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Given that selling isn’t anything like a straightforward matter and given that it has a lot to do with how you present yourself, how do you want to present yourself? The question is really two questions in one. The first question is, “What works?” The second question is, “How do I want to represent myself in the world?” It may work to be difficult, arrogant, grandiose, paranoid, dramatic, and pretty nearly impossible—that is, to be a diva. But is that who you want to be in the world? This is a serious first question, as many ambitious artists might be inclined to answer, “Absolutely! Diva? Count me in!” Picasso, Dali, Warhol—to turn a noun into a verb, artists with big egos and big talents are often inclined to diva the world.
This way of being can and does succeed—many people who make it to the top in every profession are expletives deleted. Side-by-side with them, however, and almost existing in a separate, parallel universe, are artists who pride themselves on being human, decent, professional, and above-board in their dealings with others. They understand that a percentage of their peers are sleazy; they choose not to be. They are confident in their choice because they have learned in the crucible of experience that decency is not a bar to success.
This is a crucial point that needs underlining. If only divas succeeded, it would be something of a Darwinian mandate that you, too, diva the world. But all sorts succeed, including the quiet and the ethical. It is absolutely possible to honor your commitments, not pull pranks, not gossip, not lead with the shadowy parts of your personality, not whine, not demand, and still succeed. To repeat, decency is not a bar to success.
What is required, however, is a practiced confidence. You may not feel very confident as you advocate for your work and as you present it to prospective buyers, but you should have confidence in mind as a goal and an aspiration. You should be aiming for confidence, just as you aim for excellence in the work itself. It is that aura of confidence that propels one person past the other in the marketplace. When someone is confident in his approach, you listen; when he hems and haws and shifts his feet, you look for the exit. The same is true for you. When you portray yourself as not really counting and not really mattering, you will be instinctively dismissed.
If it has become your habit to apologize for your work, to hide from potential buyers, to avoid marketplace interactions, to dismiss yourself as soon as you can (as if beating others to the punch), these are habits that you must alter. To alter a habit means to work on it for months and sometimes for years, not to work on it for just a few minutes. It is unlikely that you can change from not taking the opportunities offered to you to taking them just by snapping your fingers: you need to be on a lifelong strengthening program, a self-coaching regimen where each day you remind yourself that you intend to manifest your strength and your confidence.
Remember: it is one thing to be quiet; it is another thing to be meek. It is one thing to be modest; it is another thing to be self-disparaging. It is one thing to be principled; it is another thing to live by the principle that everybody else comes first. You want to step out of the shadows and risk standing up for your work and for your future. Maybe you doubt your work: either stop doubting it or create work that you doubt less. Maybe you doubt yourself: stop doubting yourself and, over time, create a version of yourself that you have no reason to doubt.
Present yourself with strength. If this does not come naturally to you, practice. Practice in your mind, in the mirror, or with an art buddy. Practice saying, “I love my new work.” Practice saying, “If your gallery has an opening for one new artist, it should be me, and here’s why.” Practice saying, “I know that you collect contemporary surrealists and I’m pushing the surrealism envelope, so you must visit my studio!” Practice saying, “Let me describe the nine ways in which I will be an asset to your gallery.” Practice saying, “I am doing excellent work and you should really take a look.”
It is not just what you say—it is how you survey the world, how you think, and what you do. You are either looking for opportunities or you aren’t. You are either mulling over new marketing ideas or you aren’t. You are either thinking about your next sales opportunity or you aren’t. You are either calculating what might work in the marketplace (without being a “calculating person”) or you aren’t. You are either a player in the game or a spectator in the stands. You are either fantasizing about what might transpire or you are taking action.
All of this translates into a way of presenting yourself that is professional, savvy, energetic, proactive, eager, and decisive. Your intentions are clear: you intend to succeed. Your handshake is firm: you have people to interest and customers to acquire. Your first thoughts aren’t “What should I say?” and “Where’s the exit?” You know what to say and you know where you mean to be: right here, right now, representing your work well.
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