So what do you do?
I bet you get asked that question a lot. It seems every time you meet someone new, they ask that very same question.
And for an artist, especially if you have a day job, it can be an awkward question.
Artists usually answer with their day job or with an awkward pause and some stuttering to get out the words, “I’m an artist.” And it comes out with such a lack of enthusiasm that no one would be interested to hear more anyway!
But how does a non-artist answer?
Anyone confident in their career path says, “Oh, I’m an attorney specializing in family law.” And the other person says, “That sounds really interesting, what do you like about that?” “I love being able to help children by guiding their families through difficult legal situations.” And the conversation opens up from there with the other person sharing their experiences or feelings surrounding helping children or legal situations or families, etc.
But when you say, “I’m an artist,” in a scared, flat tone you’re not going to get that type of engagement back from the other person.
Fixing this would not only make this common conversation less awkward, but it also allows you to connect with people about your art, creating more word-of-mouth marketing (one of the most effective types of marketing in the art industry) and turning that guy you met waiting in line at Starbucks into a fan of your art who follows you on social media and comes to all your local shows.
So how can you fix your response?
The first step is obviously a little bit of confidence. Look at some of the successful artists out there and read up on how they got started. You’ll be surprised that many of them had no connections to the art world (probably just like you) when they first started and that some of them didn’t have any formal art education either. Recognize that there’s no reason why you can’t turn out just like these successful artists.
The second step is to put aside your lingering insecurities. Of course you’re not going to get over your self-doubt in a sudden burst of inspiration. It’s going to take time. And in the meantime, you need to start talking about being an artist anyway.
Pocket those emotions.
This is a phrase I like to use a lot. It just means acknowledge that you have the feelings, that there’s nothing wrong with having the feelings, but that they’re just feelings. The feelings don’t have to be correct or rational. And you don’t have to act on the feelings. It’s your choice. It might be best to decide to stick those feelings in your pocket so you can visit them later but don’t have to deal with them now. And then act without those feelings.
Next you want to practice. The key here is to practice enough that you know the concepts you want to use but not so much that you sound rehearsed. If you start to use the same line over and over, it’s probably a good sign you need to stop practicing.
What do you say?
Instead of just saying, “I’m an artist,” give non-art people something to latch onto. Artist can mean so many different things but, “I’m an artist. I paint realistic still life,” gives them a better clue and something specific they can grab hold of and run with. It’s the same strategy from my example of the lawyer above. It’s just that it comes naturally when you’re talking about a traditional career and very unnaturally to most artists, perhaps because we simply self-identify with the word “artist” and nothing more. But it really helps to give the other person more than that.
If you don’t have a set style that you work in, you can give other specific information like:
- your medium – I’m an oil painter.
- the personality of your work – I’m an artist who paints really happy art.
- the reason you create – I’m an artist. I like to help people heal from traumatic experiences with my art.
- or who you create for – I’m a children’s illustrator.
So it’s good to think of one or two things that describe your artistic self more specifically and keep them in mind when you’re asked that dreaded question about your career.
The last thing you can do to save this conversation from slow, repeated death is mirroring. Mirroring is a good trick to be aware of anyway because you can use it in a lot of conversations. It’s even something we often do naturally and don’t even notice. Mirroring is when you match something about the other person. Often it’s tone of voice or level of engagement – so if you’re talking to someone and they’re talking slowly, the pace of your words might slow down too – but sometimes it’s facial expressions or body language too. So if someone comes up to you grinning from ear to ear, you are practically compelled to smile back.
Once you’re aware that you do this, you can increase it, making it more effective.
Have they settled into one hip? Do it too. Do they sound really excited and amped up? Pretend you’re just as thrilled. Are they using big words? Pull out your conflagrations, portmanteaus, and ineffables.
It creates a subconscious connection between the two of you that cuts through awkwardness and tension and makes the other person feel comfortable and natural around you.