By Harvey Mackay

There’s not a lot of difference between showmanship and salesmanship. When you get down to the nitty gritty, they may well be one in the same. We’re always interchanging the terms. An exceptional vocal stylist “knows how to sell a song.” A first-rate salesperson “delivers a helluva performance.”

A lot of us make our livings selling through showmanship. As a kid, I loved to go to the State Fair and watch the pitchman who demonstrated kitchen gadgets. What could be more boring for a 10-year-old than peeling potatoes? Yet how many zillion times have we walked with glazed eyes past the counter where they sold veggie shredders? They still draw bigger crowds than a public hanging. And the bigger the cornballs they are — the more stupid the mother-in-law jokes they crack, the more worthless the “absolutely-free-magic-slicer-I’ll-throw-in-for-nothing-if-you-buy-right-now” gizmo — the more people gather round.

Of course, when you get the peeler/shredder/juicer home and try it out yourself, you can never do the same tricks with it that the midway magician who sold it to you did.

But so what? In your heart of hearts, you knew that before you bought it. You paid for the performance, not the product.

With the birth of cable TV came various shop-till-you drop channels, where more refined hucksters hawk their wares. It’s like being at the fair 24 hours a day. My favorites are the infomercials where high powered pitches pump up the virtues of swartzeneggaresque muscle machines, magic moisturizing creams and, most compelling, spray-on-hair in a can.

Both the latest — and oldest — trend in the restaurant biz is showmanship. Chains like “Planet Hollywood,” “Harley Davidson Cafe” and the “Rainforest” hype atmosphere more than burgers to lure customers. This strategy has worked since the first enterprising pizza shop owner tossed a slab of dough into the air like a juggler, twirling it into America’s favorite meal.

In Japanese restaurants they add a little excitement to the cuisine by making the preparation resemble a good knife-throwing act.

Look at fast food. You can either buy your hamburger and fries hawked by a red-haired clown with big shoes or a soft-spoken grandfather figure who also happens to own the company.

Western Union can deliver any news in straight language . . . but wouldn’t you rather hear “Happy Birthday” in a singing telegram from a costumed character holding a bunch of balloons?

Been to an auto show lately? In addition to models and “performance teams,” there are cars upside down, gyroscoping and chopped in pieces to show construction or suspension. And lights, jazzy platforms . . . the beat goes on.

Who said salespeople/showpeople have to wear plaid sport coats and talk out of the corner of their mouths?

Take the train. I do. And, there’s no practical reason, EXCEPT, the sheer romance of an engineer’s wavebacks to a kid by the side of the tracks in a thousand train movies. Even though I know better, for me this slowmo means of transportation will always be a romantic and mysterious adventure. A mysterious stranger lurks behind every sliding door. The lonesome whistle blows. Unbeknownst to his fellow passengers, Harvey is on a secret mission only Agatha Christie could decode.

There are trains, and there are cranes. Both have a soft spot in this guy’s heart! A crane operator on a big time, big bucks downtown job is another hidden performance artist. Demolition or new construction both set the stage. The operators know timing is everything — they always save the best show for noon when the largest crowd of sidewalk superintendents are in attendance. BOOM. That’s entertainment!

Something smells fishy? Have you ever been on the docks when the fishing boats come in? The crew who are assigned to the cleaning duty invariably do it where potential fishing trip passengers can watch them at work. What a fabulous sale/show — cleaning the catch and throwing the entrails to the most attentive members of their audience, the pelicans.

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