Listening and Learning: Art Marketing Without Saying a Word

By Aletta de Wal in Art Business Advice > A-Z Art Marketing Guide

Welcome back to “The ABC’s of Art Marketing”—an alphabet guide to marketing your art, from A to Z. Today I’ll be focusing on the letter “L” for Listen and Learn.

If you think that marketing is mostly about getting your art noticed, then you are half right. Exposure of your work and your accomplishments is a great reason to have exhibits, build a website, blog and engage in social media. That’s called outbound marketing, and your success depends on pushing your message out to many people and places, hoping someone will notice.

But that’s only part of it.

The other half of your job is switching channels to be a receiver. What you learn from the way people respond to you, your art and your marketing messages is the big payoff. This is called inbound marketing and your success comes from listening, using what you hear to learn about your audience, so you can match what you have to offer to what they want.

For ten years, I taught a six-day intensive course in Interpersonal Communications for an adult continuing education program at York University. Most students came to learn how to improve the way they spoke, but before we could work on the way they delivered a message, we had to work on the way they listened.

Obviously, I can’t replicate that training here, but I can share the three biggest barriers to good listening and what you can do about them.

1. We are able to listen faster than people talk

That difference in the speed of hearing versus the speed of speaking is a huge problem—your busy brain fills in the gaps while you are waiting for the next burst of words. You think about what you are going to say back, what you think of the person’s outfit, what you are going to have for lunch, and before you know it, you’ve lost track of what the person was saying.

Not only that, but words are only a small part of meaning. Body language, facial expressions, gestures, inflection and pace make a huge difference in the meaning of words.

Try this: read the following sentence aloud, and each time emphasize the bolded, italicized, underlined word.

I didn’t say he stole the painting.

• I didn’t say he stole the painting.

• I didn’t say he stole the painting.

• I didn’t say he stole the painting.

• I didn’t say he stole the painting.

• I didn’t say he stole the painting.

• I didn’t say he stole the painting.

Seven different meanings—just from emphasizing a different word.

To improve your listening skills, focus not only on the words the person uses but also their tone of voice, facial expressions, gestures and any props they use. If you are really taking all that in, you won’t have time left for your brain to wander down any bunny trails. When I first worked on my own listening skills, I actually silently repeated the words the person was using.

As you do this, you’ll not only have better memory of what the person said, but also how they feel about what they are communicating.

2. Our assumptions weaken our listening skills.

Anyone who has been in job interviews (as the applicant or the interviewer) knows that snap decisions are made within the first few minutes of the conversation. The rest is about validating or invalidating those decisions.

Why do we do that?

In short, because we’ve learned that we can’t possibly process everything we see and hear, so we become selective about what to take in and what to discard. When our assumptions are wrong about what is important, true, or worthy of attention, we risk making bad decisions and discarding facts or missing opportunities.

Put yourself in this artist’s place to see what I mean:

It was 15 minutes before the end of a very long day at a high-end art fair. The artist had steady traffic all day, lots of new sign-ups on the mailing list for future exhibits and a few sales. All in all a decent day.

Several neighboring artists were already packing up as the foot traffic had dwindled to a trickle. Was it time to do the same?

At that moment, a shabbily dressed man came over to admire the artist’s work. He said it was of high quality and suggested taking samples to a local blue chip gallery. “Tell them John sent you.”

The artist was skeptical. After all, how could someone dressed that way know anything about art, much less what a blue chip gallery would like?

What would you do?

Our first instinct might be to ignore that individual. But the better choice would be to engage in conversation and learn more about the person, the context of their message, and what you have in common.

The artist I described wisely decided to suspend all assumptions and doubts in favor of checking out the gallery. After all, it was well known and would be a great place to have work on exhibit. When the artist called, the staff was already expecting the call and eager to make an appointment to view the work.

Why? Because the shabbily dressed man was the owner of the gallery. He preferred to walk shows incognito to be free to browse artists’ work without the pressure of his status.

The takeaway is this: when you suspend narrow assumptions and listen with an open mind, you will often surpass your initial expectations.

3. We listen for a sale rather than build relationships

One of the most frequent complaints I hear from artists is that people browsing say they like their art, but then don’t buy it. But. . . that’s a lot of pressure to put on a walk-by comment! Not to mention, it’s unrealistic to expect sales from a first look. (And viewing people just as wallets eliminates any chance of a bigger relationship.)

I always walk the full gallery or show before going back to look at individual art. If I want to live with a piece of art for a long time, I want to have ample time to absorb what’s available. Then I go back to my short list and engage in conversation with the artists. The way they handle the conversation has a big impact on what I choose.

Besides, it’s stingy of you not to glory in the accolade for at least a moment. Accept what people say as the beginning of a process, then consider the compliment an opening to start a conversation by asking questions to learn what’s behind the comment.

What do they like about your art? What does it remind them of? What brought them to the exhibit?

Each answer leads you a bit further past a throw-away comment and into the realm of a possible relationship. Who knows where that could lead? A new art friend, a potential collector, a source of referrals to buyers, a gallery opportunity. . . ?

In the end, when you look at people as people first, and work at building relationships instead of pursuing transactions, you can much more easily build bridges between you, your art, and your audience. And THAT’S how you build long-term success.

Follow the links below to read more articles in “The ABC’s of Art Marketing”—an alphabet guide to marketing your art, from A to Z:

A – Appreciating your Audience

B – Building your Business Base

C – Communicating Clearly, Consistently and Cleverly

D – Diversifying Your Delivery

E – Educate, Entertain, Engage, Enrich, and Evolve

F – Fostering Friendly Familiarity

G – Give to Gain

H – Hiring Help

I – The 5 “I’s” of Art Marketing

J – Joining Juried Shows

K – Creating Good Karma

L – Listening and Learning (current article)

M – Mastering your Marketing Messages

N – Negotiating 101

O – Turning Obstacles into Opportunities

P – Procrastination & Perfection

Q – Quality & Quantity: Creating Art that Sells

R – 8 Rules to Improve Your Artist/Collector Relationships

S – S is for Sales

T – 30 Ways to Say “Thank You”

U – Switching from “I” to “Us”

V – Volunteering in the Art World

W – Write, Write, Write!

Y – Just Say Yes

Z – Zen, Zoom, ZigZag & Zowie


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