Friday, March 2

Improving Criticisms: How To Be A Critic Without Being A Cynic

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing." — Oscar Wilde from Lady Windermere's Fan (often paraphrased) 

Every year when I return the first graded writing assignments to public relations students, many of them feel trepidation. They have every right to feel it. I tell them in advance that I'm critical about the work.

Some of them don't need me to tell them. Several students have told me that I have a reputation for not being easy, maybe even hard. The words "necessarily evil" are sometimes attached to the unwritten course description.

I don't mind the monikers, but most students would never guess that I feel trepidation when I hand the first assignments back too. The profession requires that instructors be critics. But not every student appreciates the difference between the critic and cynic. (And some instructors forget it too.)

Instructors are not the only ones who have to walk what is sometimes is fine line. Scores of professionals do: reviewers, journalists, bloggers, politicians, business people, etc. And some do it better than others.

How To Be A Critic Without Being A Cynic.

1. Be selfless instead of selfish. Critics lend their experience, expertise, and opinions to help improve the performance or material for the practitioner or for the benefit of others interested in the work. Cynics draw attention to their experience, expertise, and opinions, and often make fault-finding their mission in order to elevate themselves if not in the public eye than to appease their own flailing self-esteem.

2. Be humble instead of egotistical. Critics do not see themselves as the final authority, but rather challenge themselves and others to continually raise the bar and find solutions. Cynics believe they have already obtained the high water mark in observation if not performance, and expect no one else ever will.

3. Be direct instead of directed. Critics keep their judgements focused on the performance or material rather than the performer or author, allowing them to be direct in their assessment. Cynics believe that finding fault in individuals reaffirms their own virtue, and frequently attempt to pin any failings on someone or something. 

4. Be empathetic instead of aggravated. Critics are interested in the effort and the thought process that led to the performance or material because it may influence their overall opinion. Cynics are interested in comparing the performance or material to whatever template of perfection they have constructed, and are easily annoyed when others don't see it as they do.

5. Be democratic instead of dogmatic. Critics see the good with the bad, recognizing that one point of weakness doesn't necessarily invalidate the whole of the performance or material. Cynics are dogmatic, focusing in on any irrelevant imperfection in order to obscure any other merit and invalidate the whole.

You see the differences play out daily. Cynics dismiss good ideas based on nothing other than labels, whether party affiliation and family history or philosophical and ideological differences. Cynics employ diatribe to drown out differing ideas and opinions because other views are automatically invalid. Cynics work hard to make small things look big and big things look small, distorting the truth or initial intent. 

You can see it in politics, public activism, and corporate policy. The lines are usually specific and rigid. 

Critics, on the other hand, tend to be more amiable and lighthearted. And while that sometimes makes them easier to dismiss against the diatribe that surrounds them, they usually benefit over the long term — continually working toward a vision that is further ahead or attempting to pull people forward along with them.

All of it is something to think about, especially if you review the performance of others in a classroom or column, office or blog. Everything has value, and failing to recognize that usually comes with a cost far greater than any perceived price. Now go do the right thing.
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