An Artist Guide to Pitching Your Art — (Part Two)

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If you had someone’s attention for a few minutes and you wanted to get them interested in your art, what would you tell them?

I recently posted the first in this series on pitching your art — being able to tell people what it is that you do and why what you do is different from what any other artist does. In that first post I talked about why it is important to be able to speak to people easily and confidently about your art. In this post I’m going to talk about the content — determining what it is that you are going to say.

Before plunging into what you are going to stay, let me warn you: this is going to take time and it is going to take effort. You may have a brainstorm in the shower or while making coffee or while working but the result of that brainstorm will still need to be edited and refined and made better. More on that later. But don’t shy away from this work. This is important stuff.

So what should you say? When I talk to artists about what they should say about themselves and about their art I usually start with the words of Simon Sinek. If you don’t know him or his work, you should take the time to do so. He is an author, speaker, and consultant who writes on leadership and management and is best known for his book Start With Why and his TED talk on that subject. You can watch the video of that on and I strongly suggest that you do.

In his TED talk and in his book, Sinek explores a simple yet powerful idea: People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. He uses his Golden Circle to illustrate that point.

That outermost circle is about what you do. Most businesses, and most people, are very good at explainingwhatit is that they do. Apple makes electronics. The coffee shop in which I’m writing this makes coffee. As an artist, I’m a photographer. Yes, we need to be able to tell people what we do in order for them to understand us in context. But they don’t buy from Apple because they make electronics. Lots of companies make electronics. And lots of coffee shops make coffee. And of course, lots of photographers make photographs. Being able to articulate your what isn’t enough but it is a good place to start.

What do you do? Are you a writer, a sculptor, a painter, a performer? Do you work in ceramic or oils or poetry or a combination? What category best fits you?

When thinking about your what, don’t put yourself in too small a box. Yes. You are doing something truly unique that differs from all of the other fill-in-the-blanks in the art world. But this isn’t the place to differentiate yourself. This is the place to help your audience know where to put you in their heads. Don’t make it too hard on them. Give them something that they can remember not something that seems memorable. This is particularly challenging for artists who work in and combine multiple media. Maybe you make abstract paintings which you then photograph and manipulate digitally in Photoshop. Are you a painter or a photographer or a something else? “Visual artist” might work there. We’ll get to your process shortly.

So fill in the blank here:

I’m a ____________________.

As I mentioned before, being able to articulate your what isn’t enough. Knowing, and being able to articulate how you do what you do is also important. This helps to differentiate you from your competitors. I’m sitting in a coffee shop where every drink is hand crafted — even the classic “drip” coffee. There is no carafe of coffee warming on their counter. They grind the beans fresh and make me a carafe using a pour-over method. So they are different from Starbucks for example.

The how of your work does help to differentiate yourself from other artists, but be careful not to put too much technical jargon in your explanation. A key rule of writing is to know your audience and here you need to remember that your audience isn’t going to be other artists. While you may be able to speak at length about your specific techniques and how they combine the approaches of other artists and where they fit into the history of your medium you need to as yourself it that is relevant to or accessible by your audience. Explain it to them simply.

Simply doesn’t mean dumbed-down. Brothers Chip and Dan Heath talk about this in their book Made to Stick (another book that I cannot urge you enough to read). When they talk about making an idea simple they describe it as finding the core of the idea. They advise stripping it down to its most critical essence. You need to weed out the elements of your “how” that aren’t important and leave just the most important. That’s the hard part of course — getting rid of the important but not most import parts of your how.

Another tip from the Heath’s to be concrete. Use sensory language and help paint a mental picture of what you are doing.

Amélie Guthrie, one of the artists who I’ve worked with here in Nashville, makes wire sculptures that imitate tree architecture, twisting wire into complex fractal systems. Mary Mooney, another Nashville artist, creates abstract paintings on clear acrylic surfaces that are viewed from the back to give them depth and texture.

What do you do?

This is a little more difficult than articulating what you do. I’ve known a number of artists who are much better at doing what they do than at thinking about how they do it. So try answering these questions to get you started:

  • What trigger starts your art? What inspires you?
  • What are the resources that you need to make your art? What supplies do you need to have on hand?
  • What steps do you take to make your art? What are your hands doing?
  • What thoughts or decisions are you making when you make your art? What is your head doing?

And don’t worry. We’ll get to “What is your heart doing?”

Now that you’ve thought about how you make your art, try to boil it down into a sentence or two? Is there something that everyone who does what you do does? You can probably ignore it. The goal is to find that one sentence that sums up the core of what you do.

So write that sentence:

I make my art by ____________________.

So now you can tell people what you do and you can tell people how you do it. But most importantly you need to tell them why you do it.

If you look at businesses — businesses that aren’t also artists — and try to understand their why, you often come across what they call their mission statement: a statement of their aims and values. When Sinek talks about businesses or professionals that understand their why he is touching on that same notion. Why are you in business? What is your purpose? What are you passionate about and how do you connect that passion to your business? Or your art.

Not to dive too deep into a conversation about brands, people buy into brands that resonate with them. The come to understand what the brand stands for to see how that meaning expresses itself in the products and services associated with the brand. You too have a brand. Your art is a key part of your brand and your customers need to understand what you stand for and why you make the art that you make. They will connect with that and connect with you and invest in your brand and in your art.

How do you determine your why? That may not be easy. You’re going to need to do some serious thinking about what your art means to you. Not what you want it to mean to other people. What does it mean to you? Why did you become an artist? What motivates or inspires the work that you create? How do you feel when you are creating? What is your favorite of your works and why? These are all good questions to help you understand what really drives your passion to create what you create.

So write that sentence:

I make my art because ____________________.

Now we have three pieces of the puzzle.

  • I’m a
  • I make my art by
  • I make my art because

Here’s my example.

I’m a photographer.

I make my art by exploring the natural world around me and photographing the little things that catch my eye.

I make my art because it helps me to slow down, to be present in the moment, to find and capture the unnoticed beauty in the world and to share it.

The next step is to try it out. Try it out in the mirror first. Say it to yourself. Does it make sense? Does it capture the key parts of what you do? Does the why resonate with you?

Then try it out on your friends. Try it out on your colleagues. Try it out the next time someone asks you to tell them about your art. Try it out and see if it works. See if they understand it. See if it seems to resonate with them. If it doesn’t, change it. Try explaining your how a little differently. Try making it longer or shorter. User bigger words or shorter. Make sure that it sounds like you. Make sure that it is authentic, true to who you are.

Take a stab at it right now. Leave it in the comments and start a dialog.

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