A writer I know who is visually impaired was told, “I would never read a novel with a visually impaired main character because I would assume the author had an agenda.”
What did this person expect the writer to do? To not write a novel that features a visually impaired person just because one prospective reader might feel offended by what they consider the writer’s “agenda?”
You could fill in the blank with pretty much any topic.
Try it. Think of a topic or theme that’s close to your heart – one you have strong and well-researched opinions about. Then imagine someone is saying this to you about your topic:
Fiction writers, try this:
I would never read a book with a ________ main character, because I would assume the author had an agenda.
Non-fiction writers, try this:
I would never read a book about ________, because I would assume the author had an agenda.
All authors have some sort of an agenda. In a novel, for example, they might be gently trying to help readers understand what it’s like to be visually impaired, adopted, divorced, LGBT, diabetic, or whatever.
I recently read a historical novel set in 1776 America, told from the POV of a ladies’ maid. This maid was not a slave – she was a white orphan who’d gone into service as a young girl and had no opportunities in life other than being an unpaid servant to a mean, rich society woman. In a sense, she was a slave.
The story made me think about the people of many colors who have either been forced into slave labor or who immigrated to my country with high hopes for a better life, and discovered that the only jobs available to them involved hard labor with wages barely enough to feed one person, no less an entire family; or the orphaned and poverty-stricken who had no other options in life but to be servants; and the way my nation was built on the backs of strong, determined people like this.
If I had assumed the author would have an agenda, I would have missed out on all this. The novel helped me to appreciate people who were – and still are – in service.
As writers, business owners, and leaders, we’re going to get discouraging negative feedback and complaints from:
- People who disagree with our stance on the topics we write about.
- Subscribers who think our emails are too long, or too short.
- Readers of our novels who find the protagonist unlikeable, or they don’t like the color of a character’s skin, or their accent, or they think the plot is boring.
What are we supposed to do when people complain?
How can we handle complaints like grownups?
This is something I wrestle with, because, like every business owner, I, too, get complaints. Bright and early one Monday morning, after sending out my weekly email to subscribers that let them know about the content of my latest podcast episode, I received this email:
I’m not interested in podcasts. Sometimes, with videos, there is a script provided giving the entire content in print. Or videos might have closed captioning. I am hearing impaired. I can scan text for content I need, but podcasts are so time-consuming.
I received this message on the heels of publishing a new podcast episode – just like I’ve done every Monday morning for months – an episode that I spent eight hours planning, crafting, recording, editing, writing a transcript and show notes for, designing promotional graphics, writing and scheduling social media posts, and writing an email for the subscribers on my email list.
Reading between the lines, I rewrote this person’s complaint in my head, and here’s my interpretation:
I don’t like listening to podcasts because I’m hearing-impaired. Because podcasts are geared for auditory learning, they don’t work for me. I’m not willing to carve time out of my day for doing something that doesn’t appeal to me in the first place.
Reading way, way between the lines, I sensed this person asking:
Why don’t you make it easier on me? Provide a transcript of your podcast. Or better yet, axe the podcast altogether and stick with blogging.
I could be interpreting this person’s complaint incorrectly. But a myriad of thoughts, questions, and emotions surfaced as I pondered their complaint.
Why did they feel compelled to let me know they are not interested in podcasts?
Did they think their missive would be a cheerful beginning to my week? They don’t listen to my podcast in the first place, so why do they feel compelled to let me know that?
What is their expectation?
Were they attempting to guilt-trip me into responding, “Oh, so sorry! I had no idea that anyone in my audience wouldn’t be interested in podcasts. I’m going to immediately delete every episode and I promise I’ll never podcast again as long as I live.”
What do they want me to learn from their complaint?
They stated that they are “hearing impaired” and that they prefer to scan a transcript for the information they need. It appears that they want me to be sensitive to the needs of the hearing-impaired members of my audience.
