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

28 Comments

  1. Jason, this post resonates with me on many levels. I, too, have a sober look when I am not consciously smiling. I was once walking down the street, but absorbed in my thoughts. It was a gorgeous day, and I was quite happy, just absorbed in my mental wandering, when an approaching stranger looked at me and said, “oh, come on. It can’t be that bad!” Ever since, I try to be more aware of how much difference even a trace of a smile can make.

    I will print out this post, and remind myself of your suggestions so that I can do a better job of interacting with others. I’m not bad at it, but sometimes I notice that the interaction may just be a dialogue in my head,—especially if others are speaking together. I don’t want to be an interruption. The good part is that I don’t mind speaking with strangers, and find other people endlessly fascinating.

  2. This is still the hardest part of being an artist for me. I do smile and welcome people to my studio/booth, so I have gotten that far. I am still working on the rest. There are so many who do just want to look, so I don’t want to interact too soon — in my experience as a shopper, that runs me away. So if someone is lingering I’ll ask them neutral questions to see if they want to talk. My work is not to most people’s taste, but most of the sales I get have been someone seeing something and saying they want it. So not really me selling at all. I am sure that if I were better at interacting, more lookers would become buyers.

    1. I really enjoyed and can use this helpful letter.
      I have not yet displayed my works in a public arena but have begun selling my paintings through social media. I am preparing to have a booth this next year. It is very easy for me to talk to other people about themselves but it is not that easy for me to talk to THEM about my artwork. This is something I am working on … my art rap 🙂
      This article was so very helpful in that it made me feel so not-alone and it also gave some helpful hints for communicating with others.
      Many thanks, Mr. Horejs and Everyone who contributed comments!!!

  3. Very good pointers, Jason!
    I agree completely regarding the importance of body language and facial expression! I always make a conscious effort to keep my shoulders back and chin up (just a bit) with a slight smile on my face. This is a much more inviting stance than rounded shoulders and no facial expression.
    Eye contact— great advice!
    One more item… personal hygiene! I know for some, this is a “no brainer” and comes naturally. Cleanliness; your body, your hair, the clothing you are wearing, under your fingernails, etc., are super important especially when trying to make a good first impression. I have encountered certain people who either have an offensive odor or visible grime under their fingernails, and, even though that person may have a winning personality, I will be moving along elsewhere quickly.
    Thanks, again, Jason, for the wonderful tips!

  4. Jason, this is a very important, and interesting, article. Sometimes I catch myself frowning when I am actually quite happy as Beth described in her response above. I am 72 and have realized that as we age and our faces slowly “sink” we inadvertently and naturally take on that frown without even knowing it. So now I try to remember to smile a bit more than what felt natural years ago, just to overcome the age related “grumpy old man look.”

  5. My gallery is Located in the very small quaint town of Provincetown with about 59 other galleries. Building relationships is one of the keys to keeping people coming back into my gallery year after year. No matter how wonderful your work may be, if the public does not connect with you personally, then more then likely you will have less chance for success. The speaker Dale Carnegie said that the sweetest sound to anyone’s ears is the sound of their own name. That is so true. When you use someone’s name in conversation, it immediately sends the message that you are on a “one to one” basis, and that you respect them on some level enough to address them properly. It also helps give the impression that you are not simply talking, but are talking to them personally. I always force myself to do this, and it helps to establish the foundation for the client and dealer relationship. As with Jason…It also helps me to implant their name into my memory.

  6. Actually, being an artist has really helped me be more social.

    I started sculpting at 50, less than 3 years ago, and finally finding what I am passionate about has meant a huge change in my life. I used to be rather antisocial and suffered from depression, but finding what I love to do at an age when I thought it wasn’t in the books has given me all the motivation I need to get out, show, ask, establish contact in the interest of furthering my career.

    What drives me is the sense that I now need to cram a lifetime of art into however long I am destined to live from here on forward… so I’d better get cracking! 😁

    Thanks Jason for your thought-provoking article, they are a huge help

  7. Mr. J: With trepidation I suggest for everyone’s consideration reading (if they haven’t already): Dale Carnegie – “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” Or re-reading it. Thank you.

