How to speak to your audience and get out of your own way
By Cameron John Robbins
I recently saw a T-shirt that said BUY ART FROM LIVING ARTISTS – THE DEAD ONES DON’T NEED THE MONEY.
That sounds very cute and catchy. As a fine artist myself, I can understand its appeal and its sentiment. Unfortunately, as a businessman I can also see that it’s narcissistic rubbish. It reflects some of the core reasons why fine artists usually fail in such a spectacular way to make a living from their work.
Let’s break down why. What would you think if you saw any of the following ad slogans?
Buy things from Target – Walmart doesn’t need the money.
Buy a car from Chevy – Ford doesn’t need the money.
Buy a computer from Dell – Apple doesn’t need the money.
Do you see the problem? They’re not very persuasive. Prospective customers and clients don’t care about that dyad. It may appeal to the seller’s ego. But it does nothing to address any of the reasons why people actually buy things.
The main problem with that catchy statement above is one of perspective and presentation. Is the work of living artists better than the work of dead artists? Is a living artist owed patronage simply because they are in fact a living artist? Is the mortal status of the artist even relevant?
Let’s put it another way. When you buy groceries, do you do it because you are concerned about the financial needs of the person who rings up your purchase? You may care very deeply about such things, when you think of them. But most likely, that factor never even occurred to you. No, you bought groceries to solve a problem of your own.
What does it mean to you to be an artist? How do you present yourself and what you do to the world? How do most people tend to view artists? Does your attitude and behavior prove or disprove their biases?
[Incidentally, you can profitably replace artist with any number of other professions (salesperson, insurance agent, plumber, etc.)]
These are important questions. As a fine artist, are you a business or a philanthropy? In other words, how do you view yourself and what you do? If you create things that you want to sell, you’re a business. If you want people to make donations out of pity for your circumstances, then you’re a charity case. But you can’t be both. Do you truly believe in the viability of fine art as a business venture? Or do you feel the need for philanthropic support because even you don’t think you have a valuable business proposition?
In either case, you still have the same problem; people buy things and make donations to charity for their own reasons, not yours. If you don’t talk to people in terms that are relevant and meaningful to them, no one cares what you have to say.
Most children draw. And thankfully, most children have the experience of being generously validated for that work. Regardless of what kind of incomprehensible jumble of colors they may scribble on a scrap of paper, the adults in their life are liable to hug them, congratulate them and hang their work on the refrigerator.
Unfortunately, many adult artists and art students seem to have that same kind of infantile expectation when it comes to how they think the world should respond to them and their work. Of course, it would be wonderful if people just came knocking on your door and said, “The cosmic vibrations of the universe told me that something artistically wonderful was happening here, and I’ve brought my checkbook!”
Let’s be honest. That would be AWESOME! But, when it’s put like that, it sounds like a really stupid expectation, right? RIGHT! So, let’s get serious about making a better plan. Here’s an even more important question to get you started – does your work have value?
If the answer is Yes, and it should be, can you articulate Why it has value? What kind of value does it have? What does your work do? What is it good for? Why should anyone care about buying it and making it a part of their lives?
Before you get offended, or crumble into a self-deprecating funk, let me make something clear: I want you to succeed!
I am deadly serious about those questions. And I expect you to be able to answer them well, because I believe absolutely that art has tremendous value. The world actually needs more artists. But if no one sees your work, or if most of it dies with you because you couldn’t afford to spend your time making it, then what good has it done for you or anyone else? That is why I am so fanatical about what makes for a successful business.
Here is something to think about. When you announced your intention of being a professional artist, no doubt at least one person said something like, “That’s nice. But what are you going to do for a REAL job?”. Yet everywhere you look, you will see art or the results of creative design. From the decorations on a box of tissues or the pictures on a calendar, to the sculptural shape of a computer printer; it all bears the contribution of artistic or creative work.
So, how can something that is needed everywhere and is in everything have no value? And how can creating all of that fail to qualify as a real job? Art and design don’t create themselves spontaneously. It comes from the labor of people who have applied themselves to developing their talents and interests.
