Communicate Your Work

16 minutes, 6 links


Updated November 3, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Creative Doing, by Herbert Lui. 75 practical techniques to unlock creative potential in your work, hobby, or next career. Purchase now for instant, lifetime access to the book.

As long as you’re comfortable walking your truth, no one will ever beat you at being you, either.Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson

When you visit a museum or gallery, you’ll notice that each piece of art is usually accompanied by an artist statement. Each art show is accompanied by ephemera like brochures, as well as an audio guide. Curators know even the most accessible artwork can’t speak for itself to everyone; they need to provide context.

You may encounter a similar experience at a restaurant: a staff member presents the food, explaining the story behind a recipe, or where a key ingredient was sourced. The restaurant might even open up the kitchen, making every operation visible.

We see more value in things that were created through some effort, evidence that the creator really cares. When we show our process to people, we give them a chance to appreciate the work more, and to establish the value of the work we’re presenting.

Here are some prompts you can accept, modify, or reject, to start to establish your work’s value.

Create Your Own Market

When Vincent van Gogh died, he was not a well-known artist. His brother, Theo van Gogh, died six months later, leaving his widow, Johanna van Gogh-Bonger, the mission of promoting her brother-in-law’s work. She inherited 200 of van Gogh’s paintings, which were worth so little at the time that she was advised to get rid of them. Perhaps Van Gogh-Bonger’s mission was as much fueled by love and duty as it was an understanding of the work’s potential. Although the general public didn’t appreciate it yet, many artists admired Van Gogh’s work but didn’t have the money to pay for it.

Van Gogh-Bonger started a boarding house in Bussum, then a small village 15 miles from Amsterdam. She would meet people and form working relationships with them. She worked tirelessly with dealers, galleries, and museums, embedding herself in the art world. The work paid off and Van Gogh-Bonger coordinated 20 exhibits of Van Gogh’s work in a decade. She also published her collection of letters between the Van Gogh brothers, which added to Vincent’s reputation and drove up the value of his work. Eventually, she successfully placed his work in museums, and the market had gained the initial momentum it needed.

Some markets seem to emerge naturally, but others are made. In this case, Van Gogh-Bonger dedicated a significant part of her life to making a market for Vincent van Gogh’s work. Even though Van Gogh’s work was already complete, the reputation, awareness, and value of it weren’t set in stone yet. Vincent van Gogh wasn’t recognized as an artist until after he died, when his sister-in-law Johanna van Gogh-Bonger did the hard work of communicating and promoting Van Gogh’s genius.

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In an interview with the writer and designer Debbie Millman, artist Shantell Martin says, “Create your own opportunities and do that by using what you have access to.” She recalls her journey, moving away from a fanbase, contacts, and early success in Japan to continue her art career in New York City. She practically started from scratch, sleeping on friends’ couches and meeting new people, in a city abundant with competition. It seemed like everyone else was also an artist.

Without anyone offering her an opportunity, Martin would grow stagnant; so she decided to create her own. Borrowing her friend’s space, she returned to an art form she used in Japan, but wasn’t in demand in New York—projection and VJing. She invited her friends, who invited their friends, and so on. She recalls, “Eventually, someone sees it and says, ‘Hey. I work for MoMA. Would love to do that at our friends and family event. And we’re going to pay you to do that.’”

Martin elaborated in an interview with me for this book: “Now more than ever, I like to tell younger artists that it’s really important to turn your weaknesses into your strengths. If you’re not comfortable hosting shows or parties, find a collaborator to help you in that area but force yourself to do it little by little until it’s [something that you’re comfortable with].

“It’s not really about being a promoter, but doing what you can to put yourself and your work out into the world in a way that is also still authentic to who you are and the work you want to make.”

You can share your work in all sorts of ways. You can share it on social media, you can send out monthly email updates to friends, you can host a listening party for your new song collection.

Value is a very amorphous concept, and yet we all know a form of value when we experience it. Service is a form of value. Usefulness. Education. Experience. Excitement. Entertainment. Symbolism.

Your work is already valuable in its own way. These series of prompts are designed to support you to get other people to see what you see. You don’t need to want to be the next Vincent van Gogh to communicate the value of your work. You might find them useful to simply start conversations with your audience, customers, collectors, and handlers. If you’re interested in becoming a working creator or artist, these prompts will get you started, and I suggest checking out Michael Ardelean’s Art for Money, another Holloway book, which is totally dedicated to getting paid what you deserve for what you create.

There might not even be a commercial motive. Maybe you simply want friends and family to understand you and your work better. Or maybe you’re interested in working together with another creator and want to start the collaboration well. In both of these cases, communicating the value and intention of the work is crucial to getting the creative process started.

Set up Surfaces

It’s tempting to see your work as either complete or incomplete. Perfect or crap. But there are many different stages of your work and, accordingly, many virtual and physical places you can store your work. This is essential to taking action and releasing work regularly. You’ll need to prepare spaces to incubate the work you don’t feel so good about, the work that hasn’t reached a stage that you can call acceptable.

A surface can be any place you’re performing or storing your work. One surface could be private, like a folder or a box that no one else will see. Another surface could be semi-public, one that you show to people you trust. Still, another surface could be entirely public, ready to show the world.

Set up at least three different surfaces—one for storing your works in progress, one for sending to other people for feedback, and one for displaying your finished work. You can choose how visible each surface is. You can set up more, if you like. Vin Verma started his own surface, which he calls Futureland, to track his daily routines and creative activities. He has grown it into a network of digital journals, where people can either publicly or privately track their own progress on their projects.

