Why Faking It Till You Make It is Bad for Business with David Byrd
How many times have you heard “You gotta fake it until you make it”? Want more clients? Simply tell the new client you are targeting that you’ve already worked with dozens of clients just like them. It’s been tossed around in my neck of the woods since the beginning of our business many years ago. And I’ve hated it since the first time I heard it.
Need to sell 10 portrait sessions fast? Advertise an exaggerated call-to-action that there are only three spots left when, in reality, no one has booked a single session. Some would argue that it’s just another marketing strategy. Well, sort of. Marketing strategies are often about creating urgency around the product and then using clever pull-through incentives to seal the deal. But there is a big difference between “Act now!” and “There are three spots left!”—and that difference is the emotional fallout you have to deal with.
That, my friends, is called cognitive dissonance, or the difference between something we know or think to be true and what we claim to be true.
“When people lie about or exaggerate their expertise, it creates cognitive dissonance, which feels bad—and it impacts peoples’ level of motivation and their self-esteem,” says Chicago psychologist Dr. Glenn Doyle.
“Act now!” vs. “Three spots left!”
Let’s use the example of “Act now!” versus “Only three spots left!” to demonstrate Doyle’s point. Advertising that your services are a great value that shouldn’t be missed is a marketing practice called the “urgency principle.” This principle taps into consumer behavior by circumventing analytical thought and motivating us to attain that value before it’s too late. It is the most common form of advertising and has many facets. It manipulates the behavior of consumers. When you employ the “Only three spots left!” mentality, you alone know the actual truth of that statement. You are attempting to manipulate your prospective buyer, but you also are manipulating yourself into believing you are succeeding when you aren’t.
This illusion of success, if not kept in check, can spill over into your everyday life and conversations. We’re all guilty of this in some fashion, and we all have really good reasons why we’ve done this. Think back to those times when you’ve run into a fellow small business owner who inevitably asked you, “How’s business these days?” How often did you smile and say something along the lines of, “It’s going great—sometimes I feel like I can’t keep up!” The conversation is about encouragement, which is wonderful for our self-esteem. Sadly, we need that encouragement more and more because our self-esteem has been damaged by our own manipulation of it. Why? Because we keep trying to fake it until we make it.
“Generally speaking, our self-esteem doesn’t like it when we’re not being authentic,” says Doyle. “Even when we’re ‘faking’ something for what we think is a positive effect, it tends to grind away at our estimation of our self. It’s hard to esteem yourself when you’re not being authentic with yourself and others. I tell people all the time [that] what they say, both to themselves and others, really matters. What we say, again and again and again, becomes programming.”
That is the precise reason I don’t like the idea of faking it until you make it: It’s a lie. It perpetuates more lies, and before you know it, you’ve programmed yourself to lie about your business. Perhaps most damaging of all, you’ve become programmed to lie to yourself.
Your self-esteem knows
The first time this practice was suggested to me was in regards to my high school senior portrait sessions. I did volunteer work at a high school in my former hometown and often chatted with students. I was advised to tell them that I was busy all the time shooting portraits of students: “Sorry, kids, I have to leave early today. I’ve got another senior portrait session this afternoon.” That was lie number one. “You’d better hurry and book with me like you said you wanted to before I’m out of sessions.” Lie number two. The rest of the lies came when the students asked what popular spots I used for my sessions, what others were wearing and if they should call their parents at work and have them book.
I got the business I was looking for. The experience and sales were great. But I felt empty and defeated because I had to lie for success.
“You can have humble, reasonable, realistic faith in yourself and your abilities without having to buy into some elaborate fantasy,” says Doyle. “But your self-esteem will notice when it can’t trust you to tie your statements and your judgments to reality. It’ll notice, and it won’t like it.”
Glamour and boudoir photography is new to me. I’m working to find my voice in it. The images in this article are from my second attempt using gelled lighting for a session, a double challenge. I told the model about my inexperience and my vision for the session. It was a collaboration, and it boosted each other’s self-esteem. If I had lied to her, I would have been alone struggling to find the images.
One of the greatest conversations I ever had was when I told the ugly fear-inducing truth. I was working on a play with a group of high school seniors. They had a familial connection with our brand. I photographed their performances, created fantastic posters that made them feel like stars and donated a lot of my time coaching and directing their artistic competitions.
While we were taking a lunch break on a long Saturday of set construction, they asked me, “How’s business?” Our senior portrait season had started strong but tapered off quickly, and we weren’t reaching our sales goals. We were heading into the fall season, and if we didn’t do something radical, we were going to end the year badly. I was a little worried, and I decided to tell the kids the truth.
I didn’t give them a sob story. I told them how excited I was to photograph some fun fall sessions. I told them how much I love walking the beautiful park paths connected to our studio and the smells, colors and sounds of fall. I showed them sample images of fall fashions that I had saved on my phone and told them how excited I was to recreate the spirit of those images. I described the fun group shoot I had in mind of the students having a pumpkin-carving contest in the park. I described another idea of a student sitting by a window in a coffee shop writing poetry as a soft rain hit the window.
I told them that we didn’t have a lot of folks calling to book those sessions, and that I was worried I wouldn’t get to bring them to life. The kids were into it. I gave them a call-to-action, and that Sunday night, we had the bookings we needed to potentially reach our sales goals. As each session wrapped up, I asked the parents to tell their friends and family how much fun they had, how much they loved the experience. I asked them to help our studio grow bigger and better into the new year. The parents looked at their smiling kids’ faces covered in pumpkin guts and saw the joy we had brought to their lives. They excitedly accepted the role of championing our studio, and did exactly what I asked them to.
A business based on truth
I told the truth and gave the parents a reason to believe in our studio and a cause to fight for. Never once have I used the phrases “Act now!” or “Only three spots left!” Most importantly, I gave myself a reason to continue believing in our business and goals.
This practice didn’t work with every potential client we encountered. We had our fair share of clients who bought into the urgency that other studios were creating—mainly because of the pull-through of discounts.
We ended our portrait business to build up our second brand, Reality Reimagined. When we closed the doors, we did so with pride because we had run our business based on truth—for our clients and ourselves. We gave our clients a great experience and beautiful artwork, and we never pressured them to “Act now!” to secure memories that last a lifetime.