Sales is a form of performance art. Business Reporter’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert explores how salespeople and marketeers could learn a thing or two from successful television producers.
Sales and television probably have more in common than most people realize. Both depend on an audience’s continued willing suspension of disbelief. Sales pitches, product demos, user conferences and brand marketing events all rely on exactly the same sort of stagecraft and special effects wizardry that goes into producing a hit television show. Hell, the people who work in each field can cross-apply their talents to the other any time that they want. Know how to write an exciting script? Or film a visually interesting scene? Or decorate a set with believable props? If you do, then you too can earn a wage in big business if/when you get bored filming the 18th series of CSI: Omaha.
That ‘suspension of disbelief’ component is crucial to sales. The person holding purchase authority has to be ‘wowed’ – that is, convinced that the salesperson’s product or service is so Amazingly Awesome!™ that it’ll solve the buyer’s problems. That’s a salesperson’s job: to dazzle the guy or gal who has both a problem and the money needed to solve it. This shouldn’t come as a surprise – it’s the first lesson taught in sales weasel training courses.
It might not be as obvious that television operates the same way, especially in the new content delivery model where consumers pay for access to specific networks or programs rather than passively accept whatever comes to them over the advertising-subsidized over-the-air TV service. Amazon, Hulu, HBO, Netflix, Crunchy Roll and a bunch of other content delivery networks have gotten into the business of generating original (and exclusive!) content to entice viewers to pay monthly subscription fees for their unique service and content.
This gambit works best when audiences get sucked in to a show with an intriguing storyline, strong characters, great acting, beautiful sets and an immersive experience. Make a killer product, and the audiences will not only consume your product, they’ll become evangelists for it with all of their friends. That strategy worked for Apple with the original Macintosh, so much so that IBM no longer makes or sells PCs. It works just as well for HBO with its sweeping epic Game of Thrones.
For my money (literally), one of the best examples of this tactic is Netflix’s dark superhero drama Daredevil. I think that it hits the mark across the board, including – strangely enough – for its exceptionally accurate technology props. I know that may seem ridiculous, but it means a lot to me.
If I’m honest, I’m a bit grumpy when it comes to television. I have very little time to invest in entertainment that requires a time commitment.  I’m up for watching maybe two shows at most during any given year. My darling wife, on the other hand, is perfectly happy to try out several different new shows each year. She’ll hop on her exercise bike and throw on a random episode of a new show without worrying about the possible future time investment.
At least once a week, I’ll pass by when my wife has a new show playing. I’ll stop whatever I’m doing and watch for a few seconds to watch a scene. Most times, I’ll leave in disgust over some ridiculous error in the show’s script, directing or props. My darling wife laughs at me and calls me a curmudgeon when I do this, and she’s not wrong. The first time that a television show shatters my willing suspension of disbelief, I’m done with it. Can’t be bothered to see it through.
This experience tends to affect professionals. When you’ve invested thousands of hours mastering a skill, it’s infuriating to see an actor portray your area of expertise in a way that’s completely impossible. It’s insulting. It jars a viewer out of the moment and reminds them that they’re watching a fictionalized interpretation of their life, written and acted by people who have no clue how whatever they do is actually done and who couldn’t be bothered to learn anything about it.
The opposite of this is also true: when a professional watches a show that incorporates reasonably accurate portrayals of real life, it reinforces the fidelity of the experience. They become willing to forgive other errors in plot, setting or process. For me, this happened early on in the first season of Daredevil. I damned near jumped out of my seat to hoot over what I saw as an excellent prop selection that realistically spoke to the characters’ situation… all thanks to an obsolete printer.
The executive summary of Daredevil goes like this: two idealistic lawyers start up a new law practice in their hometown in order to help underrepresented and deserving clients. One of the lawyers happens to be a costumed superhero. Drama ensues. Setting the superhero-ing angle of the show completely aside, the level of detail that went into constructing the set for the protagonists’ law office was exceptional. In one of the early episodes, the firm’s receptionist buys some obsolete office equipment at a bankruptcy auction because the new firm doesn’t have the cash to purchase new kit.
This made perfect sense. I used that exact same tactic when I stood up my first small business: I bought used office furniture and technology kit off of bankrupt companies.  I also prowled second-hand computer shops for refurbish-able machines. A smart entrepreneur the most of his or her start-up funds in order to concentrate resources on getting the company’s product or service launched.
There’s a throwaway scene in one episode where the camera pans across a table featuring a ten year-old multi-function printer. That was when I realized that the show’s prop crew really knew their stuff. I’d used that exact archaic printer model at several different businesses. Of all the products that the prop master could have chosen, this one was exactly the right choice for the scene – it was a workhorse that took the place of a photocopier, a fax machine and a side-by printer. The old machine would run forever so long as you kept it fed with toner. The prop master knew that it was the perfect and logical choice for the characters’ penny-starved start-up. Bravo, props team!
I know that it’s a really tiny element of a huge and sprawling television show. The printer isn’t central to any of the plots. You don’t even see characters using it during the show. It’s just… there. The thing is, it being there cements the setting’s credibility.
