For my first couple of years of being a self-employed writer, “selling” was a dirty word.

As an idealist driven by a high personal standard of integrity and creating work that I aspired to make truly “artistic,” the selling side of the creative equation left me fumbling.

I knew that I needed to earn money to support myself–and truly, I dreamed of earning a living from my writing.

But before I could support myself from my writing, the first step I needed to take was understanding that selling is not a dirty word.

It’s especially tough when you’re as engulfed by dirty sales tactics and ugly marketing techniques as we are today. The modern advertising marketplace is ripe with corporate entities and multi-million dollar campaigns that use deception, deceit or sleight-of-hand to convince you to buy stuff you otherwise don’t want or need.

Those few years ago, the artist in me was still young and inexperienced, and my relationship to money showed the inexperience.

I may not have been earning much money from my writing, but part of me thought that it was keeping my work honest and “pure,” especially if selling my work might pollute the purity of the creative process.

Marketing, selling, and making money from art seemed to interfere with my creativity more than anything else. Adding a price tag to a project added a burden of resentment, doubt, even shame–all of which can seriously bog down our love of writing and painting, carving and singing.

Years later and having worked with 80 writers and artists since 2011, one thing is clear:

Most creative folks stumble and struggle as I did with their relationship to money, wealth, selling and earning. We want to believe that art is itself the greatest reward, and that dollars and numbers should not interfere. We think that a monetary transaction could kill the divinity of divine inspiration, creation and expression.

I’m here today to tell you that if “selling” feels like a dirty word, that’s perfectly okay.

I don’t believe that myself anymore, but my belief system around wealth and money really started to evolve when I learned the most natural, organic, pure, honest and genuine form of selling that I could use to earn money from my writing and support myself for a living:

Telling a story.

Stuffed Animals Taught Me How to Sell–With Story

You might know me as Dave, but to my little cousins, I’m known as “D.D.” I love that nickname.

My god daughter Giana bestowed it upon me when she was a toddler and couldn’t yet pronounce “Dave” or “David.” “Deedee” is all she could muster from her little mouth, and as she grew up the name remained intact. “It’s not Dave or David, Momma–it’s Deedee or just Dee,” she once reprimanded my cousin Lauren, her mom.

Today, with little cousins ranging in age from 6 to 17, one of my go-to choices for birthday gifts for the little ones is a good ol’ fashioned stuffed animal. They’re simple, a source and outlet of affection, soft, fun, imaginative and, well, easy.

And stuffed animals usually sell themselves. They’re cute, huggable and boom–there’s your perfect gift.

Little Giana was obsessed with Big Bird stuffed animals as a kid. She must have about 15 of them now, each with a different name.

But Giana’s little sister Kendal never had such a Big Bird obsession. Thus, the art of stuffed-animal-giving has always been a bit tricky for ol’ Kendal.

Last summer, I spent my first solo trip abroad in Iceland for about two weeks. While there, I bought Kendal a stuffed toy–a penguin-looking bird with splashes of color, native to Iceland and the North Atlantic, called the Puffin. Thinking there could be no better gift that a kid could receive–a stuffed animal, from Iceland!, of a penguin-like bird that actually flies–for her 5th birthday, when the time came and Kendal was bestowed with this amazing creature in plush form, her reaction was… muted.

She just kind of looked at it like,

“This is it? That’s all?”

In a heartbeat, I realized that I had to employ the best sales tactic I knew: story.

You see, Kendal didn’t dislike my gift–she just had zero emotional connection to it. Without any context about what this gift was or why it was meaningful or the reason behind how it got here, Kendal just saw an empty stuffed toy. An inanimate “thing.”

“Now, Kendal,” I told her, “This is a special bird that comes from Iceland. It’s called a puffin. They’re kind of like penguins only they can fly around, so they’re kind of like half-penguin and half-seagull,” I told her.

“And guess what? I brought THIS puffin for you FROM Iceland. It was in my luggage in the plane for the entire flight home, and I’ve been keeping it safe for you.”

Kendal’s eyes began to light up. Suddenly, this stuffed toy–this inanimate thing–held meaning. It carried it’s own story.

The story was that this bird was unique, and from a far-away land that she could only dream of. Best of all, her big cousin had been to that far-away land and brought this unique, special, original bird home from hundreds of miles away–just for her.

In just moments, Kendal’s reaction changed from, “What is this?” to she squeezing the life of the stuffed toy in her arms.

Her big sister joined in on the fun innately and said, “Ken, you should name him Puffy! Puffy the Penguin!” Kendal’s smile burst out. Giana added, “Are you sure I can’t keep Puffy the Puffin for myself?”

Whether for love or suspecting sisterly-thievery, Kendal didn’t put the toy down for the rest of the afternoon.

If ‘Selling’ is a Dirty Word to You, Tell a Story Instead.

Artists, writers, creatives and folks who are just plain ol’ determined to live their lives aligned to truth, authenticity and integrity can tend to have a hard time with selling–it’s because we know just how dirty, conniving and deceitful “selling” can be. Turn on your T.V. Check out the ads that attack you online.

Selling can be dirty.

And selling can also be beautiful.

The “dirty” way of selling feels like convincing–or outright deceiving. No artist or creative wants to spend time or energy trying to convince someone else of something that, we dream, should sell itself. That’s the ideal. That’s the standard we aspire to reach. We creatives long and dream and wish to get so good at our craft that the work we produce–our books and blog posts, our paintings and carvings, our albums and even coaching packages–sell themselves.

“Here I am, here’s my truth, here’s my heart on a platter.”

No convincing needed.

But that dream is also a bit ego-driven. It means we avoid some responsibility–we skirt ownership of our creative work. Learning how to sell is a practical skill that forces you to develop a deeper, richer, more well-rounded understanding of your work and your appeal to prospective customers. Selling teaches you how to get better and better at developing your craft and your products.

If selling feels dirty, change your perspective. Change the tactic. Sell with story instead.

If selling feels like convincing, then story feels like attracting. You’re creating context. Relevance. Meaning and purpose with simple framing of what this object, product or service is, and why it is relevant and who it is relevant for. Using story is simple and innate. We use story to create context and understanding in conversations with friends and baristas and strangers on the street.

Storytelling is the simplest form of marketing. Through story, we articulate emotional significance and context: points of relatability, connection and imagination that are resonant, memorable and thus, meaningful.

Marketing is providing context and relevancy — it’s a method of helping someone understand if this is for them, and if so, why it’s for them based on how they personally connect with, resonate with, or appreciate what is being “sold” to them.

The context provided by storytelling is what turns a stuffed animal into a totally unique, well-traveled object of intrigue and curiosity.

So my friend, I leave you with this exercise: If the product, service, book or idea that you’re working on today was actually a stuffed animal, what is the story about it that you would tell your little six-year-old cousin?

How would you turn that inanimate, meaningless, plush toy into something relevant, unique, nuanced, emotionally connective and meaningful and thus, utterly freaking amazing?

Sell me with a story!

You’ve so got this.