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Tell It, Don't Sell It

Have I mentioned yet how much I love Austin Kleon’s books? Steal Like An Artist is chock-full of great ideas, and the more recent Show Your Work is even better. I love it because it’s all about connecting.

Among the many useful, wonderful, and powerful ideas Kleon shares in his book is this little anecdote about the value of storytelling: There were these two guys—Joshua Glenn and Rob Walker—who decided to test their belief that an object’s perceived value would increase if the object had a great story behind it. To begin their experiment, they went out and spent roughly $125 on about 100 random objects at junk shops and garage sales, so that’s an average of $1.25 per object. Then they asked some talented writers to craft a story about each bowl, box, and teddy bear. When they put these “worthless” objects up for sale on eBay accompanied by their fictional stories, they were able to sell the objects for just over $3,600! That means the stories increased the perceived value of each object by nearly 30 times on average.

Let’s just stop and think about the significance of that.
The power of a good story is truly amazing.

So my last post offered tips for writing your own story of your life as an artist, but each art object you create can and should have a story, too, don’t you think? You could display each artwork’s story next to the image of the artwork on your website, and you should be ready to tell the artwork’s story whenever anyone shows interest. Stories provide yet another way for a person to establish a connection to your work and to you.

I can already hear you saying that you’re not a writer, and these guys hired professional writers, and you can’t afford that, and… Okay, okay. That’s all true, so let’s talk about what you can do to craft a story for each one of your pieces. Many of the same tips for writing your artist story apply here:

  1. Keep the stories short and powerful.In this situation, people really aren’t going to want to read a long story, so 100 to 200 words is perfect. But that means you’ve got to get right to the most interesting, attention-getting part of the story, then wrap it up quick.
  2. Make them fascinating.Now here’s the kicker: Avoid going straight to the thing that’s most interesting to you, and try to find something that will interest most of the people out there who are hearing or reading your story. The most foolproof idea is to talk about the subject—what excited or fascinated you so much that you just had to create a work of art about it? Other ideas include the circumstances under which you created the work, the message you hope to communicate with the piece, or maybe even the process or materials you used to create the piece. By the way, pick just one of those aspects—not all of them—and make sure you tell the story in simple language that everyone can understand.
  3. Make them emotional.This really goes hand-in-hand with making the story interesting because for most people a story becomes interesting when it evokes an emotional response. So if you’re talking about the subject, talk about how it made you feel when you saw it. If you’re talking about your process or materials, talk about how they make you feel when you’re creating your work.
  4. Repeat good stories.Especially if your pieces—and thus your stories—are focused on process or materials, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with an original story for each one. So don’t. Create variations of your best stories because it’s unlikely that anyone will ever sit and read every one or ask you to tell the story behind every one.

So let me give you a good example of how a story can allow an artist to connect with art lovers: Years ago, I shared an open studio space with an artist named Chris Comte, who painted this fairly large landscape of a stormy sky over the flat Kansas plains. Man, that painting got a lot of attention, and Chris had a different version of the painting’s story to tell depending on the opening comments people made. With some people, she bonded over fond memories of living in Kansas and similar places across the Great Plains. With other people, she bonded over the shared (scary!) experiences of dramatic storms. The point is that the painting’s story gave her the chance to open a dialogue and emotionally connect with people, and it wasn’t long before someone took that painting home.

So what do you think? How much do you think a good story could increase the selling price of one of your works? What other ways could you use short stories to help promote your fine art? Let’s connect!


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