The Oaks Ignore Their Pleas

What I Learned from Billy Mays

Posted in General by Jeff Graves on July 1, 2009

With the recent passing of ubiquitous TV pitchman Billy Mays, I got to thinking a little about how much I actually enjoy informercials and those “But wait, there’s more” TV ads that have been on the air for years.  Mays and a lot of his peers got their start working country fairs and trade shows, demonstrating products in front of passing crowds, and needed to learn ways to quickly get their audiences attention and hold it.  Once they attracted an audience, they needed to turn those passersby into paying customers.  While you might not be in the business of selling household gadgets, I think there’s a lot that a pitchman like Mays can teach anyone who’s in sales, particularly those of us who do product demos for prospective clients.

Now, I’m not a professional sales person, let me get that out of the way right up front.  However, I do conduct software product demos in sales situations on a regular basis, and quickly came to the realization that it’s not as easy as just trotting the product out and putting it through its paces.  Pitchmen like Billy Mays have a very specific approach to selling and demoing, whether it’s for a kitchen gadget, or a miracle cleaner, and that approach might help you improve your next product demo as well.  So here, in no particular order, are 4 things I learned from Billy Mays and his peers…

Get to the Point! A typical TV spot is 60-90 seconds, and most people use a commercial break to get a refill on their drink, take a bathroom break, or (perish the thought!) have a conversation with the other people in the room.  As a result, a TV commercial needs to get to the point fast, and capture the audience before they get busy doing something else.  You need to do the same thing in your product demo.  Just because you’ve got 30 minutes allocated in your meeting agenda for a product demo does NOT mean you should spend the first 15 minutes talking about the history of your product, or about your own resume.  Your audience will start counting ceiling tiles after about two minutes if you bore them, and I don’t care how interesting a speaker you are – they’re here to see a demo of your amazing product, not to hear you TALK about it.  So show them something, PRONTO!

What’s in it for ME? The next time one of those gadget commercials is on, pay attention to how it begins.  Almost invariably, the very first thing the pitchman does is ask the audience if they suffer with some kind of problem, be it torn clothing, the challenge of making dinner, or hard water stains on the shower.   And guess what?  The pitchman has got the solution, and here it is!  If you’re sitting in front of your TV and you’ve got a shower covered in soap scum, you’re probably going to at least pay some attention to the rest of this commercial, even if you think that it’s all a load of hooey.  You need to start your product demo the same way – by identifying your product with some challenge or problem that your audience needs to solve.  Then it’s time to wow them by showing them how your product helps them solve the problem.

Practice, Practice, Practice! Let’s face it – it’s a good bet that most of the kitchen gadgets we see on TV commercials aren’t quite as easy to use as they seem on TV.  And even if they are, you’re probably not going to take the thing out of the box when it arrives, and make it do what the pitchman did on TV the very first time you use it.  The truth is, even the pros make mistakes. But when you’ve only got 60 seconds (or 10 minutes) to convince your audience of the merits of your product, you need to make damn sure that you don’t fumble, or stumble, or click the wrong button and derail your entire demo.  Remember, those ceiling tiles are just calling out for your audience to start counting them.  Don’t give them the opportunity to lose interest – make sure you know EXACTLY how your product works, and make sure you have your entire demo down pat long before you step into the room with your prospective audience.

Be Memorable!! Part of the fun for me in watching a Billy Mays commercial is Billy himself.  He was loud, he moved his hands a lot, and he seemed to bring real passion for whatever product he was hawking, whether it was a laundry detergent or a kitchen gadget.  Now, I’m not proposing that you stand in front of your customers and yell like Billy Mays, but don’t be afraid to put some oompf into your delivery.  I firmly believe it’s better to be a little like Billy Mays, then to be like Ben Stein.  And part of the experience is the message.  You don’t have to include hokey sales rhymes or catch phrases (but wait, there’s still more!), but make sure you get your key messages across with a few memorable lines, and make sure that there’s at least one thing in your demo that you KNOW your audience is going to remember a month from now.

Over 20 years ago, there was a commercial on the air here in Boston featuring a Saladmaster salesman named Chris Nahatis, who I believe still sells for them.  I can’t locate the commercial on YouTube, but at one point in the commercial, Nahatis demonstrated the durability of the Saladmaster skillet he was pitching by banging the skillet against an inferior skillet repeatedly until the cheap skillet dented and nearly folded in half.  He then held the Saladmaster skillet, still in excellent shape, up to the camera, exclaiming “Look at this for abuse!”.  I wasn’t in the market for kitchenware 20 years ago, but that ad held my attention everytime it was on, and I still remember it like it was yesterday.  That’s the kind of product demo I want to give everytime I stand up in front of a prospective client, and I wish the same for everyone out there who gives demos.


4 Responses

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  1. Chris Nahatis said, on November 3, 2009 at 5:07 pm

    At the age of 87 years young, I am still loyal and steadfast to my product, Saladmaster Versa Tech Surgical Stainless Steel Cookware, made in the USA!! On a recent interview, I was asked, “when will you retire?” I answered, “as long as my work is my play, I will continue my career with Saladmaster”. Business is great, and my presentation has not changed over the past 50 years.. Respectfully, Chris Nahatis

    • Jeff Graves said, on November 4, 2009 at 1:32 am

      Thanks so much, Chris, for saying hello! It’s great to hear that you’re still hard at work and enjoying every minute of it, by the sounds of it. I hope you have many more years of success and fun with Saladmaster!!

  2. Alyssa Nahatis said, on November 3, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    The YouTube video referenced in the last paragraph of this blog posting can be found here, starting at 4 mins 35 sec:

    • Jeff Graves said, on November 4, 2009 at 1:28 am

      Awesome!! Thanks so much, Alyssa, for providing the link to that timeless commercial. A great example of a master salesman at work.

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