Take Someone Behind the Scenes

One of the simplest ways of communicating value is showing the effort that actually went into the work. That might involve literally showing the process of making it, though it might also be more biographical. You may ask yourself, and answer, questions like:

  • When did you first get the idea for this piece of work?

  • How did the idea start?

  • What did you see throughout this process?

  • Who influenced the work?

  • What parts of the work might have emerged from stories in your life?

  • What skills did creating this work require? If you had these skills already, how did you hone them? If you didn’t, how did you learn them or who did you work with?

  • How many times did you try making this work?

This process involves metacognition—thinking about how you think. If you find it too heavy a lift on your own, you can act as if you’re talking to your best friend about it. You could also enlist the help of a friend who might be available.

When you start to answer these questions, you’re taking someone behind the scenes of your work. You’re also learning to articulate the value of the work, based on what went into it. (To borrow an industrial analogy, this would be describing the raw material and the processing.) You could write it all up, or record a video, or prepare this communication in whichever media you feel most comfortable with.

When Michael Saviello talks about his work, he also offers to show it to the person he’s talking to. He allows them enough space and time to take it in, and he can see how they’re processing it. He doesn’t just plunk them down; he learns about the person. Sometimes, he even lets them sit in, watch him paint, and ask questions along the way.

Make Them Curious

If people had the attention span to sit for a few hours with your work, then certainly it would speak for itself. But, they don’t. Still, if they were curious to learn more, or knew how to help you, they would. If you experience a reluctance, hesitation, or fear of telling people about your work, it’s even a greater reason to try. The more reluctant you are to talk about your work, the more potential you’re blocking up.

Derek Sivers writes in Your Music, Your People, that when people ask you about your work, giving a boring answer is rude. I wouldn’t go that far, though I would agree that even just a minute of preparation could help. Sivers writes, “Before the conference, come up with one interesting sentence that says what you do—including a curious bit that will make them ask a follow-up question.” He gives the example of, instead of saying “I’m a bassist,” introducing yourself as “Bassist of the Crunchy Frogs—the worst punk bluegrass band ever. We’re headlining the showcase tonight. Our singer is a pirate.”

If I were talking about my book, for example, I wouldn’t say, “I’m an author,” I’d say something like, “I’m the author of Creative Doing, a book that debunks the biggest lie in creative thinking. It has 75 prompts to make the reader more creative. It’s the only book with a shape as a mascot.”

Or flip this prompt: Lose Yourself

Sell Out

Some people are like, ‘Oh, yeah, just sell out and do pop music.’ So you !@#$ing do it, then! It’s not easy.Abel Tesfaye, The Weeknd*

When Will Smith decided he wanted to become the biggest movie star in the world, he worked with his business partner James Lassiter to examine a list of the ten top-grossing movies of all time. In his memoir Will, he writes, “It was crystal clear: Ten out of the top ten films of all time had special effects. Nine out of ten had special effects and creatures. Eight out of ten had special effects, creatures, and a romantic storyline. (We would ultimately discover that all of the top ten movies were about love, but we didn’t notice that back then.)”

When Smith was approached with a $10 million offer to star in 8 Heads in a Duffel Bag, the analysis made it clearer that Lassiter and Smith should say no. And when Smith was approached to appear in Six Degrees of Separation, he and Lassiter said yes to a much smaller offer of $300,000—and set the foundation for Smith’s career as a movie star.

In this prompt, take something popular, identify elements and patterns, and infuse them into your own work.

I’ve found the process of trying to make a hit—not always the end result—to be useful. If you’re making music, you can immerse yourself in the top charts. If you’re making visual art, you can see what work is going viral or is popular with collectors. If you’re making digital products, check out what’s resonating with charts like Product Hunt or the Apple App Store.

If you’re a writer like me you might immerse yourself in the news cycle, or go look into the Popular or Trending feed, and just look at the things people are engaging with. I’ll come up with 10 ideas myself, based on those ideas. Or, I’ll just look into my own data and analytics, and find an idea that a lot of people are reading. Most of the time, I don’t pick the ideas back up. But sometimes, I pick an idea and actually double down on it. I test it to see if a lot of people might actually like it.

If you experience a strong aversion to this prompt, know that it might involve the crummiest, hackiest, of all verbs: Pander. Copy. Steal. Make something kitschy. Make your worst piece of work—the one that the popular creatives, whom you don’t necessarily admire, do.

It’s not “selling out” unless you make money from it—you can go through this process and not release anything, especially if you feel it compromises your standard of quality. But the goal here is to meet people where they are, and to develop the makings of an understanding of what works.

At the end of it, once you’re done with your idea, if you feel like it’s a commodity or repetitive, that’s the way it should be. But if you’re happy with your idea, then you could consider finding a surface to display it on, or a person to show it to. After all, you may have met the world halfway and just come up with a breakthrough idea.

Or flip this prompt: Set a Mission

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While our earliest steps might involve making things for ourselves, we also must eventually show someone else our work. The goal isn’t validation, recognition, or business. Rather, the fact that we know someone else will experience it will enable us to figure out and further refine what we’re trying to say.

It’s almost as if there’s a compulsion inside us—perhaps personified by the judge—that really wakes up when we know that somebody else is watching. This compulsion will enable us to take our work to the next level.

Experiment Your Way to Something Big

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