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.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of Dad was an Artist | A Survivor's Story and best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. 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. Connect with Jason on Facebook

23 Comments

  1. Hi Jason,
    Great article. As a retired Psychotherapist, it was my job to ask questions. And I am naturally curious anyway so it is easy for me. However, I am always amazed at how few people really ask you a lot of questions..It is rare. I often leave a conversation and realize they never asked me one question! I learn a-lot about them but seems to be more often than not a one way “conversation”.

    So, when some like your self asks questions, I am delighted. Perhaps people who read your blog will think more about how they participate in a conversation.

  2. I recently attended a Dude Ranch weekend, I went solo. I walked into the meet/greet area and saw a couple sitting on the couch and immediately introduced myself and called them by name (they had name tags on) and asked several questions about them. I was there plein air painting and brought other studio work to show if anyone was interested. By day 5, they approached me and wanted to buy 4 that I brought, commission 2 more and paint a 9′ x 15′ mural in their home. ” Non marketing” marketing in action!!! My my ONLY intention when approaching the couple was to get to know them better.

  3. I go to many art events and exhibit opening receptions as well as setting up at the Farmers Market (with prints and cards of my paintings) . My willingness and ability to talk with and discuss any topic with anyone has always opened up doors for me. Some of my artist friends who are introverts often wish they could do the same. It really does help a lot.

  4. Wonderfully helpful article, Jason. A good reminder for those who already practice these good gestures and habits and a great help for those who need a little confidence chatting with the public. Sometimes I put myself to a little test to see how long I can go without referring to myself in a conversation…unless I felt such a reference would truly make a good connection with the one with whom I’m speaking.

    I’m passing this one along to all the members at the Artists Gallery.

  5. I’m an extrovert who somehow has way less to say in group gatherings. Super happy chatting with strangers in line, etc., but put me at an opening and I become much shyer, even if I’m not in the show. I think the reminder to just ask people questions about themselves is a good one! Thanks, Jason.

  6. When I began showing my paintings and drawings about 18 years ago I was very nervous about it. My sister, who is my twin, helps me haul my art to shows and fairs. When we were in high school I would hide behind her if someone came up to talk to us. I was very fearful. Our first time showing my artwork we set up in one room of a church with other artists of our town. An older gentleman came after we were done setting up with a displeased look on his face at where we had set a painting up. That added to my nervousness. At one point my sister had gone some where leaving me alone. I said to myself, I am going to go talk to that man. I was so glad I did. I don’t remember what I first said but he turned out to be the coolest man ever. He was a retired veterinarian from a pharmaceutical company who then painted in pastels. I’d seen his paintings in shows that I had entered so that was the ice breaker. I learned from that experience that you can meet great people if you are willing to talk to them.

  7. Thanks for this morning’s prompt, Jason. I’m really a social introvert, but I love people. Only if the occasion permits, I engage in dialogue to learn the stories they wish to tell, which always reveal common threads–where we’ve lived, traveled, and interests. These, of course, are superficial indicators that we do share deeper values. I’m an immigrant with different cultural traditions, but I assure you, we all share love of family, food, and life!

    The other night, at a concert at Chandler Center for the Arts, my husband and I sat next to a similarly-aged retired couple (We older folks tend to arrive early, so, we had time to chat). When we said we recently moved from Oregon, the wife said she had relatives near where we lived, and was a military family, llike mine was. Both our husbands are Chicago Cubs fans.

    I’m a painter, convinced that the way I express relationships with color, values, light relections and shadow, develops greater meaning as I observe and experience human interactions. That’s why I carry my sketchbook with me, to record a look, a feeling, an ambiance. So, for me, art expresses relationships. Forging connections with others enhances my creative journey.

  8. The past two summers I have set up an outdoor ‘pop up’ gallery (licensed by the Town) in my beautiful mountain garden in Canmore, Alberta, Canada, when the weather is right. Meaning, no threat of rain, warmish temperatures, and little to no wind. A walking path exists between our house and the river which is used extensively by locals with their children and dogs and bicycles as well as hundreds upon hundreds of tourists from all over the world. Seriously. Elk Island on the other side of the river is where a herd of these magnificent animals lives and loves (the rut is happening now). And as I write this, I am watching a gentleman cast his fly fishing line. It is a beautiful retirement life. You should come……

    Like you Jason, I adore talking to people and finding out about them as much as I can in the short time we are together. The name thing is always a challenge but I greet everyone with a handshake, introduce myself to them and their children, and invite them to look around. The Fairy Garden is a hit with the children. It is so much fun to interact with them and discuss fairy life. I also ask everyone to sign my guest book and they are happy to oblige.

    My original intention had been to paint while I am open but that doesn’t happen often due to the volume of visitors and the conversations that takes place. I employ many many of the techniques and suggestions that I have learned through my exposure to Red Dot Blog from both Jason and all of you. And that includes your principles listed in today’s blog. For that I am extremely grateful. My approach has led to enough sales to pay for more art supplies and a bit of mad money – wink wink.

    Please join me for a virtual tour of my little piece of heaven:

    https://photos.app.goo.gl/cdvYKzHdABa2aCSC7

    Cheers,

    Verna

  9. I am more of an introvert and work on overcoming my shyness. I am constantly impressed with my wife’s ability to strike up a conversation with anyone with such ease and grace. She has a wonderful memory for names and histories of people that she has met and I notice that she uses similar methods for dialog. Like you, she is a great listener as well as a conversationalist. She recalls peoples interests and topics and certainly asks questions and adds similar antidots to follow on with the conversation in humor or in a serious manner depending on the person she is talking with. She has keen instincts and empathy in making the other person feel comfortable in the conversation. I admire people like you and her and use you as role models.
    Thanks for sharing your methods. I am a firm believer in them and work on honing my own skills.

  10. Thank you for this article.
    Quick story- When I was eight or nine, I had to attend a workshop on public speaking with my dad. The facilitator explained that the activity would be to go around the room and each participant would introduce themselves and say a little something about what they were doing. When it came to me, I did it too- unprompted. I introduced myself as a professional student studying to be an adult. (Someone ahead of me was a college student I believe. The instructor was very impressed and dad remarked afterward that no adult in that workshop could be afraid if I could it, they could too.

    When I read your line, “thank you for saving our seats.” I thought, that’s what would slip out of my mouth before my brain could weigh the consequences. There is a plus. Open people are just more interesting to be around. This is a big advantage where sales and customer service is concerned.

    Ice breaker- When I was teaching art history, the first class was “introduction”. I made an activity out of it by pairing students up informally. I didn’t want them to choose their friends and I didn’t want to assign partners, so I had some snacks (it was an evening course) and said take about 10 minutes and introduce ourself to 2 people you don’t know well. Afterward, get together wit one of them to work on a quick cooperative activity. The activity was this: interview each other for the purpose of introducing then to the class. It was just such a great way to start.For the rest of the semester, everyone felt that they could contribute to discussions or share ideas without fear.
    That is what we are all up against- “Fear”. Me included big time.

  11. Thanks, Jason, for another well-written article. I’m usually the reticent one. My wife can (and does) talk to anyone. In spite of my telling her, “Don’t tell them I’m an artist!” she’s gotten me into a bunch of galleries, from the first one in Denver’s Cherry Creek district to Legacy Gallery.

    I’m the one who’s eventually able to talk to folks about their lives. At a Marty Stuart concert at a tiny east Texas town, where everyone was like family, I had a blast joking with a 90-year-old lady beside me. And as someone above said, I ask a lot of questions and somehow remember the details, and rarely encounter others who ask about me. But that’s okay. I’m shy talking about myself and my art. – Chuck

  12. This is a great subject Jason, and great advice. I have to admit when I was much younger, I was an introvert. I think this is natural with a lot of artists because we spend so much time alone. It wasn’t until I was into my career in marketing, when I realized I had to learn how to make conversation with people. I attended many meetings and crowded events where I had to interact with others. I literally would force myself to strike up conversation with someone and it was terrifying for me. Over the years I became really good at it and enjoyed getting to know people. It has helped me tremendously now when talking with others about my art. It’s not an easy thing to do, but you just have to make a conscious effort to do it.

  13. Great comments! I have always found that you do better by allowing the person you are talking to feel like they have something important to say. Asking them about themselves, and paying attention to their answers, is the easiest way to do that.

    As for the 2-3 second cue on when to back off…THANK YOU. I often have no problem approaching someone but having a clear signal on when to back of is truly helpful! Also, if you establish a conversation, making your story memorable is important too! I know it has helped grow my relationships with clients when I tell them a bit about my travels, or parenting experience or SOMETHING that relates me to them on a one to one basis. 😉

  14. Excellent article…the old addage….all people have a story…by listening you create an atmosphere of trust and trust is a key factor in purchasing art…trusting the art work to be as represented and trusting you as the artist. It is amazing how chatting and getting to know your potential buyer lends the perfect atmosphere to have a sale..and if not then, later down the road, plus word of mouth.

  15. Though, like many of you, I’m naturally introverted, I’ve learned over 63 years to be ‘present’ with people. I had an immersive experience in extroversion when I worked in a Verizon Wireless store as a customer service/tech person. In addition to all these spot-on points I’d add that meeting someone where they are emotionally is a natural human way to connect. We are emotional beings trying (against our nature) to have a rational experience.

    I’ll add that I’m new here. Started to paint in oils at 61. The website is not commercial (yet), just a portfolio of my self-education.

  16. What great information. I always wanted to be more like my Mom she seemed to never meet a stranger. So over the years I have become more like her but not exactly.

    Everyone can gain confidence in talking to new people.

  17. Good information! Asking questions to initiate a conversation is important…but just as important is LISTENING to the answer! Paying close attention to names and awareness of what the person deems important to reveal! I learned a long time ago that to have a good conversation….be a good listener!!

  18. Years ago I heard that “an interested person is interesting.” Or maybe it was vice versa, but either way it works. I’ve made a point to remember that when I have the opportunity to engage with strangers. If I am interested in the person I am talking to, chances are they will think I am fascinating. Well, maybe…but anyway it helps make it easier for me to break the ice with strangers. And it works at art events as well as social events.

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