Over the years, as I began to give lectures around the world, whether about marketing, tech, or the intersection of the two, I began to adopt a new custom that has proven to be a very successful strategy in getting better at what I do. It involves asking the people around me one simple question, but the results are fascinating and highly beneficial. The question is "How can I be better?" Allow me to explain.

Just last week, I spoke at an event about the future of artificial intelligence. Now, I happen to be an energetic guy, especially when speaking in front of a crowd. As soon as I get off stage, what generally happens is people come over and give some positive feedback, usually along the lines of "Great job. Really enjoyed the talk" or something similar. That is just common courtesy, I guess. At that point, most people say thanks, and walk away. I don't. 

I thank the person and then ask them the following question. "How can I be better next time?" The standard answer I get is usually "No, really. You were great." At that point, the person just kinda wants to move on. But I push back with "Ok, thanks, but if I forced you to give me some constructive criticism, if you had to give me something, what would it be?"

This takes them by surprise and that is part of the goal here, but this question, which I literally now ask after any kind of "Performance", whether a speaking gig, an investor pitch, or anything else where I can gather feedback, is super effective for a number of reasons.

"I value your opinion."

By asking the person for their genuine opinion on how you did, you are in essence communicating to them "Your opinion is important to me and while I appreciate your compliment, I would really love to learn from you how I can improve." That takes the person off guard, and delights them. Once they get over the initial surprise of you asking them that question, they generally smile. You just strengthened that relationship by using a simple four words, "How can I improve?"

Not Some Hotshot, Quite the Contrary 

When you get off stage, you usually feel great about yourself, assuming the talk went as planned. That satisfaction might be misinterpreted as ego and by asking this question, you are fixing that. "Yes, I know I just got off stage, and I realize it was a good talk, but I know I can do better and I want to, with your help."

It adds a sense of humility to the whole situation, and here's a secret, people like humble people. There is nothing wrong with appreciating one's self or even recognizing that you totally crushed that talk, but no matter how good you were, you can always do better and by asking that question, you make it very clear that you are indeed aware of your shortcomings or at least curious to explore them.

Actually Improve

Of course, if this whole thing is not genuine but an act to come off humble or try to butter someone up, it will be totally transparent and ultimately fail. You actually need to want the criticism. 

Once I pushed back and showed the person that I truly want the feedback, I have gotten some amazing tips over the years, tips that have made me better at what I do. "Speak slower or drink less coffee." "Make sure to listen to the answers of the panelists while they speak as opposed to getting ready for your next question." "Make sure to explain terms that you use, even if they are clear to you. Assume nothing about the knowledge of the audience." And the list goes on.

Apply This Everywhere

Finished an investor meeting and the investor says "We are going to pass on this opportunity, thank you very much?" Ask "Thank you for your time. May I ask how I can do better in my next investor meeting?" Pitched a journalist who is, or is not going to cover your story? Ask "Curious, how did I do here? Could I be more effective in my pitching next time?"

The truth is, this question can be asked by anyone at any time and all you need to do, is put aside your ego and want to improve.

In the business world, we spend too much time selling and pitching how great we are and not enough time actually achieving greatness through sustainable and continuous growth. If all that didn't convince you to embrace this question, just think what kind of impression it will make and how it will differentiate you from everyone else who is focused on their strengths while you are focused on strengthening your weaknesses.