Articulate: Write and Speak Your Way to Confidence

This is a complimentary copy of an article in the April/May 2016 issue. Click here to get the whole issue. Click here to subscribe to Professional Artist, the foremost business magazine for visual artists, for as low as $32 a year.

Confidence is your most essential tool for self-promotion, but where does it come from? Confidence comes from practice — it’s built on what you know. Every successful experience gives you more self-confidence to take the next step. Less successful experiences are also extremely valuable because they arm you with self-knowledge: We learn what not to do next time, and those lessons build more confidence to move forward again.

Courage, on the other hand, is built on what we don’t know — it takes over when we face the uncertain, the variable or the fearsome.

Courage improvises. Confidence rehearses.

You’ll need both courage and confidence in your career, especially when you transition from times of quiet creating to times of the “artist on display” when you’re writing and speaking to promote your work.

Speaking and Writing Advance Together

Verbal and written language are entwined so that improvement in one area leads to improvement in the other. Most people speak more fluidly than they write. So, for example, when you’re asked to write your artist statement, you might sound stiff or stylistic on paper. But if you’re relaxed and talking to a friend about a piece of art, the words may flow. The phrases you speak can be useful in your writing, because they often reveal direct, unfiltered truths. The simple act of speaking to someone sets you on the right path — the path to connecting with your audience.

The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be. ~Socrates

This is why it’s good to make notes when you say something that sounds true and right about your work. These can help you when you sit down to write.

Writing about your work is vital to reaching outward and making connections, but it’s also valuable for reaching inward and getting in touch with your personal truths. Arriving at these truths takes dedication and it’s often painstaking. Writing can be a tool that helps you shape a generalized concept, carving down to what is specific and essential about your work. Any writing you accomplish will give you a reassuring foundation upon which to add more words and more ideas, building confidence as you go. Once you’ve written a few sentences that feel true, use them as talking points.

Shifting Migrations II, 2015, by Tallmadge Doyle. Woodcut etching with aquatint, 18” x 24”. Copyright © Tallmadge Doyle. Used by permission of the artist.

Shifting Migrations II, 2015, by Tallmadge Doyle. Woodcut etching with aquatint, 18” x 24”. Copyright © Tallmadge Doyle. Used by permission of the artist.

The editing phase of writing teaches you how to be clear, concise and complete. You might get away with an incomplete thought while speaking, but not so easily in writing. Writing demands logic, with one thought following the next. The act of writing helps you to compose your thoughts and organize disjointed ideas. Finding just the right phrase feels a lot like making art.

Use writing to improve your speaking and speaking to improve your writing. 

Headline Yourself

Headlines have power. As we scan the Internet and media for information, a multitude of Facebook posts, tweets and articles call for our attention. We make very quick selections about what we’ll read often based on the headline alone.

Here’s a fun exercise to challenge your perspective and loosen up: Create a headline about yourself describing your state of mind or the state of your work in the present moment. Refer to yourself as “Artist.” There’s no need to be completely serious — just be truthful.

I asked the three artists interviewed for this article to complete the “headlining” exercise. As you read more about these individuals, I’m sure you’ll recognize who wrote which headline. Here are their responses:

 Artist Just Gets to the Point

Artist Gets Over Herself

Artist Realizes: Without Causes, Art is Meaningless

Now, imagine coming across any of these headlines on a press release, show announcement or social media post. Wouldn’t you be curious to read more? That’s the whole point of a headline, to capture attention with a few well-chosen words. Experiment with headlining yourself. You can put the results to work right away on your online posts. Even if you choose not to make your headlines public, try the exercise to free up your choice of words and phrasing. Your headlines have the potential to capture your moods and experience, the phases of your work and most remarkably — the simple truth.

Courage improvises. Confidence rehearses. ~Vicki Krohn Amorose

 Land Your Intention

Landing your intention (like landing after a leap) means you aim to share an idea. You watch to see that the listener received it as best they can. You are not speaking at someone — you are striving to connect and be understood. This is communication at its best.

“I gained confidence to speak about my work after I realized that I cannot let other people dictate what my art means,” said artist Jabu Mzilikazi (artistjabu.com). “I feel it is my job to give meaning to my own work. My audience can walk away with their own meaning after they have seen my work but they also get to hear what it means to me personally, and that makes a difference.” Mzilikazi makes an effort to connect with his audience, to land his intention.

