Comments about me from people who are not friends, have never met me and know nothing about me are just words. How could I be bothered?”

The comments from the audience were their specific individual judgments on the product we were presenting, and if they didn’t like it, they said so. That was the point of inviting the feedback. If I didn’t want to hear from anyone, I wouldn’t have asked in the first place. Sure, some of the comments were from crazy people, or folks who didn’t understand why I couldn’t ask a syndicated show that airs from 3-7pm to suddenly wake up early and do their show early for just us.

I took the criticism for what it was –  a reaction to something, sometimes not completely thought out. Look at Twitter and notice the posts that would probably not have been launched had the user not been hammered.

Seek out people in your life who are interested in your success. Tell them to be honest with you. Tell them you promise to be truthful (and helpful) in return. Whether it’s an accountability buddy (You’re supposed to be at the gym – where the hell are you?) to a friend who has a basic understanding of your business and can offer strategies to overcome challenges, this criticism is liberating, not hurtful.

When we focus on the performance, not on us, the knowledge is priceless.

Signature photo

John Scott is a media instructor, online education coordinator and the career services manager at the School of Multimedia Communications, Academy of Art University, San Francisco. He also counsels individuals and groups in the art of reinvention. John’s debut book Broken Glass and Barbed Wire will be available during the holiday season. 

Follow John on Twitter @johnscottsf.

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