The pitch as storytelling and the storyteller’s shifting position

keith-johnston-221964Recently, I’ve had the pleasure of running a two-day clinic for artists seeking to improve their skills in attracting financial support from donors and sponsors. It’s the second time I’ve done this and both times it has been an engaging and rewarding experience.

Much time is spent at the clinic talking about the “ask” – how challenging and daunting it is for artists, and how asking positions the artist and their work. Each time I’ve run this event, discussing the ask has morphed into discussing the value of art, as perceived by consumers, donors, the general public and so on. In general terms, there’s uncertainty about what price to put on a piece of art but despite that uncertainty, there’s indignation when someone wants to access that art for a low or non-existent price.

So, the value placed on a piece of creative work is an ill-defined and touchy subject. It’s also one which is brought into sharp focus by the “ask”, which is ultimately about why anyone should hand over money for an artist’s work and if so, how much. These can be confronting questions for artists and I’ve seen firsthand the distress answering them can cause. Having to put a price on something you created, that has profound personal meaning for you and then justifying that price to a wary buyer? That’s tough.

The ask is part of a wider exercise we train these artists to undertake: the pitch. Pitching feels like something we’ve borrowed from the world of entrepreneurs, and specifically baseball loving American ones (pitch an idea to me, see if I take a swing at it or not). Pitching, which I think of as the act of presenting a potential supporter with an idea, challenges artists greatly and fundamentally. There are language barriers to break down (mainly, the tendency to hide behind incomprehensible jargon) and the need to build up the personal confidence to speak in front of people. The most crucial part though is simmering the artists’ projects down to its simplest and most compelling elements, that can make a potential supporter comfortable enough to say, “I get this and I want to help.”

The experience of talking these artists through this process got me thinking about the pitch as a form of story told by entrepreneurs. That story told well unlocks support, money, experience and advice. Told poorly it elicits indifference and/or distrust. It is in the storytelling nature of the pitch that artists have a natural advantage; they are all inherent storytellers, be they painters, filmmakers, dancers etc. If the pitch has been foisted upon artists by advocates of business practice, it is at least something which they can adapt and excel at.

*****

In 2001, researcher Ellen O’Connor spent months trailing the founder of a technology start-up and observed when and how he engaged in narrative practice. She used this experience to develop a typology of entrepreneurs’ narratives: personal, generic and situational. She observed that the founder in question moved between the types of story he was telling frequently, depending on his needs at the time and his audience.

She also noticed that depending on the type of story being told, the founder re-positioned himself in the narrative. Personal and generic stories had him positioned as the hero: a visionary, a creator, a person who made things happen. But situational stories, about the environment surrounding the founder and his nascent company, positioned him as a supporting character; only one of many players impacted by forces outside his control.

O’Connor’s Typology of Entrepreneurs’ Narratives

Type Type Description Subtype Subtype description Storyteller as character
Personal stories Authored by the company’s founder Founding stories Autobiographical in nature (“why I founded…”) May refer to a specific incident in founder’s life. Entrepreneur as the stories’ hero
Vision stories Focus on technological innovation and breakthrough as envisioned by the founder.
Generic stories Templates, required by conventional documents, such as a business plan. Marketing stories Plots the company against its competition and shows its superiority. Entrepreneur as the stories’ hero
Strategy stories Concretely plots the trajectory of the company from launch to success.
Situational stories Contextual storylines that the founder can do nothing about. Historical stories The longer and recent historical events of the industry in which the company is just one of many players. Entrepreneur as a minor player with little or no control
Conventional stories The “common sense” or widely held beliefs by industry insiders as well as the general public as to what companies in that industry and their founders do, should do and what they are like.

 

O’Connor’s story types correlate to the experience of creative industries practitioners in interesting and problematic ways. For creatives, telling personal stories is challenging; positioning themselves as the hero does not come naturally. It’s clear in how difficult they find the pitching process; generally, they have a natural tendency to deflect, to defer to a team’s contribution rather than their own and to downplay their achievements.

This is not just because of the stereotype of the introverted artist, but because it can be difficult to accept the credit for creative work, even if it’s entirely yours. Often acclaimed creative work depends on inspiration, luck, collaboration and strokes of genius that somehow just happen. It can be hard to take credit for this, because often an artist simply can’t explain how they made something great. Thus, a disconnection between the self and the work is always present which makes it difficult to replicate an entrepreneurs’ story of “this is how I made this.”

Generic stories are also challenging because often creatives aren’t trained to think about strategy or competition. There can be very little strategy employed in making a new creative work; there’s always a process but it doesn’t always have the clear objective which necessitates a strategy. If each piece is unique and a really good piece has an indefinable element to that uniqueness, then how could strategy to create it be devised? In this sense, artistic creation is almost antithetical to strategic thinking.

Competition (and in O’Connor’s sense, the ability to market your product’s advantages compared to that of your competitors) is equally challenging. Some of the more profit focused sectors in the creative industries (architecture, marketing and comms, etc) would be acutely aware of their competition. But artists tend to work in collaboration and to share information with their competitors in a way which other industries wouldn’t sanction. Artists in my clinics bristled at the thought of their peers as competitors, even though they often do compete for funding, opportunities etc.

It’s in the situational stories where creatives can flourish. My experience is that they are generally unworried by repositioning themselves as powerless sub characters within a narrative because the world around them is the inspiration for their work. They are more comfortable talking about the forces around them that shape their work, than how they created it. Perhaps it’s because the spotlight’s glare isn’t as bright, but I think it’s also a space they inhabit all the time. Entrepreneurs can use these situation stories to demonstrate a market opportunity; to show how the times we live in have created a chance to make some money. Artists use them to describe their muse.

*****

I hesitate now, because I seem to have fallen into a false binary: that artists and entrepreneurs are mutually exclusive. Of course, they are not. The cohort of artists I met in 2017 have proven that by harnessing the financial support they needed to create their work.

As I surveyed the 2017 group in preparation for meeting our 2018 clinic attendees, time and again they reported an increased confidence in making the ask. This confidence came from the responses they garnered from the donors and sponsors they approached. The consistent message was that they found people who wanted to feel involved with the work and wanted to help financially. They didn’t mind being asked and, in some cases, encouraged it. This, in turn, created a renewed confidence in the artists about the value of their art, because they found people who valued it as much or more than they did.

One of the 2017 mob said this: “I stopped thinking of it as an ask and started to think of it as an invitation. Because who doesn’t like to be invited to stuff?” In that remark, there is a repositioning, or a narrative sensemaking, as O’Connor would say. That artist repositioned himself from a beggar to the host of a fabulous party; from someone at the mercy of their situation to a hero, controlling the narrative. That’s the narrative transition that O’Connor spoke of entrepreneurs making, articulated proudly.

Storied Business: Typology, Intertextuality, and Traffic in Entrepreneurial Narrative” The Journal of Business Communication (1973), vol. 39, 1: pp. 36-54. First Published Jan 1, 2002
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