When demonstrating your process, share what you want, not what you think you “have to”…
Short story: Demonstrating your process at an open studio can be a powerful incentive for visitors to come. But there’s a delicate balance between “maker” and “seller”, and that can create a disconnect with our audience. Backstory:
I’m a double-juried (in two media) craftsman member of the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen, a well-established, well-respected organization that supports and markets the work of members in many ways: galleries, events, exhibitions, and its prestigious Annual Craftsmen’s Fair held in August every year. (I achieved tenure, so even though I now live a few thousand miles away, I still retain my membership.) I eventually volunteered to become a member of the Fair Committee, because I was so curious about what went on “behind the curtain” to produce these incredible 9-day long event.
One feature of our annual outdoor fair was demo booths. For a reduced rate, a juried craftsman got a super-sized booth (about 20’x30’, if I remember correctly) to not only display their wares, but to do demonstrations of their craft for the public. When I started, there were three such booths at each year’s fair.
And every year we had to beg people to sign up for them.
The reason was, sales at these booths were horrible. Even with the savings and prominent placement on the grounds, people knew they would struggle to make any money that year. It just wasn’t worth it to them.
I can’t remember why I decided it might be something to try, but boy, did I do my research. I checked in with past demonstrators, and asked if it were worthwhile. Almost everyone said, “Not that year, but my sales afterwards steadily climbed!” So, okay, consider it a loss-leader in the short-term, and investment in a bigger audience down the road. I could handle that.
But my superpower is gathering as much information as I can from every conceivable source. And so I also checked in with Bruce Baker, a jewelry-maker and gallery/gift shop owner who traveled across the country for years giving workshops on all things craft/art business related: Display, sales techniques, pricing, etc. (Bruce has retired this part of his biz and returned to jewelry-making full-time, but his CDs live on.) He lived relatively close, so I was able to attend many of his workshops, and even served with him on panel discussions and with traveling craft biz-building workshops for a year.
I called Bruce, and he graciously gave me the insights and advice I was looking for.
My first question was, why do sales tank at demos? He replied that demos tend to be “edu-tainment”: Free, educational and entertaining. And when it’s over, there goes the crowd, on to the next fun thing (music, raffles, food, etc.) So demo booths are unconsciously filed away under “fun to watch” and not “fun to shop”.
Add to that another unconscious element: When the “edu-tainer” artist sees people actively shopping, of course they stand up and move over to assist them. And the “magic” of demonstrating turns into, “Uh-oh, here comes the car salesman pitch!” and people scurry away. “There’s a disconnect,” he explained. “And once that ball is dropped, it’s hard to get back.” Hence, maybe crowds, but no sales.
He shared insights and gave suggestions. Like setting up my demo booth on the outer border of the big tent, so people didn’t have to “commit” to coming inside. “Don’t put it in the back of the booth, because then people have to make a conscious decision to enter a big, dark tent. Put it right there on the fairway!” I did, and it worked.
Second, he said I should NOT do sales. What??
“Not “no sales”. I mean you yourself should not do sales. Hire people to do that,” he said. “Keep that divide between the creative maker and the “car salesman”.” So I hired/bribed/cajoled a team of friends to help. (I lent them all CDs of Bruce’s selling techniques.)
But instead of telling them what I say about my work, I encouraged them to share what they love about my work. I felt it would come across as heart-felt and more authentic, and I was right about that, too!
And because they weren’t working from a ‘script’, and they apparently had no ‘game’ with my sales, their comments and enthusiasm were seen as an authentic validation of my work.
The proof of Bruce’s insights? At one point in the week, all my volunteers were at lunch at the same time. (Slow day.) Some people came in, I demo’ed, they watched. And when they started shopping, I walked over to them – and they nearly ran out of the booth! Lesson learned. (No, I’m not that scary in person. The actual dynamic had changed, just as Bruce had described.)
I made my highest sales ever that year, and the next (as I got to choose to demo again, if I wanted to, and I did.) In fact, from that year on, there was actual competition for those sales demo booths, and their number increased to five!
Because every other artisan saw what was happening, and wanted in on that, too.
But one of the biggest hurdles yet remained. And it took a friend’s insight to solve that problem:
How much do I share without destroying the mystery of my finished work?
This has been a “hurt place” for decades for me. My work has been copied for decades. (Although badly, I’m happy to say, though I’m ashamed to admit that.) Showing exactly what I do, and how I do it, felt too risky. The last thing I wanted to do was to unconsciously give others permission to copy. Most of my techniques are well-known and not original to me, though I always share the original artist as a source. What’s truly unique are the the ways I put them together, and the stories I tell through them.
Even more sobering: Think of how explaining a magic trick takes away the ‘magic’. Yeah, no.
Again, just the right person showed up.
I met Alisha Vincent when she was the show manager for the Buyers Market of American Craft (informally called “The Rosen Show” for the company’s owner, Wendy Rosen) and now known as the American Made Show.) She was/still is one of my super heroes in life, for her intelligence, her powers of observation, her wide range of experience in the world, her courage, and her sense of humor. She actually came to NH that year to work in my demo booth, and I am forever grateful she did, for countless reasons.
But especially for today, this one: When I expressed my fears, she was quick to find the solution. “Look at your neighbor,” she said, gesturing toward the guy who made beautiful Shaker boxes in the demo tent next to me. “He says his process has 29 steps.”
“He’s demonstrated nine of those steps.”
Oh. OH. OH!!!!!! Got it!
So when I say “show your process”, know that it means you get to choose how much you share.
Some people do share every single step. Hats off to them! They are secure in the knowledge that their skills have taken time and effort, and are not easily mastered. And that their own aesthetic and color choices are unique to them.
Me, not so much. I totally know this comes from my own insecurities and past experiences.
And so Alisha’s insight helped me pick interesting aspects to demo, but not a start-to-finish process. She helped me find my comfort level, so I could start there and go forward.
If you demonstrate, you get to decide what feels like “too much” vs. what feels like a challenge you can handle.
And as you get comfortable with it, take on the next challenge.
Remember, there are oodles of steps to help us move forward in our art biz.
The gift is, we get to choose what ones, how, how much, how often: A short how-to video playing on a laptop in your studio, or a live demo. (With a sales assistant!) A series of photos showing different stages in your production. Signs for all your tools, materials, equipment, on display, with their purpose and sources. (Again, how much you share is totally up to you.)
And if you offer classes, these little add-ons to your space will give them a powerful incentive to sign up.
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