Save The Wildlife Series - Elephant 1, 2015, by Jabu Mzilikazi. Mixed media on fabric, 90” x 60”. Copyright © Jabu Mzilikazi. Used by permission of the artist.

Save The Wildlife Series – Elephant 1, 2015, by Jabu Mzilikazi. Mixed media on fabric, 90” x 60”. Copyright © Jabu Mzilikazi. Used by permission of the artist.

Most of your viewers approach your work with curiosity — they are receptive to learning more. Your shyness might be interpreted as coldness or disinterest. Your conversation doesn’t need to be perfectly seamless. It’s all about intention. Your understanding of what you do helps the audience’s understanding, just as your confusion leads to their confusion. You are the leading expert in the art you create. Start sounding like it.

Find Your ‘Doors’

What aspects of your work are the easiest to talk about or most likely to invite conversation? These are the doors, or entrance points, that swing open to allow you to speak authentically. When you get stuck in speaking or writing, think about what aspects are easy for you to talk about and start there. If a question or comment sidetracks you, return to your entrance points.

Mzilikazi recognizes that his primary entrance point is content: the concerns and causes that fuel his creative process. “My work is cause-driven,” he explains. A Los Angeles-based painter originally from South Africa, his work focuses on social causes such as wildlife conservation and the legacy of Nelson Mandela. “The cause is the key element. Talking about my work from that viewpoint creates a sense of relevance for my audience.” Expressing passion for his cause comes first, and that subject easily leads to expressing passion for his painting.

Realist oil painter Gabe Fernandez (gabrielfernandez.org) found his door when he told a biographical story that resonated with an audience. Fernandez recalled the day he discovered his entrance point: “I’m part of an artists’ group where we advise each other on how to better present ourselves. My written artist statement was not translating well. Someone asked why I paint chairs and I very casually told my story about how that happened.”

The story became part of his artist statement. It was a doorway for him to explain the work and then a doorway for his viewer to get inside and understand the work. Here’s the story from his current statement:

“My focus on chairs began in 1999 when I was working as a counselor at a homeless youth shelter in Portland. One evening, the energy was particularly extreme, and at 10 p.m., everyone went to bed and the energy shut off like a light. I was overwhelmed by the sudden quiet stillness of the environment. I was sketching and I noticed this green chair in the corner,” Fernandez writes. “It was sitting quietly under a spotlight, the shadows casting on the floor — the ripped vinyl was speaking to me visually. A story began to form in my mind of the life of this chair. I began to relate to this object through its design, history, juxtaposition, location. I began to almost empathize with this chair. I started becoming very interested in our sense of place and what it means to us. It was then, I realized, I could very easily focus on this subject the rest of my life.”

Fernandez’s ‘aha!’ moment arrived when a member of his artist group told him, ‘That story explains your work and now I’m much more intrigued. Why don’t you just tell that story?’ Fernandez laughed. “Duh! Seems too easy, but they were right. Ever since then, speaking about my work has been much more natural and powerful.”

I gained confidence to speak about my work after I realized that I cannot let other people dictate what my art means … I feel it is my job to give meaning to my own work. ~ Jabu Mzilikazi

Mzilikazi and Fernandez both found an entrance point to explain their work, a door they feel confident to open and welcome their audience.

Audience First

When you write or speak with your audience in mind, you’ll become better at both forms of communication. In most circumstances, focusing on your audience takes precedence over focusing on your work. Why? Because you are trying to connect.

For example, the best way to write an email is to get to the point right at the start, in the first sentence or two. Begin the email by stating what you want, or the reason you’re contacting this person. In the case of contacting an arts professional, your “audience” is typically a person who receives hundreds of emails a day. Consider their circumstances. When you write with the other person in mind, you won’t make them read through long paragraphs about you, your life and your process before making a request. State your business right away — it lets recipients know you value their time. You’re demonstrating your ability to be respectful and concise. In addition, when you make your point clearly and succinctly, your communication rings with self-confidence.

The idea of an audience, for some artists, began with the art school model of defending your work. This may have left a sense of dread, as if today’s visitors to your show or artist talk are just waiting to attack you at a weak moment.

