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.

Starving to Successful

StSBookSHave you always wondered what it takes to show your work in galleries? Is your work being seen by qualified collectors?

In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.

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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 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

26 Comments

  1. Excellent advice, Jason. I have found people build a bond with people they believe care for them, and it is important to genuinely care. Feelings follow actions, so once we engage a person, with a real focus on them, we begin to build that care for them within our own hearts. Whether or not they buy a thing, being a highlight in a person’s day is always a good thing for both parties.

  2. I have become much better at striking up conversations with strangers & now enjoy it very much. Maybe it’s the artist in me that used to make to many judgements based on appearances but now things are very different. I’ve met so many friends, buyers & collectors recently by making an effort to talk to strangers…

  3. Jason, I have only recently become familiar with your newsletter, and aubsequently purchased your book. I did not begin my art career until I was in my sixties and after a successful career in the financial services industry as a stockbroker and manager and trainer of brokers. Engendering trust when you are handling someone’s life savings is not only necessary, but critical and essential. Your advice is spot on! Though people do want to know about their broker, what they REALLY want to know is about how much their broker cares about THEM!

    I found found that it is exactly the same in the art world. Once they know you care about what THEY need from their art piece, THEN they want to romance their choice by knowing about the artist and how that substantiates their purchase.

    Keep these great articles coming!!!

  4. Thank you, Jason. This is something I’m working on & you’ve made it simpler with each principle. But your comments about focusing on the other person & getting to know them makes the biggest difference to me regarding reaching out first & making contact.

  5. I’m a newbie to to your site. Your information sharing is so helpful. I’ve learned much. Approaching new people and striking up a conversation is truly a balancing act. As a Deaf person in a predominantly auditory world, engaging in a conversation using eye contact, open and comfortable posture and facial expression is so crucial. My particular challenge is to also put people at ease early in the social interaction. Most of the time people are open to adjusting to my need to lipread in good lighting, with clear and unobstructed enunciation (keeping hands away from mouth and faceing me). I’ve learned not to take personally people’s choices to not engage in conversations with me. Who knows if they are clinging to their own safety zones or have other things to move on to. Almost always, forcing myself out of my comfort zone to talk with new people has resulted in fascinating conversations that expand my world knowledge and network as well as create friendships. Before each art show opening reception (whether my works are being shown or not), I give myself a pep talk and walk in there with an open mind and an open attitude. It’s like opening gifts – meeting new people. Looking forward to reading more on your site.

  6. Thanks Jason. Very helpful in advice. Although I have gotten much better at getting g into good conversations with people, I still have a tough time at gallery receptions, getting out of the conversation to greet and meet others, new and old acquaintances. I dislike missing the opportunity to greet old acquaintances each a d customers. It feels like they are being ignored.

  7. Like many artist, Oman introvert. So cultivating relationships doesn’t come naturally. However I’ve found that through volunteer work i.e. hanging artwork at public venues, starting a drawing group, serving at community picnics, displaying work at fundraisers ,etc. makes talking to new people much easier and has expanded my mailing list and sales. Not only that, I’m actually enjoying it.

  8. Spot on! Great advice. While I was involved with the local Jaycees club, I had very body line up across from one another and “learn how to shake hands.” I had a couple “dead fish” handshakes and one in particular that tried to take me to my knees! After demo’ing a good handshake, they all got the idea. Same thing! Get their name! Learn about them, don’t spend all your time telling them about you. Great topics as always!

  9. I show my work at a cooperative gallery in San Diego where we artists “sit” during open hours. I love this part of it as I enjoy meeting people. After a smile and a welcome, I generally ask two question – Are you an artist? Are you from San Diego? We have a LOT of tourists any time of the year. Because I’ve lived all over the country, I’m always able to connect in some way with people not from San Diego and it always leads to something interesting. I introduce myself and show which work is mine on the walls we artists share. The “are you an artist” question also generates more to talk about – many are, some are shy about it, but after a few minutes most of them want to show me pictures. I encourage them to look at everything and to touch the things that can be touched – an encaustic artist let me know she always tells people to touch her work. What doesn’t work at all is for the gallery “sitter” to sit off in a corner, nose in a book and not even greet the visitors! When the visitors leave, I always thank them for coming in. We often swap cards and I always ask them to sign my guest book.

