More than anything, getting results at trade shows requires a clear concept of what you want to accomplish – and when in doubt, go with my mantra: Be good and be nice.
The friendships you make at trade shows can make your career. Genuine friendships almost always result in commissions.
The key here is they have to be real, and you can’t fake that. There are some basic rules and guidelines to making this happen: ways to approach, ways to request a review or follow-up call. However, the best results come from not looking for results. It is a meditative practice of nonattachment. Being your true self – without reservation – will draw people to you and your work.
To create the mental space to “just be yourself,” you need to:
This is as much an art as your work, and if you are going to make friends, it’s No. 1. Ask friends for honest critiques of how you present yourself and hone in on areas where you need work. Don’t be afraid to actually practice this, like any other skill.
Tim Ferris, author of The Four Hour Workweek, famously promoted his book by not promoting it at the bars outside of the SXSW Conference. He went to the bars where people gathered and instead of talking about his projects, he asked about theirs. In addition to gaining valuable knowledge about what people do, he just made them feel good by being interested! After a while people got curious, and he was such a pleasure to talk to that they offered to promote his book.
If you have an answer for any situation, you worry less and appear more confident. You might meet someone at your booth, their booth or the hotel bar, and if you have materials to show in a rock-solid presentation, you will exude that confidence and have space to talk about other things.
I asked a small group of art directors if they like the iPad for reviewing work. This group said yes, and they all warned that their preferences were not universal truths. The safest bet, all agreed, was to have a physical portfolio as backup. That shows them not only that you are prepared, but if the client works in print they will have no questions about how your images translate.
This is the meditation part. If your work speaks for itself, you need to say little. If you say little, people assume your work speaks for itself and are reassured that you aren’t going to spend your time selling. This, again, frees you up to connect with people on other levels, and this is where you can use those social skills to form those real friendships.
The portfolio reviews that go the best are the ones where the artist hands over his/her work and waits for the art director or client or even just the person at the bar to take their time and peruse before saying ANYTHING. Don’t narrate (“This one was for…”) and don’t critique your own work (“That hand looks funny because…”), and for the love of Mike don’t critique your presentation (“Sorry the print is too dark, it looks better on the screen…”). Just introduce yourself, say how nice it is to meet them and hand them the work. They will have something to say, and if they don’t just say “thank you for taking a look.”
Social skills are the way in, and great work backs them up. I presented this question to David Palumbo, a multiple-award-winning illustrator and art director at Night Shade Books. Dave has a unique and enviable perspective, from sitting on both sides of the hiring desk:
“Speaking as an artist, my advice for networking at trade shows and conventions is to be prepared, be confident, but never be pushy. Being prepared means having high-quality samples of your work (iPhone images do not count) and business cards or leave-behinds on your person at all times. Never be without them. Talking to somebody about your artwork is mostly useless and they will always assume it’s bad until you prove otherwise, so you need a proper portfolio always at the ready.
“When a person does ask or agree to view your portfolio, it’s best to keep quiet and let the work speak for you. You can’t hard-sell a person into liking your work. You can only make them uncomfortable. So conduct yourself with confidence and not like a salesman.
“It’s far better to be genuine and relate through common interests. More than once, I’ve ended up working with a client who I met accidentally at a show discussing things unrelated to work or art. I was ready with samples, but it was conversational and casual.
“In cases where I have approached people directly to look at my work, I maintain the same attitude and let the work speak for itself. Of course, you want to be well-groomed and present your best self and all that, but in the end it’s the work which you’ve spent months or years creating that will get you hired – so allow that work to take the lead.”
So, expand the mantra: Be good and nice, and be confident, prepared and genuine, too. If you do all this, when you do make “the sell,” it will be natural, not forced. Now, go be awesome!
Marc Scheff is an illustrator whose work has appeared in publications including Spectrum, ImagineFX, and more. Marc has taught illustration at the Academy of Art University, podcasts with the good people at Drawn Today, and recently co-founded Awesome Horse Studios, the free livestream demo/crit channel.
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