Updated: Jan 31, 2020
Yesterday I had to see a dude about an accordion.
I went to a studio so I could snag it for a national tour callback (heyy, resume special skills section). When I caught the elevator down to street level, I ended up sharing it with the studio's piano tuner. We walked to the train station together, and by the time we parted ways ten minutes later, she had made me an offer to narrate and produce her audiobook, she had a friend who she would refer The Hustling Creative to as a client, and we had had a wonderful and invigorating conversation.
The serendipitous interactions that serve as rungs on a creative's career ladder are often romanticized, like that one person at that one industry party could be like a secret helper hidden in an adventure video game. Meanwhile, artists who are openly looking for a buck or a break are demonized, painted to be selfishly out for their own interests.
So where's the middle ground? How do you capitalize on a serendipitous interaction without being sleazy or needy? Here's the play-by-play of how I navigated this particular conversation.
I had already entered the conversation with a very clear idea of what it is that I do as an artist and a businessperson. While the tools in my box are varied (as they are for you, I'm sure), I know what I am, and what I have to contribute. And this only comes with consistent and mindful work.
2) Opening up (literally)
The conversation started because I didn't ask her to hold the elevator door loudly enough, and I awkwardly had to jam my arm in there and pray I wouldn't end up looking like Anakin Skywalker. We had a good laugh about something that could have been embarrassing and awkward, which in turn allowed her the freedom to be a little vulnerable and goofy with me. So we already established connection on a superficial, but still heart-opening level. Laughter about something you have in common, whether it's a story on the front page or a shared experience (like the elevator door story) is probably the best way to open someone up.
3) Let's get down to business
[to defeat the huns]
I asked her what it is she was doing at the studio, which then got us talking about our shared experience of being in a musical space ("Don't you love just opening the front door and getting slammed with a wall of sound?"). This allowed us to bond not just over shared interests, but passions.
When she told me she's the piano tuner, I asked her every question I could think of, whether it's her backstory ("Did you start out as a pianist?") or the day-to-day ("You must be crazy busy in a town like this").
Note: throughout the conversation, I probably offered up 75% questions, and 25% answers. I also paid attention to nonverbal cues-- I could tell she wasn't jazzed about pianos anymore, so I asked her what else she does to be creative, which is how she told me about her writing career.
4) Offering solutions
When I asked her why she stopped playing piano, she started talking about how tough the business is. We bonded over how hard it is to make a living making art, and that was my opening to plug The Hustling Creative into the conversation. When she was talking about her books, she mentioned how hard it is to sell hard-copy books, which is how I brought up my voiceover career.
Note: this is probably the toughest step of all, because it's incredibly easy to overstep and start word-vomiting your resume and famous people you took a masterclass with once. The best barometer I've found is that I only start talking shop if I truly believe that I'm capable of helping someone else in that moment (and if I don't believe I am, I mention someone who is).
Not only did this new colleague need to sell books and overcome the hard-copy dilemma, but she didn't know where to start when it came to actually producing an audiobook. So I could offer her not only my talent as a narrator, but my experience as a producer to walk her through the process step-by-step if she works with me. The point isn't to make a sell-- the point is to connect over a common problem and collaborate on a solution.
I also knew by that point that she's a giving person. Earlier in the conversation, as soon as I mentioned The Hustling Creative, she immediately exclaimed, "Ohhh, I have a friend who could really use that!" So not only is she someone kind who I want to keep in touch with as a human being, but I want to match her tone of collaborative problem-solving by the time she starts bringing up her work as a writer.
5) The Wrap-Up
When we parted ways, I gave her my business card and a friendly handshake (probs would have been a hug if I weren't strapped to a massive accordion). When I return to the studio today, I'll also ask the front desk for her email address.
Epilogue: So how does this make me a better artist?
In the immediate, I'm able to do my creative work at this callback even better. I spent a few hours making it uptown to this studio, and $75 on a rental-- a larger-than-average investment of time and money into a job I may not get. It's hard for me not to give in to the voice in my head that says, okay, you took out all this time from your day and you spent a week's worth of groceries and americanos on this thing, so make sure you get the job and make it worth your while. Having this interaction freed me from that pressure because while I have no control over whether I see any results in the audition room, I've already made a few thousand dollars because of that investment. Since I've already won, I have nothing to lose and I can do better and more creative work onstage.
Lastly, it's a great ego check. My new client didn't ask me, "how many books have you narrated?" or "what makes you qualified to own a business so young?" As Cameron S. Foote says in The Business Side of Creativity, "people typically don't buy creativity-- they buy solutions to problems" (217). The arts is a service industry. Therefore, talent isn't as important as what you can do to help someone else. So I'm just going to keep walking around with my head up, phone down, and ready for anything and anyone.