  10. Conversational skills are critical in any vocation. An easy going, sincere persona can break down any barrier. It is an aptitude that can be developed, and if it doesn’t come naturally will take exercise to sharpen.
    Younger adults and some introverts have not had the exposure to work on those skills. It isn’t an issue for those of us fortunate enough to have been emerged in career fields early on. I’ll find something … a bank of experiences to draw from … to talk about to anyone.
    I’ll talk about food and recipes in the produce department to another shopper. I’ll ask an opinion on merchandise in a department store. I’ll mention a local event in line at the checkout … opportunities are endless. I don’t do that to sell art, I do that to engage my fellow citizens. People are wonderfully interesting if you give them an opportunity to talk about something besides the weather.
    One hint, don’t whip out your business card after an opening comment. That should be the last thing you do before parting, if at all. Don’t dominate the conversation … listen. A sure way to segway to your art is ask about their vocation, listen, comment, relate, then transfer to art. The conversation needs to be proportionate to the time; three minutes in line at the bank or 45-minutes waiting for your tires to be rotated.
    The other person may not have any interest in art whatsoever, and that’s okay. Just enjoy the conversation at its face value.

  11. I am told that I am gregarious and seek out people. I’m not so sure, but it is really great fun to meet new people. I come from a “reserved” part of the country. While people are not necessarily standoffish, they do tend to keep to themselves. That was not my mom nor is it me. My sister is better at this than I.
    I have successes and fails but most people don’t mind a bit of casual conversation when they are in an arbitrarily tight situation like a concert seat, or in a more loose and open space like a gallery or your local pastry shop where morning coffee abounds.
    Good morning and a smile is all you need. Sometimes it might be the highpoint of someone’s day and you never know where it might go.
    Good advice Jason.

  12. I talk to everyone. I think I have just become more open or confident I am not really sure but I strike up conversations wherever I am. I started out in high school very shy in grade nine and someone thought I was a snob because I didn’t say much. I guess over the years, two careers later a divorce and being an artist and really loving that and everything about it I have opened up. Art allows you to be who you are I think. I guess when you find that thing that really makes you happy you tend to be more open and chatty. Not really sure but I just love talking to new people to get to know them.

  13. I have met fellow artists at gallery openings or art fairs and have often found that many of them hold back when meeting visitors to their both or show. Perhaps they became artists because they are looking for their art to communicate better than they can with words when around people. Now I can understand this but if one is serious about selling their art works then cultivating a confidence about approaching people to start a conversation is critical. Holding back with strangers usually tells them you don’t want to converse which then cools any interest they might have in buying your works. And I will bet many artists will tell you they have sold more works to friends or people they first started a conversation with than just about anyone else.

  14. I was recently in a gallery where the manager amusingly approached me and asked if there was some spot in my home that I was looking to fill. As an artist I wasn’t but it was a good opening for our conversation and I will remember it when I am showing my own work.

  15. We too have a collaborative gallery here in Santa Fe. Out of 6 artists, only one would read a book while sitting at the gallery. She also sold the least amount of art, including her own. Recently she left and is no longer a part of our gallery…. Yippee!
    People enjoy meeting and buying directly from artists, especially when we are friendly, approachable and positive. Each person who walks into our gallery brings joy to our day… it makes it easier for them to buy art.

  16. Great advice Jason. It it hard for many of us to approach strangers at an art reception or in a gallery situation. Your article reminds me to loosen up, smile and strike up a conversation! We have nothing to lose and much to gain.

  17. It is really difficult for me to be around new people.
    Kind of like pulling teeth. Your story helps you are a role model.
    I have though about taking acting lessons to help me come out of my shell.
    Thank you for sharing!

  18. Hi Jason,

    I use to be very shy until I worked in restaurants in Southern California which really brought me out of my shell when I was young. It’s the best thing that ever happened to me. I can talk to anyone. I always say, you learn something new from every single person you ever meet.
    Just smiling and saying hi to people in my life has gotten me jobs throughout life and my work career just because I was always friendly to people. Most my jobs in my life I did not apply for. People would ask me to come and work for them. Same thing happened when I worked for a state government. The administrator stopped me in the hall one day and told me about a position that was opening in their department and told me he wanted me to work for them because they needed more friendly people in their department. None of this is in relation to my art, but I have gotten my work into galleries in the past because of the same thing and then when speaking with customers I would tell them the stories behind my artwork and explain how I created it and that would end up in a purchase. People are attracted to friendly, smiling people and want to be around those kind of people.

    Myrtle Joy

  19. I feel like I’m straddling the fine line between being inviting and interested vs. being intrusive. After greeting them, I watch to see if they stop at a piece of artworks. At that point, I’ll approach them and ask what attracted them to that particular piece and open up the conversation from there.

  20. For me the best thing is to find something we both have reality on and can agree on. In an art situation it is often some aspect of art. And in an art situation (gallery, show, etc.) they must have some love for art. If you find what they love and you have a similar love it is a powerful boost to communication. Enthusiasm begets enthusiasm!

  21. Is it possible to say something to the effect of “I can see by your body language that you are not wanting to talk, so if you have a question I’ll am available to answer.”?

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