I have a theory.
(I have a lot of theories, it’s true. The most important of my theories is Everything Needs More Dave Hause, which I shall test in person this week at the Cradle, along with Everything Needs More Dave Hause Corollary #1, Everything Also Needs More Brian Fallon. But this is not about everything needing more Dave Hause.)
I have a theory that everything, ultimately, comes down to listening closely and asking the right questions. I mean, okay: this is not new. This is not something that no one has ever theorized before, obviously. But I was sitting at work this week, sort of drifting mindlessly in my brain, and I realized that the most important skill that I learned in my incredibly expensive thoroughly unused library science education was how to conduct a reference interview. (Sure, I also have great Google skills, including the ability to find almost anything on the internetexcept for Alice Cooper’s publicist’s contact info. I am still pissed about that.)
A reference interview, of course, is a series of questions answered by, well, other questions; it’s about listening to what your customer is saying — asking — and figuring out what piece of information they actually want. In my day job, I spend a lot of my time talking to non-mainstream citizens: the mentally or physically disabled, the aged. People who are frightened of and confused by the government, and who are subsequently frightened of and confused by me as its agent. My job is to do, well, without being specific, my job, but what no one explains to you in training is that most of my my job is parsing what these frightened, often desperate people are saying, and translating it into what they actually want to know.
It is rare that people ask the questions they want or need the answers to, I suppose. But if you listen hard enough, you can figure out what they’re trying to ask, and you can answer this.
What does this have to do with photography? Well, how often does a client know exactly what they want? Almost never.
They may have an idea that they want to start with, so start there. Listen to it carefully. Ask them what they want out of a shoot with you; how do they want to use the images. Start big, start broad. Listen to their answers. And then start drilling down, with more detailed questions. Listen with your ears, and listen with your eyes, if you can sit down with a client face to face. (Sometimes you can’t. Then it’s triply important to listen.) Librarians are taught to listen to what a patron asked and then figure out if it was what they really wanted to know. That’s what you have to do with a photography client: find out what they think they want; help them translate it into what they actually want; and then do that for them.
There are a lot of things that you need to know as a photographer: technical things, and marketing things, and how to write a killer pitch email, and when to work for free or credit and when to demand money. But I think that the ability to listen, and to ask smart questions and truly listen to the answers, is right up there with aperture and shutter speed and prime lenses.
Shut up, listen, and ask the right questions. You’ll be well-served by learning that.
If you think any of my theories are valid, or even if you think they’re stupid, please consider putting a couple of bucks towards my donation drive, and help me get to Minneapolis to form more theories. Thanks, y’all.