Pitching Your Project? Why Answering the Question Perfectly is a Terrible Idea

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.

Care deeply

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.

How to keep it together when you’re not

On most days, most of us like to move into our day with confidence, with purpose and a very clear idea that we have what we need to function. That is how I like to think I show up in the world. Until I don’t.

What makes me wonder why we aren’t all crashing into each other like unravelling whorls of disaster is how very little it takes knock us off our game and leave us gasping. Me, anyway.

The other day was A Very Bad Day and left me without a wallet, unexpected demands and problems at work and mad at life.

It took a while to readjust my outlook on things and find my way back to center. Actually, it was in doing so that I realized how arrogant it was of me to think I ever was at the center. We are all finding our way to that elusive place where nobody holds a long term lease, all the time, all of our lives.

When life makes it hard, it’s good to remember we are still on the path, just a little dented, maybe, but moving.

Why less is scarier than more

In the land of books and academia, more words, more pages, more weight in your bookbag in digging into your shoulders means This Is Important Stuff. Consequently, the longer your essays and reports are, the better your chances are of a good grade.

We have an unholy fear of white space. The urge to fill it up is irrational and will almost always give your work the appearance of a wall of text which to me, will put you behind the eightball no matter what you think.

People like me who have to actually read the stuff you write will run out of steam and caffeine at some point and you don’t want to be the one facing reader wrath, something you have absolutely no control over.

What you can control is white space. And specifically, the use of white space to be considerate to the reader in visually focusing on what is truly important information.

Bullets beat blither. Throw a couple of those in and you now have the attention of my lizard brain seeking the one shiny thing in an ocean of text. I will remember you, not only from your clearly set off points, but because you cared enough to make it easy for me to see you.

That is the superpower of white space.

Don’t be afraid of using it.

Who is really in control?

Over 500 hundred artists applied for Queens Council on the Arts grants this year. Why? Because we were given more dollars from the city for our grants fund. We were able to tell everyone there was more money and more chances of getting a grant this year.

Next year, who knows? We may get the same amount or less, depending on the gods of the city budget.

More grants means more artists doing creative work in the borough for people to enjoy, something that makes communities vibrant and alive. Who doesn’t want that?

Less money means just as many artists will apply, fewer will get funded and there will be less presence of the arts in our neighborhoods. Who decides that is OK?

As artists, the only thing in your control is your commitment to show up every day and do your creative work. That is also a great gift to people whether or not it gets acknowledged with a grant. There are other ways to get your work out there, things you can do to bring people in to your world even if it is one person at a time.

It is a mistake to allow the money people decide what you can or cannot do as an artist. Their reasons have more to do with arcane inside politicking and favor swapping than with you. Create the work and invite a few people over. Start there and see what happens.

A Better Use of Your Talent

This morning I sat at my desk for 4 hours.

I would like to say that I wrote 1,000 words of perfect prose and took care of my corner of the universe with Godlike efficiency. This image comes closer to what actually happened.

It also gives you a better idea of what kinds of skills I value and that having a quirky sense of humor helps, or doesn’t, depending on what you are doing. I like to think that we have a wonderful ability to transfer and transform skills to help us get through life. For example, learning how to play all 32 Beethoven Sonatas at an early age has given me the superhuman ability to sit on hard surfaces for hours. Throw in focus and a dismal social life and voila! a budding pianist is born. This is now the secret to my ability to knock out all kinds of paperwork and projects quickly on a different kind of keyboard.

The jury is still out on how this particular skill translate into my life.