  8. It seems that Dale Carnegie’s most famous writings gets a lot of attention here – I guess I’ll re-read it sooner than later.
    Greeting patrons at any show is a two-edged sword. I’ve seen fellow artists greet passing folk just like that, only to have their ears bent backwards for the next half hour. Stories galore how their grand parents were amateur water colorists, to the fact that they themselves have only just started to pick up the brush.
    The rest of the half hour is spent parrying asinine questions as to what paints/brushes/pencils/canvas, etc you’re using. IF you have resisted the urge to choke the living daylights out of them, they’ll thank you warmly onto the next victim for a repeat.
    This was the usual modus operandi at my 2013 and 2104 Fine Art Expos. No more for the 2019 show I’m having there.
    With the advent of the mobile phone and that it can do almost everything means that patrons will traverse the entire show texting, Facebooking, studying photos of their breakfast, lunch or dinner – without paying any attention to the artists.
    Much to one patrons’ utter confusion, I invited him to return to the front desk to receive a full refund on his entrance fee – as he was obviously not there to look at all the great art!
    One of my colleagues there interrupted one such seemingly vapid and empty headed patron with a cheery, “Hi, How you’re doing?” – only for this visitor to stop in utter shock and turn to him. Cutting a long story very short – that patron bought various pieces and became a repeat client.
    The moral is that as much as we view these sort of comatose walking patrons with justified annoyance, you just cannot judge what the outcome will be.
    My usual demeanor is usually a “don’t-come-close” and mercifully, my partner/agent Cathy does all the talking for me up to a point where my input is required.
    Having cut my teeth in the very hectic Automobile shows since 2013, I’ve had much excellent practice in between which I’m sure will be appreciated with the Expo clientele.

  9. Be careful not to over-read body language. I have quite wide shoulders for a woman. Folding my arms across my chest is soothing to old injuries, and the most comfortable position compared to letting them hang at my sides! Long legs like to extend while sitting, too (more old injuries) , so I look as though I’ve pushed myself back and crossed my arms, yet love engaging with people. Not everyone is alike.

  10. Well, I can only tell you what has NOT helped . . . being deaf. After repeating the same thing a few times and still seeing the question mark on your face, they come away thinking ‘slow’ or ‘stupid.’ But no, it’s the inability to turn mush into sirloin tips. Since there’s nothing visual about deaf, it doesn’t get the headlines, or the sympathy(nor the help of insurance, either) (Not supposed to be a ‘poor me’ post, just info . . .)

    1. Barbara Jackson. I too am deaf – I use hearing aids but they aren’t much help in a crowd. When I started teaching many years ago I would begin every class saying “hi I’m Kathy jones & I’m deaf. So if you are talking to me and I look puzzled, that means I can’t hear a word you’re saying. Please talk louder.” I tell people at exhibitions the same thing. I also have people spell their names. Names fascinate me. People are amazingly understanding.

      About connecting with people- I am a people person and must communicate that because people talk to me in grocery lines, shopping malls, and restaurants. I love what Jason says here. People are interesting and fascinating if you give them an opportunity to talk about themselves.

  11. Love it when I’m engaged in a conversation about my work with someone and learning about the person. Totally agree with Jorge’s points regarding posture, facial expression and eye contact. Here is an example of a strategy I’ve found works for me as a deaf person but it might even work for others.

    Typically, the artist and viewer stand side by side and chat while looking at the piece together. This does not work for me since I need to read people’s lips to understand what they are saying. So I very lightly say that I’m a speech reader and position myself next to the piece facing the person and comment that “I have my painting pretty much committed to memory but would love to know your questions or comments.” Often I share a tidbit about the piece – “was hiking and could smell the fresh waterfall before my husband could hear it! Maybe Deaf people have strong sense of smell?!” Chuckle.

    Light humor puts many at ease while communicating with me and keeps a smile on my face.

  12. Thanks. This article has been a good guideline– so simple and yet way outside my comfort zone. I am now in a wheelchair and this presents a whole other set of conditions. People tend to physically inch away, look away, as not to stare. I have to appear more relaxed and outgoing to put them at ease. This has been a bonus for me as I do become more relaxed. The biggest asset is definitely a smile and eye contact. My work also has a tinge of humor and this is the opener. Thanks for the reminder to ask questions.

  13. My retail space is very tiny and the customer has to ring the doorbell because I work in my studio space upstairs. Therefore I personally open the door and greet everyone who arrives and if they seem to feel awkward as opposed to eager standing on the other side of the glass I make a joke to break the ice. This sets the tone for the whole interaction that follows. I learned a lot in my booths at fine craft fairs observing other artists and reading tips such as your excellent ones. No one believes I am an introvert because I make sure I take the first step and I think that is a key.

  14. I’m exhibiting at Open Studios today and this column has really helped me. These tips are very common sense and grounding. I greatly appreciate that you wrote this! I’d love it if you would write about, or comment on how to steer the conversation to the art.