Here’s how I responded to this person – and I’d love your feedback on whether you think I took the right approach, or what I could have done differently:
Thanks for contacting me. I agree that business owners need to reach out to their audience through multiple mediums, including articles or blog posts, video, and audio.
That’s why I have hundreds of blog posts on my blog (for people who learn best through reading) as well as several videos and my podcast. On the podcast, I alternate between interviews with guests and tutorial-style posts. I include written transcripts for most of my monologue-style episodes, because I know some people prefer reading or are hearing impaired.
In this era, our readers and clients consume content in so many ways and each of us has our own preference. I’m committed to being an example to my audience of the multiple ways a business owner can reach out to and connect with their audience.
I did my best to remove emotion and defensive language, and kept it as professional and neutral as I was capable of doing in the moment.
Brain dumps help diffuse emotional overload
Then I did a brain dump of all my swirling emotions and thoughts, first verbally with my husband, and second, on my computer. Parts of my brain dump became what you are now listening to as a podcast episode. But I didn’t immediately record my brain dump.
I wrote it all out. Then I closed the file and let it sit for 3 days. For me, 72 hours is usually enough time to let my emotions simmer down and to give me a more objective perspective when I open the file and begin editing it.
In this case, I discovered that 72 hours was not nearly enough time. I had done so much emotional baggage-dumping on paper – not just about this person’s mild criticism, but about the exceedingly mean-spirited negative comments I’ve been seeing constantly on social media and in the news. This person’s mild rant had alerted my brain that it needed to process a lot of pandemic-related emotions, so I wrote and wrote and wrote. I felt overwhelmed by the amount of writing I’d generated. So I set it aside for a month.
I’m just now revisiting it, and I know I still don’t have this all figured out, but I think I’m far enough along in the process that I can share it with you.
3 tips for handling reader complaints
I’m structuring this section as action steps because I don’t want you to just sit back and take passive action – in other words, listen to this episode or read the transcript and not do anything with it.
I know that you also deal with reader complaints and client criticisms, so I want to give you some practical tips for handling reader complaints that you can take to heart and put into action.
Tip #1: You can’t please everyone.
And you shouldn’t try to. Some of your readers, listeners, viewers, and subscribers will not be a good fit for what you are offering.
For example, in the case of my former subscriber who is hearing-impaired, I did a little sleuthing inside my email marketing system, and learned that this person had signed up for my list so they could get one of my freebies. They likely never visited my website to see the kinds of services my company offers. They probably never viewed the show notes of one of my podcast episodes, where they would have discovered that many of my episodes include full written transcripts.
This person pre-decided that they didn’t like one aspect of the way I do business, and in that moment, they decided not to become my client.
When I retooled the Blogging Bistro brand in late 2019 to support entrepreneurs who are planning and growing writing-related businesses, as part of my re-brand, I made a commitment to podcast every week for a year. I knew I’d lose a significant chunk of my subscribers and blog readers.
Why? Because people who’d been used to getting blog posts from me for 13 years were suddenly going to be receiving my content packaged in a different format, and I knew that would make some of them uncomfortable and uninterested.
When I was primarily blogging, my hearing-impaired subscriber was a better fit for what I had to offer. But now that I’ve transitioned to primarily podcasting, this person is no longer part of my ideal target audience.
In the coaching I do with my clients, many of them get distressed when someone unsubscribes from their email list or unfollows them on social media or doesn’t participate in their Facebook group.
But think about it.
Have you ever subscribed to someone’s email list or joined their Facebook group, and the first few weeks or months, you avidly soaked up every tidbit this person had to offer? You liked many of their posts and commented on them. But then, after a while, you either lost interest, or the person’s content started feeling stale or repetitious or overly salesy, or your own brand or business shifted and you no longer needed their services.
We have so many choices about how we spend our leisure and learning time. When people choose to unfollow us, we don’t need to chase after them and demand to know why, or to have our feelings hurt.
