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What marketers can learn from artists

Even the sharpest business brain could use some arts classes

Even the sharpest business brain could use some arts classes

Daniel Batten

[Startups]

Incubators do a great job of fostering entrepreneurship in New Zealand. There’s a certain blueprint to starting a business that the starry-eyed entrepreneur can learn so you don’t try to reinvent the human genome of business. We’re good at emphasising the science of startup, but not much about the art of startup, which can be taught too. This art cares about three ‘how-tos’:

  1. How to sell stuff
  2. How to stay together (your team)
  3. How to stay together (yourself!)

I took a great course on ‘customer-centric selling’ that was subsidised while at the Icehouse because a visiting American was in town. But these skills aren’t taught so much by locals. To flesh out the first how-to, let’s ask: how do you sell your vision, write and talk in a compelling way that draws people in?

My advice: do a literature appreciation course, and take a term of acting classes.

Madness? Maybe, but to start a company, madness is one of three essential ingredients—the others being pigheadedness and naivety—without which you’ll never set sail.

Let me explain: the closest I got to doing an MBA was a BA plus an MA: yet an unlikely degree in English literature taught me that five people will interpret the same book five different ways, as though theirs is the only possible correct view. By extension, five people will interpret anything five ways, including software. Yet many technically-minded entrepreneurs never understand that.

An arts degree teaches how to interpret, find angles, analyse the best ones and argue them convincingly. Whether it’s literature, a painting or a piece of software, an engineering grad will look at a thing and describe its functionality; an arts grad will tell you a story about how to use it.

An arts degree teaches how to interpret, find angles, analyse and argue convincingly. An engineering grad will look at a thing and describe its functionality; an arts grad will tell you a story about how to use it.

But that’s still only half the picture: you still need to see how other people will use your technology. That’s where acting comes in. When reflecting on my year doing an acting diploma, neither school nor any subsequent course taught me as much about … well, about business! Acting gets you inside the minds of others: customer empathy. We didn’t learn a customer’s perspective by someone running a sales course. We had direct training every day in how to experience anyone’s perspective.

Put arts-interpretation training and acting training together and you have the first part of a compelling formula for the art of selling a vision: the story about how you use something + knowing how to experience other people’s perspectives = the ability to tell the story about how something could be used from someone else’s perspective.

The good news is you don’t have to do a two-year post-grad degree and a one-year diploma to acquire these skills. Continuing Education runs art appreciation classes and the Performing Arts School runs a pretty good basic acting programme, and no, I’m not moonlighting for either.

If you’re selling bolts, sandwiches or tanks, not much interpretation is required to work out how your buyers will use them. But hi-tech solutions such as software can be used in many different forms, and so interpretation matters.

Americans learn it implicitly. We don’t, so let’s get a leg up on them and learn it the ‘left-field’ way. The ability to tell and sell the story of how someone reads something (be that something a book or a hi-tech software solution) is critical to both the selling of a company vision to an investor, and a software use-case to a customer.

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