This was a much, much better way to ‘sell’ me (as a IT professional) on the show than most other current superhero shows. The CW Network’s show Arrow, for example, is so saturated with blatant and ham-fisted Microsoft product placement that every cut to a character using a PC or tablet sours the entire viewing experience. Daredevil uses technology products as an organic part of the characters’ environment, whereas Arrow’s use of tech is just clumsy shilling.
Speaking of shilling, I argued at the start of this column that both sales and television leverage many of the same world-building skills to dazzle would-be customers. I’ve seen this done up close. In fact, I’ve done this. Specifically, I used my insider knowledge to ‘dress a set’ for a business sales presentation just like the props crew did when they set the stage for Daredevil.
I’ve written before about the time I helped build a dot-com company back during the first bubble. Us consultants were hired to create a company, design and launch a product, hire all the new company’s employees and take the product to market as a turn-key service for a cynical venture capitalist. During the company’s ‘global launch’, the owners decided to throw a grand open house gala for investors, key stakeholders and the media. The plan was to ply guests with free drinks and then let them amble through our building so that they could be dazzled by how ‘high tech’ our company was. At the appointed hour, our product team would show off the company’s first ‘live’ sale on a big screen to everyone’s (assumed) delight.
Two days before the big event, one of the executives had a freak out and demanded that IT ‘fix’ a horrible oversight. According to the executive, we had too many empty desks. Even though we had one desk or cubicle for everyone on the payroll, about half of our total workspaces were empty because we’d designed the building to accommodate future growth. My team’s process was to equip every new employee with gear when they started. We didn’t just push kit to random desks – that would’ve been wasteful.
The angry executive insisted that potential investors would be apprehensive about our financial viability if they thought that we were somehow understaffed. I was ordered to completely kit out the entire building in fewer than 36 hours to make it look like we had twice as many employees as we really did. Also, we had to make the cubicle farms look ‘lived in’.
To shorten a long tale, my VAR filled a lorry with supplies that afternoon and hired a bloke to drive it from Dallas to our HQ in Houston. My three techs and I met the truck and spent the night unboxing and deploying 80 17-inch CRT monitors, keyboards, mice, mousepads, coffee cups, pencil sets and legal pads to every workspace in the building where there wasn’t already a setup. We didn’t have actual computers to connect, so we positioned everything to look like a real person worked there by angling the props to look like users had ‘customized’ their workspaces. When the hysterical executive came in the next day, the office looked fully populated. The idiot happily left us alone and bothered someone else. Mission accomplished. It only cost us a little over $400,000 (£325,000)… 
When our ‘VIP visitors’ arrived later that afternoon, most of them accepted the pitch that we were a much larger company than we really were. To be fair, most of our ‘gusts’ only came for the free booze. They obediently followed the PR bunnies down to our ‘fishbowl’ data centre to ‘ooh’ and ‘ah’ over the shiny, blinky server racks and then shuffled quickly back to the the drinks stations.
One fellow, however, seemed put off by our show. He asked who represented IT and got directed to me. The fellow introduced himself as an IT director and said that something was bugging him about our setup. It had struck him while he was walking through our cubicle farms that he hadn’t heard nearly enough cooling fans for the number of powered-on workstations. I grinned and suggested that he sneak a peek under one of the ‘quiet’ desks. He did, and noticed the lack of anything connected. When he came back for a freshened drink, he jovially accused us of running a Potemkin office. I told him that he was completely right. Well spotted. He’d won a free beverage.
The anonymous IT director who saw through our ruse lost his suspension of disbelief because his professional experience alerted him that something in the scene didn’t ring true. From that moment on, he had a hard time taking our presentation seriously. If we got one major detail wrong, it made him call all of the other details into question. He couldn’t recapture his initial sense of interest. His example, I think, proves that the rule: If an element of any sort of performance art (be it sales or stage work) is jarringly out of place, it will alienate those viewers who notice the mistake.
I’m not suggesting that companies stop employing stagecraft and fantasy to sell their products – that’ll never happen. Rather, I’m suggesting that sales and marketing folks who want to maximize their audiences’ enjoyment of the show would be well served to follow the example set by highly-successful television producers. Employ real experts from the markets and functions that they’re targeting to help dress the set, hone the dialogue and otherwise make the presentations as realistic as possible. Those seemingly little touches – like battered old printer-copiers and noisy PC exhaust fans – can make all the difference in whether or not a knowledgeable viewer sticks around to see the end of the show or walks away soured.
 I can’t spend an idle Saturday binge-watching episodes like most of my friends because I’m busy writing this column.
 I’m writing this column on a former tech company’s executive conference room table. I bought it for pennies on the dollar 15 years ago, and it’s still soldiering on as my desk.
 One of the many reasons that the company never made a profit.
Title Allusion: Drew Goddard (creator), Daredevil, (2015 Television Series)
POC is Keil Hubert, firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow him on Twitter at @keilhubert.
You can buy his books on IT leadership, IT interviewing, horrible bosses and understanding workplace culture at the Amazon Kindle Store.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger.