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.

32 Comments

  1. This timing of this is perfect. I have a show on Saturday, and have been writing down “openers” and “closers,” to help me be more proactive about sales. I’m hoping that having a little “library” of things to say to stimulate conversation with potential buyers will help me break the ice and form relationships. This post helps flesh things out for me. Thanks, Jason.

  2. I love meeting new people. When we first moved to the town we live in, I was standing in line to buy groceries and admired a necklace the woman behind me was wearing. I learned that she was an artist and had made it. My first introduction to the area art community. I always greet people at art openings even when it’s not my opening. I lived in Hong Kong for 3 years and learned so much by asking people from all cultures about themselves. Listening is more fun than talking.

  3. I’ve been selling my art at our city’s largest farmer’s market for the past few weeks, and I hadn’t thought enough about connecting with people. I’ve been sitting in front of my table the past couple of times so I can be more accessible, and often painting a new watercolour. This of course keeps my head down, so it only works for some people who are curious to see what I’m doing. Sometimes I ask browsers how they’re doing, where they’re from (I sell on cruise ship days) or something like that. It’s not enough. I like the idea of saying my name and asking theirs, and then asking more about them. Thank you for these suggestions!

    Barb

  4. Reading your blog, Jason, I was reminded of a quote of Dale Carnegie’s from his book, “How To Win Friends and Influence People”: “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language. Using a person’s name is crucial, especially when meeting those we don’t see very often. Respect and acceptance stem from simple acts such as remembering a person’s name and using it whenever appropriate.” Your blog today mirrors much of what Carnegie taught.

    1. I have a show coming up at a gallery in NYC at the end of the month–in thinking about being there, I have a variety of different feelings about engaging with people and talking about my work. As I write this, probably a good thing to do is to talk to my gallery rep about this and see what we can work out. I have questions like, “how do I make conversation with people without trying to keep the objective of selling my art to them in the forefront?” I may enjoy a conversation in getting to know them, however, if that is all that happens and no one buys anything then I anticipate I will feel pretty disappointed. How do you balance the two objectives? Thanks for your input. Eric Henty

  5. O, how I agree that those conversations are important! Especially at art shows and markets, the personal presentaion is vital. Body language (not sitting back in a chair and reading or chatting with the stand neighbor), that bit of a smile and some conversation are of utmost importance. I am definitely not very good at striking up a conversation, but, when it comes to business – and contact with strangers – I figure that I have nothing to lose and everything to gain by exerting myself. I often can find a “starter” with a compliment on a striking piece of jewelry or a scarf or whatever. The customer feels flattered. Often there is also a story that comes attached. Bingo. Contact is made and your art is not anonymous. It, of course, doesn’t always work, but it is a good beginning.

  6. I manage a group of 12 – 15 professional sales people in an industrial market. These skills are critical. The side bar on ” once I figured out I didn’t have to impress people by what I say, ” is a critical concept to grasp. As others mentioned, Dale Carnehies classic How to win friends and influence People is the bible on this block of Wisdom. A mandatory annual read where I work, and for everyone who works in our small gallery. Finally, I would add that for those un willing to train in these skills, consider that this can be one of the biggest reasons to allow a Gallery to represent you.

  7. Great article! I used to be very shy, but I’ve forced myself to start up conversations with people everywhere, not just at art shows. Not only has it helped me not be so introverted around others, but I’ve had a wonderful time talking to people I otherwise would have never talked to. As you said, it’s more about them and really nothing to do with me – that helps a lot to focus on that!

  8. I have been invited to paint in galleries and you are right. People approach to see what I am painting which is when I stop, stand back and ask them about themselves. 90 percent of the lookers buy the work. The 10 percent who don’t are so happy to have an interest shown in them that their joy and enthusiasm makes my day. They are the ones who normally walk past galleries because they know they can’t eat paintings. Giving of yourself results in meeting a world outside of your own.

  9. I just went to an outdoor art show on Saturday. Many of the artists were open and available to talk, but some were sitting behind their booths or with their heads down or with a scowl on their faces. I had a great time talking to many artists who were open and readily availabe to talk to prospective customers. I always want to know how and why they paint the way they do. Many were only too happy to comply. The other artists, well, I just walked on by.

  10. I always smile and say hello to people who stop by my booth at art shows. Some are up for more conversation, but I always forget them after they leave. Next time I’m going to make a point to jot some notes right after they leave, especially if I’ve gotten their contact information in my guest book, so I can keep better track of who’s who.

  11. When I see someone looking at my art I often ask ‘What caught your eyes in that painting?’ or ‘What is your connection to this piece?’ or ‘What is it in your life that connects you to my work?’ It’s been fascinating and enriching to hear about the people that are interested in my work, it has led to many great conversations, sales and collaborations!

  12. This is so very timely. My work will soon be up in NYC, just for a couple days, and I’ve been asked to be there the whole weekend to talk to people. The thought alone makes my head spin ~ so much information to absorb. I have put a note on my calendar so that I am reminded later of the advice from this article. Thank you, Jason!

  13. When I was a teenager I was really shy but with the age I know I can start a conversation anywhere with anyone.. when I work in a gallery once a month I greet visitors with smile and often talk with them.. Jason, as you said I feel right away when they just want to talk or want to browse the art in the gallery..then I leave them on their own.. I must tell that sometimes I just don’t feel like talking..in fact it is a hard job meeting new people and breaking the ice..and naturally you get tired.. but I always smile and say that if they have any questions I will be happy to help.. I happened to sell my own two works during my shift in the coop gallery as I started a conversation with a man while hanging my works..

  14. Thanks Jason for sharing this idea. As a Senior, I’ve learned that it’s important to “be myself” around other people and to reflect each day on how I can improve as a human being for the well -being of our planet.

  15. I just finished a show this last weekend and it was interesting to watch the vendors. I don’t understand people who haven’t figured out simple basics. Some sat in the corner with their cell phones and waited for people to interrupt them. Some hid behind a table or stared blankly as people walked by. The off putting body language was obvious. It is more important to be friendly than a great salesman.
    I engaged every person who barely paused and often left my display and walked into the aisle to speak with people. I drew them in and gave the backstory to my paintings and why I found the scene worthy to paint.
    You sometimes get “openers” from people’s attire. I was able to talk to several veterans about our mutual service after observing their baseball hats. I talked to one woman wearing a baseball themed tee shirt. Several wore college colors from state universities. I asked quite a few children if they took art in school (favorite soapbox) and parents immediately took interest. Yes, people love to talk about themselves or their interests but then you want to bring the conversation to your art.
    And occasionally people teach you a few things. I displayed one Native man I never knew his tribe. One gentleman came twice to my booth and I knew he was Native. He shared specific points of my subject’s costume that told him exactly what tribe the man was from. I appreciated his input so much.

  16. I’m an incurable introvert and I’ve just moved my studio to a larger space in a district that has a monthly “Art Crawl” so I can promote my work and some work of other artists. Great idea, but I’ve put myself in the position of proprietor of a small gallery. I was quite unnerved about talking with the throngs of folks who invaded my place on opening night. What became clear, however, is many people were a little less comfortable than I am when the topic is art. I found myself putting others at ease when discussing a topic which sometimes brings out a certain haughtiness in people.

  17. One of the ice breakers I use in my booth is to ask visitors if this is the first time they have seen my work. If they look familiar, I preface the question with that: “You look familiar – have you seen my work before?” It creates a natural opening for me to tell them about my work. There’s usually a natural opening to introduce myself and shake their hand. If they don’t give me their name, I ask the for it during the hand shake. I am working on remembering names!

  18. Great topic. I have entered artists booths who were extremely stand offish – what a turn off even if their art is good. I have always been a friendly person – though not extremely extroverted and I think it has helped me in my art career. One tip for people to help remember names. It helps if you can “see” a visual related to the name. For example, if the name is Ray visualize a ray of sunshine. I don’t always remember to use this tool and of course it’s easier with some names than others, but any “leg up” in the name remembering department is helpful. Thank you as always for your relevant posts.

  19. This a great blog post, Jason.
    Just last week, I participated in a group show at a lovely gallery here in Rhode Island. Along with being a naturally curious person, I also followed some advice you’ve shared in other posts on ways to engage people during a show. I stayed near the art and spoke with people, asking and answering questions. The one person whose name I not only remembered, but used as he left to move along to the next artist’s piece, found me and connected with me on a social media site the next day.

  20. Hair out of face, sunglasses off, make eye contact, and smile a real smile. Be interested. Be present. Remember: people like to be recognized, talked with and heard.

  21. A great blog Jason. Detailed down to subtle eye contact timing. Born with a positive and curious attitude, I have learned people are fascinating one Listening or being available
    Is often making memories, networking, enjoying just how small the world is . Emotionally interested is positive. Eventually, it ends on my canvas… From the heart.

    People really enjoy speaking of their ideas and passions. Learning that life is more interesting, while opening doors.

  22. Jason, you are so right! I was a bank teller for over 8 years. We were encouraged to learn all the customer’s names and interact with them. I found that if I really concentrated on their names, it didn’t take me long to learn to put the faces together with the names. People can tell when you truly care about them. I learned to look at the customers as nice people rather than just account holders. It is a skill that anyone who wants to can acquire it.

  23. I truly love people, and listening, but am on the reserved and introverted side, so I’m going to take in all of this good advice and practice …

  24. What a great opening to meeting someone, “Thanks for saving out seats.” My husband uses funny openings/ice breakers all the time. I have learned to do the same. We have met so many nice people that way.

    We eat dinner out a lot and choose to eat at the bar. It is a great place to meet new people. We also make it a point to learn the bartender and server’s names. I have a long page of names in my phone so we always say hi to them by name. It is amazing how you get great friendly service when you show servers that they are important enough that me make it a point to know their name.

    We were just at an art walk last night. I had a great time talking to art gallery owners and artists. I had genuine questions that I asked them, and all of them really opened up.

    As an artist I learned a big lesson at the art walk. I was looking at some art with the artist standing right behind me. I didn’t ask any questions and there was an uncomfortable silence because I knew he was right there looking at me looking at his art. He should have asked me a question. Anything, like “Are you a local?” (We live in a resort town) Or, ” What kind of art do you like?” Any question would have been great. It really drove home the need to always be ready with a list of appropriate questions.

    Thanks for the nice article!

  25. Thank you for this article and all your posts. I am recently retired from a long career as an academic library director. I am both an introvert and someone with little skill or patience with small talk, but in my career I often hosted events, sometimes with donors to the library or parent institution. Years ago when I was struggling to prepare for an evening event, I decided it was just my job to make sure everyone was having a good time, was enjoying meeting other people and felt welcome. Bingo! This introvert worked the room like a pro and kept doing it for many years. I am just beginning my career as a professional artist, but I think this mind set will serve me well.

  26. I would like to know more about how to convert these relations to sales and if they are not going to buy, how to get them out of my way from the other person in the room who wants to buy and how to spot the buyers from the ones who just want to waste your time talking about themselves. Cause I love listening too, but I just got back from one of many shows I’ve done, and I did everything here, I always sell plenty… this time, people just talked my head off and walked away every time I would politely draw the conversation towards my art and the idea of actually buying it. I look forward to the next show with real buyers, like I normally participate in and chalk it up to bad crowd/good experience.
    Thanks!

