'The Future Is Full of Possibilities' - Why Advice Is Better Than Feedback

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A couple years ago, The New York Times issued an outstanding digital report on the goals they needed to strive for in this new age. One particular takeaway that stood out for me was this quote: "Our readers are hungry for advice from The Times. Too often, we don't offer it, or offer it only in print-centric forms. In the past, we might see a feature on yoga, running or meditation—who's doing it, what's it about. Today the Times believes that people want to know how, where and when to do it.”

This can definitely translate to B2B. "We expect that the bigger opportunities are in providing guidance rather than traditional features," the report says. In covering their niches, reporters must think engagement and involvement. Knowing about investing, farm products or construction isn't enough anymore. There's enough data to tell a reader more—why they should care and how they can act.

But it’s something in that first paragraph that flashed before me again last week: the concept of advice and that readers are hungry for it.

In an article in the Harvard Business Review, they posed this: You made a pitch to a major customer or client and landed an invitation to pitch to their senior leaders. “Now you want a second opinion on your presentation to see if there’s anything you can improve. What do you do?”

Research now suggests that feedback often has no—or even a negative—impact on our performance. “This is because the feedback we receive is often too vague—it fails to highlight what we can improve on or how to improve. Our latest research suggests a better approach. Across four experiments—including a field experiment conducted in an executive education classroom—we found that people received more effective input when they asked for advice rather than feedback."

Why is advice more effective than feedback?
“As it turns out, feedback is often associated with evaluation,” the Harvard researchers write. “At school, we receive feedback with letter grades. When we enter the workforce, we receive feedback with our performance evaluations. Because of this link between feedback and evaluation, when people are asked to provide feedback, they often focus on judging others’ performance; they think more about how others performed in the past. This makes it harder to imagine someone’s future and possibly better performance. As a result, feedback givers end up providing less critical and actionable input.

"In contrast, when asked to provide advice, people focus less on evaluation and more on possible future actions. Whereas the past is unchangeable, the future is full of possibilities. So, if you ask someone for advice, they will be more likely to think forward to future opportunities to improve rather than backwards to the things you have done, which you can no longer change.”

So the question becomes, what advice are you giving in your content?
As the Times said, knowing about a topic isn’t enough anymore. What can I recommend to help people act on it? I deal with this with an arts group that I manage. If there’s a great play or movie that opens, I don’t just want to tell people about that. I want them to go see it. So I need to find a Pay What You Can or a discount for the play or a special showing if it’s a documentary or foreign film that doesn’t have regular showings.

And then I may need to go even further, by organizing meetups for people to go, thinking they may not be likely to go on their own. That’s where events come in, of course. So advice now is moving from knowledge to an in-person outing and how can I monetize that outing.

And that can make all of us better leaders. “If you want to position yourself as an advice giver and not just a deliverer of feedback,” writes Mark Athitakis on Associations Now, “you may have to step up your game to be the kind of leader people trust enough to ask for advice.”

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…