Show, Don’t Tell

We’re always encouraged to seek feedback and to tailor what we make, in our art, to what the people want.  It’s tempting to think that you can just go and ask them, take note of their answers and simply provide what was asked for.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t work that way.

Yes, it’s true that the story you tell is more important than it ever used to be.  Your ability to tell the story of your work and about yourself is crucially important.  However, when it comes to getting somebody to buy into your art, your product, your service, your philosophy, it’s a mistake to press too hard on your potential sponsor/patron/investor/customers’ imagination.

Asking somebody to envisage what you might produce and how that might suit them is a very big demand to place on their imaginative capacities.  Most people cannot imagine what you might produce for them.  Even if they can attempt the task, they’re not going to imagine the art you’re going to create in anything like high fidelity.

It turns out that people are good at justifying why they like something that exists (or why they don’t), but quite poor at exploring what they might like, if you made it for them.  This is why intellectual property, in the form of ideas and proposals, is so difficult to fund.  It’s the reason why, without a body of work to show and exhibit, it’s so hard to establish yourself as an artist, irrespective of your technical talent and training.  It’s putting the tangible in front of people that counts.

You might have imagined what your play will be about and how it will unfold, how your book will be written, the way your next album will sound and how your painting is going to look, but if you ask somebody if they would like it, based only on the story you tell about it, most people are going to back away with a laundry list of reasons they made up that probably have nothing to do with how they would really react, if they actually saw what you were talking about.  Alternatively, they’ll exclaim, “Sure, why not?  I love it!” when they have no idea whether they would love it or not.  They’re just being kind, supportive and encouraging.  Neither response helps you.

If you believe the made up reasons for rejection, you’re going to compromise your art and not necessarily in ways that will make it any more acceptable.  If, on the other hand, you place your faith in the person that buys into everything you do, you’ll release unfinished, sub-standard, not fit for prime time work.

Beyond telling the story of what you make and what you’re about, being able to show what you do, place it in front of people and have them react to something of substance is still decisive.  Their reaction is a more honest piece of feedback and more helpful to you, as an artist, to guide your decisions, if that’s what you’re looking for.

In truth, the essence of your first work is that you have to trust your own reactions and taste.  Until your stuff exists, as a body of work, all other focus groups, surveys and anecdotal feedback is going to be distorted.  People can’t imagine what you’re going to produce.  I bet most artists can’t imagine what they’re going to produce in minute detail, or they would never report the experience of surprising themselves.  Sometimes the work takes us in unexpected directions and we follow those, out of curiosity, because we know that’s a good thing to do.  How on earth would a potential consumer of our work have been told the story of that surprising change of direction, or been able to imagine where it leads?  Of course, they couldn’t.

In the end, telling the world about your work and about your identity as an artist is important, but only when you have your body of work to show.  Then, if the two are in consonance and resonance, you’ll have something.  Show without tell is useless.  Tell without show is equally so.  First you must show, however.

Mock ups, models, conceptual drawings, storyboards, scripts, wireframes, outlines, lead sheets,  demos, guide vocals, prototypes, proofs of concept, sketches, studies and swatches are all an important part of the process.  Even still, take any feedback based on these surrogates for the finished article with very large grains of salt.  People still can’t truly envisage the finished thing, even given these aids to their imagination.  How many times has the colour you chose from the colour chart looked completely different when applied to a whole wall, in your room, with your lighting conditions and furniture?  Even the tester pot, which covered a square foot of wall, didn’t give the full impression.  Conceptual aids help your customer or appreciator envisage what you are about to bring into the world, but nothing shows what you meant as much as a finished piece of work.

To get to the point of a finished piece of work, as an artist, you are essentially on your own.

Show what you do.  It’s important.  Then tell the story about it.  Don’t try to do it the other way around, unless you are prepared to support the story with a lot of material that fleshes out and manifests your intentions.  A story, told with conceptual aids to the imagination, which demonstrate what the thing is going to be like, can be quite powerful.  Nothing, however, is as powerful as presenting the thing itself.

If you can’t afford to create the finished thing, because of its scale, grandeur, complexity, the effort required or sheer size and cost, then at least make a small one that helps potential supporters understand what you are trying to do.  Otherwise, you’re going to get feedback that doesn’t help and no commitment to actually assist you in reaching your goal and realising your grand design.  What’s in your imagination is exceedingly hard to share vividly.  Asking people to make a decision, which might involve a lot of money, based on something they can’t understand or imagine clearly, is a complete impossibility, given that most people you ask are not terminally foolhardy.

The sooner you can bring what you imagine to life, in tangible reality, the better it is for everybody.  If you can’t, your brilliant, innovative, imaginative, fresh, magical, wondrous idea might never exist.  In fact, the odds are that it won’t.

About tropicaltheartist

You can find out more about me here: There aren’t many people that exist in that conjunction of art, design, science and engineering, but this is where I live. I am an artist, a musician, a designer, a creator, a scientist, a technologist, an innovator and an engineer and I have a genuine, deep passion for each field. Most importantly, I am able to see the connections and similarities between each field of intellectual endeavour and apply the lessons I learn in one discipline to my other disciplines. To me, they are all part of the same continuum of creativity. I write about what I know, through my blogs, in the hope that something I write will resonate with a reader and help them enjoy their own creative life more fully. I am, in summary, a highly creative individual, but with the ability to get things done efficiently. Not all of these skills are valued by the world at large, but I am who I am and this is me. The opinions stated here are my own and not necessarily the opinion or position of my employer.
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7 Responses to Show, Don’t Tell

  1. ksfinblog says:

    it is never that simple, I guess.

  2. I’m so glad someone has pointed out that you do need both show AND tell!

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