  15. I like to smile and engage with customers as they come into my gallery.
    It’s good to chat to break the ice but my problem is how do you shut them up.
    Many people go on and on about their lives and their art to the point where other customers are coming and going without me getting a chance to talk to them. Most of these people rave about how great your work is but don’t even buy a greeting card ?
    I’ve learnt to tell them that I need to get back to work in my studio behind the gallery and that it was nice talking with them. They always seem to realise that they have talked for too long without looking around at the art.

  16. Great story and lesson, Jason! Recently I went to some galleries and pushed myself to smile, put my hand out, and introduce myself. Much easier to do at a regular social situation then walking into a gallery! Glad I remembered the lesson on that.

    Also, as I posted on G+, I recently sent a thank you note for being asked to submit to a show which ended up selling my painting. The man sent me a thank you for my thank you (I mentioned also in my letter that I had read his bio and was impressed with his work to promote art and artists. )!He asked me about my paintings, and I responded . Don’t know if anything will happen but he recently responded to another email showing him more new new work. He lives in NYC and is an art broker or something. I guess I will continue to keep him up to date until I stop hearing back from him.

  17. Great advice as always, Jason! Your insights are always so helpful. I find using a person’s name a time or two in a conversation with them really warms them to me and my work. But it’s important to not overdo it. If you mention their name every other sentence you come across as insincere. It’s like garlic: it adds a lot of flavor, but a little bit goes a long way.

  18. Well, this certainly resonated with a lot of us, Jason! Just last night I began reading Brene Brown’s “Braving the Wilderness” about our human longing for true belonging and being connected. The piece that stayed in my brain as I slept was her writing that it’s hard to hate people up close — that we all share a common humanity…and your post this morning seems like such serendipity, just written in a different voice. Thanks!

  19. Jason, thank you for the wonderful advice. I’m in the phase of becoming infinately more approachable socially than I was 5 years ago. When drawing en plain air in archaeological sites in Greece which is my specialty to attending a ballet show I’m so much more open to expressing how I feel, inviting feedback and engaging with those near me. It is gratifying.

  20. This is a true advice you have been giving and I am glad o to be talkative as well.
    But learning with you and trying to keep my ego away has taught me to listen more. Last September I was almost two hours in the airport lobby reading your book and writing on my statement. I went to the toilet after the shuttle driver told me the other person arrived and we finally could get home ( I’ve left my friends house at seven am and it was already 5pm). I had to walk fast to the car and while going the man stated talking with me and gently continued after sitting by my side … He was happy talking about his new grandson and I listened carefully and soon I was at my home after two hours talking.
    Yes I’ve managed to talk about myself and my art and for my surprise he was a book publisher and art collector .
    After a week he wrote me a quick note and selected one of my paintings where he confirmed my point of view in our previous conversation.
    Of course I replied very happily .

    After two or three weeks I was publishing a on line gallery and send him an email mkt. for my surprise this week I’ve posted a painting he bought in the on line gallery… still from the same subject I’ve talked to him that is my interest to keep images and memories of old Victorian houses and farms to keep memories of it before the urbanization take it all.
    Happy to share and I’ll keep listening and making new friends and collectors !

  21. I share a studio and two room gallery with 9 artists. We have many local visitors as well as visitors from across Canada and the US. Our group takes turns being in the gallery to paint and to welcome visitors. But talking too much with visitors and listening to their stories often takes up what little time they have. Then they leave without really looking at our paintings. A dilemma!

    .

  22. Yes, I think many artists are natural hermits. I refer to myself as a flaming introvert. Three things have helped me to be less shy: 1. Dancing (try it!!!!) It makes me less shy when I am just doing normal things like going to openings, 2. Teaching or training someone. I started out training people at my job, one on one, then progressed to speaking in front of rooms of strangers ( I did dream once that they were all naked, luckily the view was from behind) 3. I volunteer as a museum docent and talk to strangers about art and get them to engage with the exhibitions.

  23. Great article and tips on building relationships. I have always enjoyed meeting new people and learning about their background and life in general. It comes natural to me always asking them questions and connecting one on one. Having said that I am an emerging artist in the fine art photography field. Transferring building relationships to actually selling my art on line or in person is still a work in progress. It is the next step in my development as an artist. Gaining confidence in this area will be the next major hurdle to overcome. I was never good at promoting myself.
    I was at Gammage and saw the Phantom of the Opera. It was an amazing performance. Loved it!

  24. My husband is a natural at this. He genuinely wants to help people and make everyone he meets happy. He is in sales and he is excellent at his job for these reasons. I tease him mercilessly because he can make a friend anywhere but I also know that having or cultivating these skills is one of the best things anyone in sales can do.

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