So many people are a good fit for what you have to offer that you don’t need to feel guilty or as if you’ve done something wrong when people stop following you.
All of us are going to do things – intentionally or unintentionally – that cause others to decide they do not want to hang out with us. They do not want to read our blog posts, watch our videos, listen to our podcasts, buy our books, or become our clients.
We must attempt to become comfortable with this. I know it feels like personal rejection, but it really isn’t personal.
You can’t please everyone. So don’t try to. Find your ideal audience and put your energy into connecting with them.
Tip #2: Don’t allow thoughtless comments by naysayers discourage you or stop you from doing what you know you’re called to do.
You are going to make mistakes. You are going to offend people. People are going to misunderstand you.
I have met so many writers who spend 10 or 20 years working on their novel, but they never get it published because they’re afraid of how readers will react to it. They allow fear to keep them from fulfilling their calling or their lifelong dream.
As a long-time business owner, I deal with this fear every single day. Often, I get so discouraged that I feel like giving up. But one thing that keeps me going is knowing that every single writer faces this same fear.
The ones who are successful – and I define success by how you are helping to transform the lives of your readers (not by how much money you make off your writing) – every successful writer keeps going and always does the best work they are capable of doing.
They understand that making mistakes and being misunderstood and feeling discouraged come with the territory. They actively seek to work through those feelings, and they consistently and conscientiously invest their time into understanding their audience’s needs and serving them.
Tip #3: When someone complains or criticizes or rants or gives your work a 1-star review, resist the urge to retaliate.
Give yourself at least 24 hours to release the emotions around the complaint so that when you respond, you feel confident you can be calm and rational, rather than emotional and reactive.
I see reactionary behavior happening constantly. This is an area where I see a great deal of harm being done, not only by everyday folks who use social media, all the way up to the most powerful political figures in the world.
Instead of acknowledging opposing viewpoints, people jump straight to attacking someone’s character or shaming them.
These attacks have an alarmist tone, and they often make sweeping generalizations about a group based on the words or actions of a small number of representatives of that group.
My husband participated in an interdenominational Bible study group. His group had 16 people in it, and 13 of them attended all different churches or no church at all. His group was a hodge-podge of people from different walks of life, different political views, and significantly different theological and doctrinal stances.
One person in my husband’s group called Democrats “demoncrats,” implying that everyone who leaned toward that political party is evil – literally demon-possessed, and is not to be acknowledged or taken seriously.
We can’t read each other’s hearts.
It grieves me when people are so resolute about their viewpoint that they aren’t willing to entertain the possibility that there could be lovely, thoughtful people who think the opposite of them and who feel just as strongly about their own convictions.
Rather than stooping to name-calling – which I’ve never seen result in a positive outcome – what if this person had said, “Tell me about your political views. How did you come to that point of view?”
You can disagree fiercely with someone and still engage in fruitful conversation.
After I drafted this episode, I came across a blog post by literary agent, Rachelle Gardner, who wrote article called, “Should Authors Stay in Their Lane?” for the Books & Such blog.
Rachelle’s post got me thinking more deeply about this issue, so some of what I’m sharing with you was inspired by her post. Rachelle addressed the question of hot-button social issues that are being publicly discussed – issues that are unrelated to your brand, your platform, or the writing you typically do, but issues you feel compelled to address.
Think about a current social issue that sets your pulse racing.
- Should people be mandated to wear face masks in public during the COVID-19 pandemic?
- Should schools be re-opened for in-person classes?
- Is COVID-19 a health emergency or a hoax?
When you spot a social media post on any of those topics, you might feel an almost overwhelming urge to make your opinion known.
Here’s what I do that helps me rein in my reactionary tendencies. I ask myself:
- Do I have something new and important to add to the conversation?
- Is my main motivation to either rail against someone’s views or to add my stamp of approval to what someone who shares my views said?
