How connection can win sales

I went to a really interesting dissemination event yesterday – ‘dissemination’ being a posh word for ‘let me tell you what we’ve been up to’ – about an Erasmus+ project Nottingham’s City Arts have been involved in to help young artists gain the entrepreneurial skills they’ll need for a successful future in the artworld.

The four-year Artemployment project brought together organisations in the UK, Denmark, Columbia and Honduras to address a lack of formal provision for teaching these skills, including in college and art degree courses, which seem to focus predominantly on artistic skills (a fact I’ve also heard from several young people in my own work).

Working with youth workers and arts organisations in each partner country, the team devised a toolkit of activities which can be used with groups of young people to help them think about and practise the skills needed to set up in business and sell a product – in other words, their art.

As many of my former teaching colleagues could confirm, I love a good collaborative learning activity – which is handy, because they made us have a go at one yesterday.

Luckily, they didn’t insist on mixing us up into new groups (why on earth did I ever make children do that?) and I was allowed to work with my artist friend Liz Waddell, who I went there with. Unluckily, Liz is less keen on chatting to a crowd than I am, which meant she ‘chose’ me to stand on the platform for a minute-and-a-half, pitching our collective ideas for why that crowd should buy our ‘product’ – a long piece of elasticated ribbon, drawn randomly from a bag.

We’d come up with lots of ideas, most of which in my panic I immediately forgot. ‘I’m going to blow this,’ I thought as I walked to the stage. ‘The other pitches were spot on and I’m going to bomb. So I might as well have fun anyway.’ And so I went for humour over sales mastery, demonstrating different and silly uses of the ribbon with an equally silly running commentary.

So I was more than a little surprised to see so many hands up in answer to the question, ‘who would buy this?’ Even more surprised to realise I might possibly have made the winning pitch. (In actual fact it was a tie, the crowd equally interested in the much more practically described pastel crayons). But how on earth could that have happened?

‘What selling skills did that activity demonstrate?’ the facilitator – a youth worker from Colombia – asked, and along with ‘communication’ and ‘awareness of how the product could be useful to a buyer’, someone said, ‘the need to connect with people.’ She turned and pointed to me. ‘She sold hers because she made us laugh.’

Connection – I was really pleased to hear that as it’s something I say to my emerging artists all the time. Humour and funny commentary may not be everyone’s style, but people largely buy a product because they like and trust the person selling it. We therefore need to show them who we are, feeding a flavour of our authentic selves and snippets about our lives into our marketing and social media posts. Even if that feels uncomfortable, as it did for me yesterday.

Many thanks to Alma Solarte-Tobon of City Arts for the invitation to the Artployment event. I look forward to sharing the toolkit activities with local young artists.

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