Breaking the Ice – Starting Conversations with Potential Art Buyers (and anyone else who crosses your path!)

Several months ago, my wife, Carrie, and I attended a live performance of the Phantom of the Opera at Arizona State University’s Gammage Auditorium. The show was a part of their Broadway series that brings professional productions of major plays to Arizona.

We arrived at the crowded theater a few minutes early and made our way to our seats. We were fortunate to have great seats (thanks to Carrie’s parents, who are season ticket holders), but this meant that we had to practically climb over people to get to the seats in the center of the auditorium. When we arrived at our empty seats, I smiled at the gentleman next to whom I would be sitting and said, “Thanks for saving our seats!” The guy, who I had never seen before, and who was a decade or two older than me, laughed and said, “Of course, glad you made it!”

We still had a few minutes before the curtain went up, and so I started chatting with my neighbor.

“Have you seen Phantom before?” He asked.

“First time,” I said. “I’m not a huge Andrew Lloyd Weber fan, so we’ll see how I do. Have you seen it before?”

“Dozens of times!” he exclaimed. “I love it. My wife and I have flown in from Wisconsin to see it. Our daughter is playing Christine.”

Now, I truly am not an Andrew Lloyd Weber fan, and don’t know much about Phantom, but I do know at least enough to have been very impressed by this little tidbit.

635678223029974160-Phantom-of-the-Opera-5“Wow,” I said, “that’s amazing!” He went on to tell me a little bit of the story of how his daughter began singing when she was three or four, and how she told her brother when she was five or six that she was going to play Christine in Phantom of the Opera.

I could tell this man was very proud of his daughter and asked him a number of questions before the curtain finally went up. He assured me that I was going to love the production. He could hardly contain his excitement or pride, and I have to admit, his feelings were contagious.

The first act was an amazing spectacle. The performances were outstanding, and the sets and choreography were truly mind-blowing.

When intermission came, I told Carrie that I was sitting next to the father of the star of the show. When the man and his wife returned to their seats, we both let him know how amazing we thought his daughter’s performance and voice were. He told us more about his daughter’s history, about the production and how the show travelled. Then he told us that he and his wife and some friends would be going backstage after the show, and invited us to join him.

The actress with her proud parents
The actress with her proud parents

The second act was just as amazing as the first. When the play ended, after a stunning and dramatic finale, we again complimented the man and his wife on their daughter’s performance. Despite our protest that we didn’t want to intrude or inconvenience them, the couple insisted that we follow them backstage. Once there, we waited a few minutes and talked more, while waiting for the their actress daughter to change out of costume. When she emerged from her dressing room, not only did we get to meet her, she graciously showed us around the set, introduced us to many of the other performers and answered our questions.

When we left after thanking them profusely, Carrie whispered to me “sometimes it really pays that you easily make friends with random people!”

In truth, my success as a gallery owner depends on this ability – backstage visits are just a bonus! I meet hundreds, if not thousands, of people every year, and in order to help them acquire art, I have to be able to quickly establish a relationship and engender trust.  Over the years I’ve learned that this is indeed a skill, not something that just happens naturally, and I’ve worked hard to cultivate this skill.

As an artist or gallerist, it’s important that you too learn how to break the ice and build relationships quickly as you meet new people. Although this topic requires a lot more depth than I could hope to delve into here, I want to share some basic principles I use when meeting new people. These principles are pretty basic, and I’m sure you either already know many of them, or  naturally use them without even realizing it. Hopefully I can provide some insight into why these principles are important, and how to use them more effectively.

Smile

When meeting someone new, I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to greet them with a smile. A smile is a powerful signal that lets people know you are friendly. Smiling sets a warm tone for your introduction.

To be clear, I’m not talking about a big, ear-to-ear smile or a dopey grin, all you have to do is smile slightly with your lips and eyes and you will completely change how you are perceived by people.

I’m not naturally a smiley kind of guy. If I’m not thinking about it, my face naturally tends to rest in a pretty serious, even stern expression. I have to make a conscious effort to put on a smile, and that’s exactly what I do when I’m meeting someone for the first time.

Use your Body Language to Welcome

When visiting art shows, I often see artists hunched over on stools in their booths, or standing with their arms crossed, head down. This kind of posture scares people away. I’m always careful when meeting or visiting with clients to keep my shoulders back, by back straight and my hands by my side or in front of me. I try to open up and welcome people with direct eye-contact.

Give your Name, and ask for Theirs

Names are one of the most powerful tools you can use to create a relationship. Very early in every conversation with someone new, I introduce myself with my name, and ask for his or her name. I work very hard to then remember their name and use it during the conversation. Using someone’s name really helps take a conversation to a different level and personalizes the interaction in a way that nothing else can.

Now, before you even say it, I know that you are going to object. “I am terrible at remembering people’s names!” you’re going to say. Try harder! Remembering names doesn’t come naturally to anyone – it’s a skill that has to be developed and cultivated. I have to repeat people’s names over and over in my mind in order to remember them, and I’ll try to write down people’s names as soon as possible to keep them from slipping away.