If my answer to the second question is “yes,” (which it usually is), I “write” my response in my head, mentally click “publish,” and the only person who ever sees my ranting and railing is me. One of my friends does this – she has been keeping what she calls the “virus diaries,” and she already has two journals full of thoughts and emotions that no one but her will see.
When I believe the situation merits my response, instead of reacting and retaliating, I go out of my way to respond thoughtfully, respectfully, and intentionally.
I also ask myself: If I post this, will I lose or gain followers, subscribers, readers, or clients?
The answer will be “yes” to both of those questions. I’ll gain some; I’ll lose some.
Then I take it a step further. Let’s say I have 5,000 email subscribers and I send them a political rant that has nothing to do with my brand of helping people plan, protect, publish and promote their writing. How many of my subscribers am I willing to lose? 100? 1,000? All 5,000? I carefully weigh the risk I’m willing to take before posting, publishing, or sending.
I’ll give you real-life example. The first writing platform I developed was geared for prospective adoptive parents. My writing was all adoption, all the time. But what if I had decided I needed to address the hot-button topic of abortion?
Adoption and abortion are fairly closely related, when you think about it in terms of a woman’s choices when faced with an unplanned pregnancy. Abortion is a topic that triggers a tremendous amount of emotional frenzy, gut reactions, shame, shaming, anger, and name-calling by people on both sides of the issue. I could have easily jumped into that fray, but I opted instead to make my voice an important part of the “adoption” conversation, as opposed to the “abortion” conversation.
Even now, when I see people on social media calling each other “stupid” or “ignorant” for either supporting or not supporting abortion, I go back to my questions:
- What is my motivation for feeling compelled to respond?
- Have I given my response the 24-hour test, to give myself time to process and approach the topic from a less reactionary perspective and a more logical one?
- If I choose to respond, how can I do so thoughtfully, respectfully, and intentionally?
- What new and important information can I add to the conversation?
- If I go public with my response, how will that impact my brand, negatively and positively? How big of a risk am I willing to take?
When you’re on the receiving end of negative feedback, complaints, criticisms, rants, ridicule, or 1-star reviews, how do you handle it?
- Do you get discouraged and give up?
- Do you retaliate with reactionary, emotionally-loaded language?
- Do you attack their behavior and attempt to shame them?
- Do you show a willingness to listen to their side of the story and learn from them, even though you vehemently disagree with them?
If we’re being honest with ourselves, I believe that most of us will admit that our reactions are a mix of all of those things. It’s an area where I suspect we have some soul-searching to do.
I want to know your thoughts.
Please share your suggestions for how to handle rants, ridicule, and crushing criticism in The Professional Writer Podcast Community (Facebook group). We’re here to support, encourage, challenge, and learn from each other.
Be sure to listen to Episode #24 next week. I’ll acquaint you with three ways your ideal audience typically engages with you, and I’ll provide helpful tips about why and how to clean your email list.
Resources mentioned in this episode
Training: Find Your Ideal Target Audience – In this on-demand audio training and workbook, I’ll guide you through a series of questions that will help you discover and get to know your reader better than you ever imagined possible.
Episode #14: Everyone’s Favorite Radio Station – Are You Tuned In? – In this 5-minute episode, I’ll help you discover how tuning in to your ideal audience and creating “what’s in it for me” content will set your business up for success.
Episode #3: Going ALL IN – Figure out what you want to become known for and go all in on generously serving your audience.
Episode #9: Being True to Yourself – How replacing “you need to” with “you love to” will revolutionize your business.
Video: “A Conversation About Race, Grace and Forgiveness” with Patricia Raybon, Mark Galli, Esau McCaulley and Joyce Dinkins
Episode #10: Moving from Self-Focused to Self-Forgetful – A simple, 6-word strategy that’ll help you think deeply about your underlying motivations for saying “yes” or “no” to new opportunities.
“Should Authors Stay in Their Lane?” by Rachelle Gardner, on the Books & Such blog
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