You have a creative project you are aching to do.
You are holding an application for a grant that could fund this and launch your career. Or, you are standing next to a funder who might be your next investor.
You are dreaming of walking into your studio every morning ready to work on something you are passionate about bringing into the world, your cup of coffee by your side, all of your materials neatly arranged, everything fully funded so all you have to do is, be creative.
You blink at the first question. And your mind goes blank after seeing the three daunting words:
Describe your project
This is where you get up and look out the window, maybe wander in the kitchen to get something to munch on, anything but face the overwhelming task of putting into words everything you want to do.
Why is this so difficult to do?
Here’s a tip: that question is too big to answer well and we have no idea where to start.
Here’s another tip: answering this question is a terrible idea.
People don’t know how to ask for what they want
Funders, investors, foundations, strangers in elevators will ask the same questions. They want to know what you do, they want information they can understand. The truth is, what they really want is not always what they ask for.
When someone asks you about your project, you immediately think of the best way to describe all of the amazing things that are going on in your work, the infinite interesting little details, how everyone loves it and wants more, more, more, which is why you are killing yourself with this application. This is do or die, the place you have to make your case as the very best at what you do.
The truth is, people can’t really hear any of that until you give them the answer they really want but didn’t ask for.
They want to know on a much deeper level if you are a person they can trust. They want to know if they like you as another human being. They want to feel something.
“But they are asking for information,” you say, pointing at the question. “Not a date.”
You have all had an experience talking to someone and felt your attention drifting, you start getting fidgety and wonder how the hell you got yourself into a conversation with this person. I am sure this person was doing most of the talking, mostly about herself thinking you are simply fascinated when in reality, you are just a big ear.
You haven’t been seen. You haven’t been given a space to jump in and be a part of the dialogue. You don’t matter. So you detach and come up with some polite excuse and slink out the door.
Answer the unasked question
Tell them what you care about, what you are passionate about seeing in the world. People are fascinated more by what you are passionate about than what you are doing. If your work is about helping every immigrant child grow up to become a happy, confident citizen or you create music to banish the silence that separates us, say that. Give us a place to see a child we know or once were as a happy person. Let us remember the feeling of connecting with other people by listening to a song.
Instead of information, give an answer that inspires them
Something happens when you leap frog over the obvious question and address the better question. People invest themselves emotionally because you have made them feel something. People listen because what you say matters to them and they see that you care deeply about doing work that makes a difference for the people that are important to both of you.
People who care do not need to be convinced. These are your people.
How you show up in the world is very important. How you care about the world is even more important.
I was late to an interview. On my way in, I got stopped just outside the building by a construction vehicle blocking the door. Through the window I could see the person waiting for me. He was looking at the plants on the window ledge and every so often, he would look up at the sky turning each plant carefully to face the sun.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” I said.
“No worries,” he smiled and sat down. The interview went well. He presented himself as a good candidate for the job and I offered him the job.
What convinced me was not what he said as much as what he did. I want to be around people who care. Especially when no one is looking.
Remember these key mindsets when you start crafting your pitch or your proposal. They can make a huge difference in how someone responds to what you have to say. Better to be the one they remember than the one with all the answers.