  27. Hi Jason, you write so well! The best outcomes I’ve had in closing deals to have my art displayed have come about through the openness of the people approached. It seems to bring me better luck if I don’t put on make up and am dressed normally rather than formally. My most recent success is at my local florist in South Australia’s country town of Gawler. My husband is a gifted gardener and also a gifted emerging textile artist who puts together French knitting (aka tomboystitch or corking) to create art pieces on canvas frames. He has a couple of floral pieces, all vibrant in colour. In my first visit to the florist I had bought funeral flowers and had noticed local artists’ work displayed, so asked whether the owner would be interested in our floral art. As luck would have it she was. When I brought in our art (I have one large garden painting) and my husband’s art she was excited and said so, thrilled that she could hang our work! Two days ago I took in a print of one of my etchings (Sleeping Beauty’s Awakening among roses done in a style reminiscent of Art Nouveau) – and she bought it on the spot!! Yesterday she proudly showed me where she’d hung it in her shop and enquired to get more prints! She asked me how to price some art so we had a conversation about her relatives and I learnt that she had been a real estate agent. Now I am telling you this so your readers know that conversations open up learning not only about the person you’re talking to, but lead to new opportunities which you wouldn’t have had if you hadn’t taken the first step, with a smile. In 2 weeks time she wants me to bring in more art. I’m over the moon! We haven’t had this sort of luck at the local gallery we belong to! Besides, she gets more people through the door than the gallery. Thanks again Jason, for being inspiring with your writing!

  28. Lenore’s response really caught my eye because I feel exactly the same way. I love people. I get high on people! They are so interesting and everyone has a story. Unlike Lenore, I am a hopeless extrovert (although I do like my introvert side as well). And like Jason, I am a jokester. I love to start up conversations in grocery lineups or almost anywhere, sometimes to the embarrassment of my shy husband who likely often wishes the sidewalk would open up and swallow him (or more to the point, me) when I get going.

    Anyhow, I just felt like chirping in on this forum as I have my morning cup of internet and coffee. All of your points, Jason, are so valid. And thankfully you and others are more than willing to share your knowledge so that each of us can grow as we progress in our art and/or our art businesses.

    In addition to the importance of name calling (i.e. remembering names), I would like to impart a little story that just happened. Last week I completed my first 30 x 40 inch oil commission for a business woman in town. Along the way, I started to call her TinkerBell because that is exactly how she looks. Teeny tiny little thing – about 4′ 10 ” and 85 pounds, flitting here and there. When she came to see the painting for the second and final viewing after I had made a few changes, I told her that I had personalized the painting for her in a way that only she would be aware of (so it wouldn’t spoil or detract from the painting). And then I told her that I had painted a tiny little Tinker Bell on the canvas. When she located it, she started to cry. That was worth more than any payment ever would be. Did I mention how much I adore people?

    Have a great day and remember, we’re all in this together……

    Verna 🙂

  29. Myself and 3 others have a co-op gallery here in Colorado, we specialize in photography. Breaking the ice had been a huge question of mine early on but it seemed to come easy by just a casual ‘hello’ and start talking. (I am terrible at remembering names so I never even try, thankfully my name tag takes care of 50% of that topic) At some point in the conversation, assuming it gets past the first minute or so, 8 out of 10 times it does, I ask ‘are you an artist?’ 75% of the time they are and also do photography but are new to that. I know right away that there will be no sale but continue on giving tips on how they can get more experience or useful tips on finding tutorials. Regardless, after a while when they leave, the person would shake my hand and truly thank me for talking to them. It makes me feel good to hear that. If the person answers that they have no artistic side but love art I explain my philosophy about art etc and again I get a warm ‘thank you’ This line of conversation has long broken my spell of intimidation and most likely even become addicting. Now to actually making a sale? Maybe 1 in 500. Photography doesn’t sell as well as paintings/drawing.

  30. Great article! I definitely prefer to be the introvert. But I very recently decided after reading a book by Eric Maisel that I would need to add another persona to put myself out in the world as an artist. I recently went to an art festival and made it a point to talk to artists, be aware of their body language, listen to them and praise their work in any little way that I could. It was interesting to note how many artists prefer to just sit or stand there and not really interact with potential customers. I was nervous but it wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be. With more practice I believe that I will able to be that other person when I need to sell myself and be the introvert when in the studio. Your article affirmed my new choices. thanks!

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