Ask Questions

Another important relationship builder is to ask people about themselves. Asking people about where they are from, what kind of work they do and what their interests are can be a great way to get people talking about themselves. The more you can encourage people to talk about themselves, the faster you’re going to be able to build a real relationship.

I try to listen carefully to everything someone is saying and then ask follow up questions based on what they say. If you think back to the time when you met someone who became a good friend, I’d be willing to bet that person asked you a lot of questions about yourself and made it clear they were interested in your responses. They made you feel important.

This is exactly what you should be doing when talking to a new acquaintance.

Read People’s Signals

Some people are more talkative than others. I always try to be careful to read people’s body language to get a sense of how much they want to interact with me. This is especially true in the gallery, where sometimes people don’t want to talk, they just want to look.

Make no mistake, I am never afraid to approach people and introduce myself and try to start a conversation, but the last thing I want to do is overdo it. A very good indication of this is eye-contact. As soon as someone breaks eye-contact for more than 2-3 seconds, I take it as a signal that they are ready to move on and it’s time for the conversation to end.

Be Bold

I’ve become fearless when it comes to talking to people. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the theater, a restaurant or in my gallery, I am in the habit of constantly trying to strike up a conversation. I’m not sure if my wife would admit it or not, but I am sure there are times when she’s a bit embarrassed by my constant outreach to strangers. At this point though, I can’t help it anymore, it’s a habit. It seems like everyone has something fascinating to share – I want to find out what it is!

Be yourself

Once I realized that it wasn’t my job to try and impress people with something I said, but rather that it was far more important to be impressed with something they said, I became far more successful at building relationships

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind when meeting new people is to relax and be yourself. Once I realized that it wasn’t my job to try and impress people with something I said, but rather that it was far more important to be impressed with something they said, I became far more successful at building relationships. Relaxing and being yourself means that you don’t have to feel any pressure when you’re meeting someone new. I’ve seen very quiet and reserved people do an amazing job of getting people to open up in conversation.

Building relationships isn’t about trying to be someone you’re not, it’s about stepping out of your comfort zone to talk to people you might not otherwise have talked to. This is critical if you are in a situation where you are trying to sell art – at a show, or in a gallery, but it’s also a great way to build a richer life.

While I can’t guarantee you backstage tours, I can promise you will have adventures, make new friends, and have a richer life as you strive to strike up conversations with strangers!

What has Helped you Meet New People and Build Relationships?

What has experience taught you about building relationships with new people? Does relationship building come naturally to you? How has relationship building helped you in your art career? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of the Art Business Academy. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business.

28 Comments

  1. I am by nature an introvert who has had careers of public, extroverted jobs. I learned to put on the “role” required and to act as if I were an extrovert.
    When I began exhibiting at art shows last year, I had to relearn this. And at one specific show last December I consciously chose to chat with shoppers as they walked by or came into my booth. By asking questions I sold my most expensive painting instead of two much less expensive ones. And the buyer sent more people to my booth she was so happy with her purchase. It was the best show I’ve had to date. (And with Covid, the last one)

  2. I was new in town and joined an interesting large community group. Before the welcome event I noticed a woman playing a flute on the lawn. She apparently volunteered to do some entertaining. I listened thoughtfully and when she finished the piece she was playing, I clapped and thanked her. I started a conversation with her, I told her I play violin. We decided to get together and try playing some pieces together. The meetings evolved into our being a duo performing for weddings and other events. We also became good friends.

  3. I too share your talent for being able to talk with anyone and appreciate your example. My wife and use it, and out separate last names, to mingle at events. I believe it is something that can be cultivated in others.

  4. Always look forward to your suggestions regarding dealing with people, whether in your gallery or elsewhere. I think you project a very calm confidence that draws people to you. Thanks for sharing your expertise in the art world with everyone!! Always look forward to future posts!!

  5. Thank you, I couldn’t agree more. In my past career as a police officer those basic rules you listed were EVERYTHING (the foundation) when it came to establishing trust and building relationships. It’s not a manipulation thing to get a certain outcome, it’s about being sincere and genuinely caring. People know the difference. Good things happen as a result of being genuine and caring.
    It’s still important for me to make your listed principles priorities when I’m out in public. These principles have definitely carried over into my Art world.
    When I’m not feeling the most confident I do my best to be mindful of these principles and consider it good practice to continue to do my best.
    Although it feels natural, I know it’s definitely learned so I always do my best to practice and get better in this area.
    If it’s one thing I’ve learned: You just never know who the universe will put along your path. Some of my greatest lessons / gifts have come from giving a simple smile and saying hello.
    Thank you and Be well

  6. Thank you again for another short and powerful message. The people we meet just might be more interesting than we are, if we take the time to find out, and make it about them, rather than ourselves.

  7. Yes, the ability to quickly make connections is a skill – but it is also a talent that many people don’t have in copious quantities. Specific ideas such as in this article are helpful to get the relationship started. Thanks.

