Our Columnist Tries His Hand at the Hard Sell

Larry Dobrow Gains a Deeper Appreciation for the Talents of Direct-Response Entrants at a Telebrands Audition

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There are numerous reasons I make my living in front of a keyboard rather than a camera, but the most obvious is this: I am as charismatic and articulate as a goat. This is not a secret.

Nonetheless, when the call went out for a brave, minimally well-mannered Ad Age staffer to attend an Telebrands audition -- the "As Seen on TV" mainstay was hoping to find "the next infomercial star" to replace Billy Mays -- I volunteered eagerly.

I assumed my editors would select someone who could enunciate three-syllable words. I was wrong. The assignment came down hard: By 11 a.m. on Thursday morning I was to recast myself as a confident pitchman of tchotchke, widget and thingamabob alike.

After hyperventilating for a few quick days, I embraced my role as any savvy pitchman, actor or grifter would. I pored over product specs. I studied Mr. Mays' speeches. I bought a shirt in Mr. Mays' patented color of sky blue.

I even contacted Robert Galinsky, founder and headmaster of The New York Reality TV School, for advice on how to ace my audition. He suggested that I come up with a unique angle for my presentation ("Strong, bold, wild ... do you sing?"), that I smile ("If you have a pleasing, likable energy under your 'sell,' then your potential customers feel safe and warm about buying") and that I rethink my shirt-'n-jeans ensemble ("Make sure it has the look of an 'outfit,' not a 'misfit' ... corporate with flair").

Duly educated, I practiced my sales technique on the one person on the planet most able to deflect it: my wife. The night before my audition, I strode into the kitchen confidently, purposefully, enthusiastically. The following conversation ensued:

Me: "I've got an exciting opportunity for you! Tired of waiting eight minutes for the water to boil? Tired of having to gauze your arms from shoulder to wrist due to painful Ragu splash burns? Then visit the fabulous all-new taco truck on the corner of 96th and Broadway! For dinner! Now!"

The Missus: (wary pause) "OK, then. I made a salad."

Me: "Ah. Pass the lo-cal raspberry vinaigrette, please."

So yeah, I was pumped, primed and prepared. I'd internalized my lessons and settled on a product to pitch: Telebrands' Heel-Tastic balm. I memorized its myriad virtues -- Fast results! No mess! Not entirely offensive odor! -- and encapsulated them in a laser-precise two-minute pitch. On Thursday morning, I strode into the studio and practically sprinted up the three flights of stairs.

Then I stepped in front of the judging panel and the cameras, and proceeded to unleash a pitch that redefined the notion of incoherence for a new generation of salespeople.

Rather than tout Heel-Tastic and its features, I launched into a dreamy, disjointed monologue about how my wife wears high heels and how she has sore feet at the end of the day and how her heels are chafed and how she has no other option but to hose them down in the shower ... until now! I lapsed into cliche, tripping over "happy wife, happy life" like a drunk uncle at a family wedding. As a triumphant final gesture, I proudly displayed my canister of the balm with its name and logo facing backward.

Blame it on a cold, or blame it on the unavailability of high-grade black-market speed. Either way, I tanked.

The four judges were kind in their post-presentation comments, commending me half-heartedly on my "positive energy." They said I didn't appear to be nervous. They were wrong.

Why did I bomb? Maybe it's because I can't summon sincerity on demand (this was perhaps Mays' most underrated skill). Maybe it's because I hadn't actually used the product, which left my pitch vague and impersonal.

Or maybe it's simply because some people are born to sell and some aren't. In the windowless green room, I spent an hour chatting with my fellow auditionees. Intense pre-show rituals notwithstanding -- no fewer than five silently mouthed their spiels and examined their body language in front of the room's mirrors -- they struck me as a wonderfully able group, both decent and articulate. They made you want to listen to them.

Too, unlike most job aspirants, they were happy to dispense advice to a would-be competitor. Mark Schumacher, a former TV reporter for New York's CBS affiliate (where he worked alongside Brian Williams), suggested that I "look into the camera as if it's a single individual. That warmth and contact will come through on the other end." Jennifer Uselton, an exec with the American Association of Cheerleading Coaches and Administrators, stressed that my pitch would flow more smoothly if I could speak from personal experience, but warned me "not to get caught up in your own thought process, because people will think you're distant."

But the individual who impressed me most, and my horse in the "next infomercial star" derby, was Joe Brusca, a Brooklyn-born chiropractor who entered the competition on a lark. "My friends told me that I had the kind of psychotic personality for this. Things come out of me spontaneously." He wasn't kidding: Over the course of a 10-minute conversation, Brusca entertainingly and compellingly pitched three separate Telebrands products. The Brooklyn accent and rogue-ish wit rendered his approach wholly authentic.

"I can only be me," he quipped. "I can't be taller, I can't be thinner, I can't grow hair. But I can give them the full Joe Brusca. I can do this."

Watching Mr. Brusca perform before the judges -- impressed, they had him run through his Jupiter Jack pitch twice -- was a revelation. Yes, he stumbled once or twice ("This turns your phone into a personal communication device"), but he made talking about a gimmicky product feel as natural as talking about the weather. That's a legitimate skill.

I left thinking: Yeah, I'd buy a car-phone gizmo from this guy. I hope I have the chance to do just that before too long.

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