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A few months working hard on your latest project made it possible to finish it a month before the deadline. Great! It might be a good idea to get some feedback before showing it to the client.

However, many of the people to whom you ask for feedback are going to limit their reactions to compliments. That's nice but you know your client is going to bitch about many details and getting feedback from people out of your area of expertise can help predict some of said complaints.

So what's a good approach to make other people comfortable to criticize even if they don't fully understand how it was done?

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up vote 9 down vote accepted

When I give talks, I always solicit honest feedback, and I can confirm your observation that it is hard to get. Here is what works well for me:

  • Ask specific questions. You must have your own guesses, where the problems or the weaknesses might lie. If you ask "what do you think of this particular aspect, this might be problematic/worth improving, mightn't it?", then you are very likely to get an honest opinion.

  • As Jeanne said, ask specifically for criticism. If you ask "what does this good talk/product/idea need to become not just good but perfect", then it takes a lot of nerve on the part of the other person to say "it already is perfect". That means that (s)he will be forced to point out something. There are several variations of this. You could ask "think of the best talk you have attended in your life and tell me how mine differs from that".

  • Show that you are serious about improving and learning over time. Often, people ask for feedback just out of politeness. They are also likely to get answers that just play the politeness game. If the people you are asking really get the sense that they can seriously help you, they will try to do so.

  • An important aspect is that some people will have an ever harder time to get honest feedback and others an ever easier. It depends on your reaction, which people will remember. So, once you got the feedback you wanted, keep in mind that your task doesn't end there. You need to show that you are genuinely grateful and not in the least offended and that the worse the feedback, the better (I am exaggerating a bit).

Over time, a combination of these strategies has helped me a lot in getting honest feedback and in vastly improving my presentation technique.

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As you, Alex and Jeanne have already mentioned, soliciting honest feedback is difficult.

One approach that has worked for me on a number of levels is to approach people the following way:

"Hey (insert name here) - listen, I could use your help. I just finished my latest project (show them, give quick explanation of the project) and I think it's missing something...but I can't put my finger on it. Would you mind taking a few minutes to take a look?"

Engaging people in a conversation rather then simply asking a straightforward question - especially while making them feel as if you sought them out because you respect their opinion (which is probably why you approached that person to begin with) - can really put people at ease and get past the point of simply being polite.

Sometimes the best ideas come from seemingly innocuous statements.

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Ask specifically for negative feedback. When I give a speech or presentation, I make a point of asking people "what would you change" or "what would you do differently". Sometimes I still get nothing as an answer but it has a much higher % of negative replies that a more neutrally worded question.

Another approach is to let people give feedback anonymously. I prefer not going with this approach though as I sometimes have a follow up question to the feedback. Anonymity invites vague unactionable feedback.

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