  8. Thanks again for your powerful message. The art of conversation has led me to meet some powerful and famous people who’s life stories were fascinating. My past working life as an introvert in public relations forced me to learn to talk to strangers. Some of the most interesting people that crossed my path were John F. Kennedy, Jr. at Arlington Cemetery and Roselyn Carter in New York. I was attending an event at the National Women’s Hall of Fame in New York and ending up having breakfast with the former first lady. She chose to sit with me as her secret service men watched and listened. No pressure here. Imagine trying to eat breakfast and striking a conversation up unexpectedly. Had I not struck up a conversation I would of missed out on some remarkable memories. It goes without saying that their life stories were more fascinating than anything I could of said about my career. I agree Jason that you never know who you will meet if you are open to the people that surround you.

  9. Your story about the opera was a great way to frame how you engage others by being genuinely interested in them. Thank you for your helpful tips.

  10. While visiting friends a few years back I found some alone time for galleries in Scottsdale and headed straightaway to yours. Your mom was on duty and graciously greeted me in such a friendly way and allowed me time to look around before coming back around to ask a few questions. I told her that I’m an artist, had learned a lot from reading your blog. She insisted on bringing you to meet me and I clearly remember how open you were and interested in me, even though it wouldn’t lead to a sale. You were so kind and generous with your time and I felt welcomed in your gallery and to Scottsdale. I’m in my eighth decade and no longer collect art. You probaby guessed as much but that didn’t seem to matter to you. Thank you, Jason.

  11. Good Read Jason,

    I always admired my Dad’s ability to engage others in conversation and like your opening remarks and with Monica above ,it always started with a bit of humor.
    I like to help others feel at ease so I’m usually the one to comment first, and I’m always pleased and surprised when someone else takes the initiative. I hate uncomfortable silence.

  12. Great advice Jason. talking with people in your gallery certainly puts them at ease and encourages them to stay longer and possibly make a purchase.
    The one thing I struggle with is when I can’t stop the people talking. They talk about there art, there lives, there kids lives, they go on and on and in the mean time I have missed talking to new arrivals and they leave pretty quickly. It can be hard to diplomatically break the conversation.
    I just try and say I best get back to some work I’m doing and hope they get the message without being rude.
    Have you any suggestions Jason ?

    1. You are doing exactly the right thing. I say, “oh, excuse me for just a moment while I greet these folks.” In other words, I tell them what I’m doing. I’ve never had anyone be offended when I have to break away for a moment, but it can definitely be a delicate balance. I do have the advantage that in the gallery, my staff is usually available to start conversations with other clients who have come in.

  13. Hello Jason, my name is Kathleen.

    This article was very interesting and a good lesson for me. I am an artist who has work in a gallery and it seems I struggle to come up with ways to engage with possible interested buyers, or just persons enjoying my artwork.

    I was very shy growing up and it seemed I always let someone else do the talking, so I don’t feel like I’ve developed the skills needed to carry on a good conversation with a complete stranger.

    So thank you for the helpful ways to meet and greet somebody you may engage with along the way. And by the way, I’m smiling!

  14. With most people having multiple careers and many having passions that more define them than their jobs, I never ask what they do for a living. I ask what their job and career journey has been. But before that, I ask what have been a few of their specials interests, recreation activities, hobbies and volunteering participation With the interests coming first, we often run out of time before getting to their employment or entrepreneurship.

    I am also aware that people have had children who have died or have close relationships or care giving with extended family or other peoples kids. I ask ” Do you have children or young people in your life?”

  15. Jason, your red dot blogs are most welcome and informative.
    Operating an art gallery business in two locations I assume requires
    a significant amount of time. So does writing interesting information.
    I’m impressed with the time management that allows you to publish
    so frequently. Looking forward to your blogs.

  16. I heard of a good ice breaker from an artist friend of mine from Australia. In a word, “chocolate”! She walks over to the gallery guests with a tray of chocolates and offers them a taste. Who can turn down chocolate? It always brings a smile to the customer’s face and is a comfortable way to introduce yourself. Thank you for this article, Jason, I think many artists are by nature introverts, so these tips really help.

  17. Jason, thank you. I think I need to be reprogramed as a people person. Excellent perspectives and truly remarkable tips. Your lessons, podcasts, and blogs speak to me in a way that says you understand the artist’s way of being in the world in a sensitive and kind manner. You always come across respectfully and graciously, good manners to live by.

    As an artist, perhaps the amount of time required to be in that creative mental space limits our social skills and a lack of social adroitness leads to a kind of clumsy conversational interaction which is of course somewhat off-putting. Reminders to practice social skills like these are a blessing for any artist.

  18. I learn something from every Red dot Blog that I read. Thank you, Jason. So true that to listen to the other person’s story, ask them about themselves, not only engages them but allows you, the listener, to have some insight into the person. It also keeps fear of being awkward or foolish at bay since it puts the focus on the other person. And I love the chocolates idea!

  19. Yes, yes about eye contact!

    I try to make eye contact before or as I am approaching someone…
    once eye contact has been made there is an invitation, be it shorter or longer.
    Thank you for sharing your insights on this very interesting business of presenting and selling artwork!

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