“It took me a long time to get out of my own way — in other words, to stop second guessing myself when writing and speaking about the work,” said artist and printmaker Tallmadge Doyle (tallmadgedoyle.com). “In my undergraduate art education, critiques were frequent and could be brutal. In graduate school, the level of expected art speak was even higher. I was intimidated and often felt inadequate when expressing my artistic process with language.”

Uncomfortable critique interactions can lodge themselves in our memory. Often, traumatic events are recalled more vividly than others. We have to make a conscious decision to take what we need from harsh experiences — helpful lessons like resilience and determination — and leave the spent emotion in the past. Stay in the present moment and interact with the audience at hand.

“Looking back on these experiences of critiques and MFA committee meetings,” Doyle said, “I can now see the benefits of criticism even at its harshest. It taught me to develop a thicker skin and to become more determined to succeed.”

Self-confidence essentially means to trust and have faith in oneself. “Confidence” comes from the Latin word fidere, meaning “to trust.” Trust of any kind develops over time. Fernandez regards this as his life’s work. He says, “I believe that an artist must genuinely feel a lifelong conviction to their work and ideas. Essentially, it’s a faith in something that is unseen.”

It’s OK to Pretend

Socrates once said, “The greatest way to live with honor in this world is to be what we pretend to be.”

Selling and self-promotion can feel like a bluff, like we’re not being real. As artists, we strive to be authentic and tell our truth, so how does that align with the idea of performing or pretending?

We influence each other’s moods and behavior. Think of a time you may have entered a party feeling down or unsure of yourself, but then the crowd’s happiness and energy completely lifted your mood. The value of pretending to be confident lies in the way you affect the people around you. Consider the ways your words, body language, facial expressions and energy level have impact, especially when you’re representing your work to the public. Getting in touch with this feedback loop of influence, and your part in it, is a game changer.

Mustard/Ketchup, 2015, by Gabe Fernandez. Oil on canvas, 16” x 20”. Copyright © Gabe Fernandez. Used by permission of the artist.

Mustard/Ketchup, 2015, by Gabe Fernandez. Oil on canvas, 16” x 20”. Copyright © Gabe Fernandez. Used by permission of the artist.

If you seem ill at ease, that feeling is transferred to others around you. If you’re giving your artist talk and you appear nervous, you make your audience nervous. That’s why so many public speakers begin their talk with a joke or a big smile — it sends a clear signal to the audience that we can all enjoy this moment. When the audience relaxes, the speaker can relax and the feedback loop becomes positive. Is the speaker faking that opening smile? Probably. But for good reason: to start the positive feedback loop.

Don’t confuse being confident with being arrogant. No one likes a braggart. Overconfidence is a coping mechanism, and often it’s used to cover up feelings of inadequacy. It’s a bluff that most people find off-putting because the braggart speaks at us rather than to us. Over-confident people are not seeking engagement or exchange. Concerned only with themselves, they’re not receptive to others, which is ironically the same thing as being isolated.

Your articulate self needn’t feel inauthentic — perhaps nervous and out of your comfort zone, but not inauthentic.

Did you know that appearing to be confident could actually help you become more confident? Pretending is a way to cultivate a way of being. In his book, Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work, author and creativity expert Michael Michalko said, “Every time we pretend to have an attitude and go through the motions, we trigger the emotions and strengthen the attitude we wish to cultivate.”

Practice is Key

Nothing moves you forward toward your goals like focused and deliberate practice. “For me, the only way to gain confidence when speaking and writing about the work is to practice. I have never turned down an opportunity to speak about my work,” Doyle said.

Fernandez also emphasized the value of practice. “In a way, it seems like one speaking engagement leads to another as you get into a rhythm. It’s much like my teenage beginning students who approach me and ask how they can draw eyes that look real,” he said. “My advice is always the same: Get yourself a piece a paper and draw a hundred eyes.”

The more you practice, the more your passion will shine through your words. Mzilikazi put it like this: “When you are passionate about your work and speak from the heart, you will develop a vocabulary to describe your work the way you want it to be described. Your message becomes clear.”

 

Vicki Krohn Amorose is a writer, artist and arts advocate. Her book, Art-Write: The Writing Guide for Visual Artists, is used by artists and art schools. She lectures on topics in contemporary art. Vicki teaches a workshop called ARTiculate! Visit artwritebook.com.