Why do people hire you? This is everything.
Why do you do what you do? This is more.
It’s almost common convention to say business wins over art.
And while I make no bones that business matters and matters a lot, I still consider the notion to be, in simplest terms, BS.
What is true is the more you enter the massive middle, where sameness dominates and differentiation dissipates, the more business becomes not just the best tool, but the only tool. In the massive middle need is baked in. Demand is strong, but supply is stronger, so success means business strategy.
But who the hell wants to be stuck in the massive middle?
The more personal the work becomes, the more everything changes. Difference is the ultimate advantage. It will protect you, define you, and distinguish you. But if you want the art to count, it’s not enough.
As much as you may hear about difference, more forms fail than succeed. Don’t get trapped by the notion that difference alone will get you the work, because difference without need is chaos.
Need anchors difference. In every marketplace. All of the time.
Denis Reggie brought liveliness to an industry that was static and staid. Jose Villa brought lightness and levity to a market that was heavy-handed and dramatic. People like Dan O’Day and Samm Blake captured ruggedness and heft as rustic hit its stride, giving the perfect editorial alternative to soft and flowy.
Understanding need isn’t just a business question, though. If you’re daring enough to forge your own path, you can only understand need through craft.
Why do people hire you?
It’s a question too few people can answer, because difference must precede style, so style can’t be an answer. Style only comes into existence once the conventions that were once difference become similarity.
Before every style becomes a style, it conveys a message. You have to have a reason to do what you do, and you have to know how your work makes people feel and what it makes them think.
That means flowing hair in the wind, backlit bodies in the sun, and even the most dramatic and exotic of locations paired with the smallest of people, as engaging as they may be, are not enough. These things are already becoming part of the canon of the middle.
Without the communication, things like film or digital, your toning, your lighting, and even your subject, composition, and timing are irrelevant. Your process and your choices are the byproducts of your message. They are not your message.
So what are you saying?
Great art grabs the mind like a vice. Great artists control that process, forcing thought and feeling. As it turns out that’s great marketing, too.
At the end the day, people want their problems solved, so knowing what you mean to them is everything. How would you position yourself, if you didn’t? And understanding yourself is the first place to look.
It’s ironic so many business people understand exactly why their products—things like flavored chips, soft drinks, and dishwashing detergent—affect their audience, when so many artists don’t. It’s odd that a group of people dedicated to communication in a medium where it matters the most, can so rarely answer the questions.
Not just for the craft, but for survival.
Most of us learn by throwing it out there, and seeing what sticks. And while that’s a start, it’s not an end. The problem isn’t that we just throw it out there or that we keep throwing it out there. It’s that we forget to really understand why things stick.
How do you survive?
How do you live instead of making a living in an oversaturated, high-volume world built on uninterrupted interruption?
If the answer is simple, the execution is not.
Survival in the here and now isn’t about value. It’s about distinction, because distinction drives value.
In a market with high demand and limited supply, everyone has distinction. But in a market where supply is extensive, distinction is put out to pasture, and nearly everyone becomes part of the hungry, massive middle. And the massive middle is exactly where businesses go to die.
Strategist Blair Enns says, “It is expertise and expertise alone that will…allow us to deal with our clients and prospects from a position of power.”
But the expert isn’t the person who knows more, shoots better, or wins the most awards. The expert is the person who dominates a field, and there are two ways to become that person. You either ascend a vast ladder through a large, established, and capable field. Or you invent your own.
That’s the power of difference. It eliminates competition.
Robert Frost’s famous description:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
But it’s only a start.
Because the real problem we face isn’t that we choose the wrong fork in the road. It’s that we don’t even realize the forks are there. We travel down a chute in constant motion blinded by the rest of the herd, unable to see the choices we make and the strengths we have all in the name of comfort and security.
You have to find the fork. You have to be willing to access your own potential.
Difference is hard. It feels like a nagging uncertainty crossed with an unwavering commitment to the unknown, but this is the path of the explorer. Every step you take out of the chute is an act of self-determination and ownership.
How do you find difference?
You let go of good. Good sucks. Good is what everyone does. Let yourself get tired of you and tear the walls down. Don’t be one of the cool kids. And be ready to fail. Fear isn’t the end of you. It’s the beginning.
There is no phrase worse than failure is not an option, because if you want to step up and be something, failure isn’t only an option, it’s a necessity. Throw out the rules, and start failing. Shoot the shots you’re not supposed to shoot, and find a way to make them work. Keep at it. Don’t stop.
That’s how you dominate a space in the world.
Creativity is not the repetition of the same. It is the discovery of difference.
For most of my life, I have focused on climbing the ladder, waiting to make it to the top. But what I forgot to ask along the way was whether that was a ladder I should even climb. The ladder is crowded and full and ready to fall. Find the courage and curiosity to see that everything is a fork in the road, then step into it.
Leave a comment, and let me know what you think. Next time, I’ll talk about one of the biggest pitfalls of difference.
Things have a way of hitting you when you’re not expecting it.
It’s not always the good stuff. But sometimes, just sometimes, it is. I got this email about a week back, and I was tickled:
Putting in motion your tips from your current sales series…..
Already I have gotten WAY better responses!!!!
Normally I give a price right out the gate because that is their first question; then it’s just crickets. I never hear back from them. This time, I was very interested, asked a lot of questions, and she instantly got excited and wanted to book before hearing a price!
THANK YOU! For all your hard work and sharing with the world!
I so love hearing things like this. Makes me feel useful.
It also reminded me of one last sales secret I wanted to share to round out the free mini-course I’ve been running. It helps get the type of reaction Cassandra just described.
I call it the 89% problem.
Now, for the record, I don’t know if it’s really done by 89% of the people out there. I suspect a fair bit more, to be honest, but I do know most people do it, and it’s costly.
See the last thing most people talk about with their potential clients in their meetings is price. It usually goes a little something like this:
“Here’s how much things cost. See what you think. Call me if you want me. See ya!”
This is a mistake.
Sales work best when people are excited. Very excited.
When you stoke the flames and people build a bond with you and your work in a way they feel in their gut and they can’t stop thinking about you, pricing becomes secondary. You don’t want to prove your value. You want people to feel your value.
But! Here’s what happens when a lot of people see your price: They choke.
It yanks them right out of excitement-land, straight back into woah-this-costs-a-lot-land. And if you don’t take them back to excitement-land, it may just be a one-way trip.
The first words the couple utters after you wrap things up should be “Oh my gosh! She was amazing!!!”
What you don’t want is “I don’t know if we can afford this.”
So, here’s what you do. After talking about pricing, bring the conversation right back to the work. Don’t let them walk out the door talking about pricing. If they’re not booking on the spot, make the first words after the meeting be about you and your work.
Ask some questions about the photography. The wedding. Their needs, hopes, and wants. Anything to remind them why they’re thrilled about you. Leave them dreaming, hoping, and wanting.
It’s not a lot, but in sales, small differences are big differences. You’re welcome.
Enrollment is about to close on the Momentum Sales online course. It’s a full-fledged wedding photography sales system, and the teaching begins next week. Take a look. I think you’ll like it.