Let’s dispel one myth right here and now – nothing sells itself. The responsibility for helping people understand the value of what you do falls squarely on your shoulders. That is why you must be able to speak thoughtfully about your work in terms that matter to other people. And by thoughtfully, I mean articulately and intelligibly. Use words and speak in terms that everyone will understand.
So, dump the kind of wordy, convoluted dissertations that you see next to the works in so many galleries and museums. You know, the kind of treatises that try to explain why a pile of garbage is actually a deeply meaningful and brilliant piece of art. Such things only alienate people. And those who understand what those dissertations are saying know that they say nothing. They’re very popular in the art world, but they’re just pretentious verbal smokescreens.
Do you really think that insulting the intelligence of potential customers is a winning strategy for a business? Or if you are looking for philanthropy, do you think you will receive donations by insulting potential donors?
And make no mistake, the only thing those treatises do is insult everyone’s intelligence. Those who don’t understand them are insulted because they don’t understand. Those who do understand them are insulted because it’s all rank nonsense. And the accusation that someone doesn’t understand the work because they aren’t deep enough to understand is just feeble and pathetic. When the work creates the kind of impressions you intend it to without a word of explanation, then you have something.
As an artist, you do want your work to speak for itself. But you must also be able to speak for yourself. In fact, let’s do a little exercise. Pretend that I’m a prospective client. Tell me how having your work in my life will make my life better. And remember, I’m an artist too. So, you’re not going to dazzle me with wordy fluff. I’m on your side in this. I want you to succeed. So, use your imagination to look me in the eyes, dig deep and tell me why your work matters in the comments below.
While you ponder what to say, let’s dispel another myth – selling is a good thing. Real selling, ethical selling is about solving a problem for someone else. It’s as simple as that. All business comes down to people paying to have a problem solved for them. All selling is explaining how well you can solve someone’s problem.
Say you’re away from home and you get hungry. A restaurant solves your problem by providing food convenient to where you are. Or maybe you just don’t feel like cooking or staying in the house tonight. A restaurant solves that problem too. How do you identify a restaurant? Well, they identify themselves with lights, signs and countless other cues.
All of that is part of selling you a solution to a problem. It says, Here I am and this is what I can do for you! The reason why BUY ART FROM LIVING ARTISTS – THE DEAD ONES DON’T NEED THE MONEY is a terrible pitch is because all it says is, Here I am and I WANT SOMETHING FROM YOU! Well, everyone wants something; usually a lot of things. Can you give me a reason why I should care about what you want that is relevant to me? I may be perfectly willing to care, but you still must give me a reason to.
It may seem as if I’m saying that nobody cares about you. Not quite. To be precise, I’m saying that no one cares about you as much as You care about you. And the same is true for everyone. As far as each person is concerned, they are literally the center of the universe. That is how we all experience life. So, as you ponder how to persuasively talk to someone about your work, keep this in mind and you will be well on your way.
You need to know and be able to articulate what problems your artwork will solve for other people. Think about the restaurant example again. What are they really selling? Food? An experience? Convenience? Atmosphere? Status or prestige? All of the above?
The problem you solve doesn’t need to be as big as ending famine or poverty. It can be as simple as helping someone create an environment which makes them feel a certain way. But if you really think about the implications of doing that, you will see how hugely impactful that is all by itself.
HINT! HINT! HINT!
And guess what… your artwork is already doing that. No matter what it looks like, all artwork creates feelings in the viewer. It provides an experience. It may not inspire the feelings you intend, but it does inspire them.
No work of art is all things for all people. You create what you do because it’s what draws You in the most. You’re looking for the people who are inspired by the same things. That’s your target audience. Finding your voice can be as simple a matter as speaking your truth to people who are like you. Or it could be a matter of learning to speak the language of the people you admire.
By the way, if you did the exercise above, you were in fact selling. Sneaky, I know. But I can’t read your mind. Neither can anyone else. If you can’t give a voice to all of those powerful feelings that drive you to create the work that you do, then you can’t reach the hearts and minds of other people as effectively.
As Simon Sinek has said, People don’t buy What you do. They buy Why you do it. They also buy it for what it will do for them, not because of what buying it will do for you. So, what do you do? Why do you do it, and why should anyone care? The world is waiting for your answer.