Last week, I agreed to be the auctioneer at a fundraiser for a private school.
I’ve performed services such as these countless times in the past, usually because of a personal involvement or affinity for the charitable cause, but I agreed to this one for a different reason: The challenge.
You see, instead of glibly and fluently bantering in my native tongue to a group of contemporaries and peers, I would be speaking almost entirely in French to a gathering of strangers.
Well, strangers to me, as these people knew each other well, hadn’t seen each other in a while, and would much rather chat among themselves than listen to me valiantly try to sell them large-scale murals painted by children of the school, for prices in the mid-to-upper thousands of dollars, through a rickety microphone and distorted sound system that perhaps was last used by some underground broadcaster on Radio Free Europe.
And, to top things off, I would be doing this all while hopping on one foot.
Okay, just kidding about the hopping, but said challenge was indeed more daunting than first expected. Not only was selling this stuff like pulling teeth with eyebrow tweezers, but I had to do it three times — six paintings per session! — in between courses of a lengthy meal.
When the final “Sold!” came down on the 18th piece and I was mercifully relieved of my duties, the woman who recruited me for the evening met me with perhaps the understatement of the year when she said succinctly:
On the long walk home down the Boulevard of Broken Dreams (okay, a little melodramatic…), I thought about what she had said.
Of course they were a tough crowd. They weren’t mine.
Every crowd is tough if they’re not yours. If people have paid or assembled to see you, to hear your message, to drink your Kool-Aid, they’re easy — or at least relatively so. Not only are you a part of their expectations, you are the primary reason said crowd exists in the first place.
But if you’re the sidebar, the opening act, the necessarily evil that is the M.C. or the auctioneer, you have a battle ahead of you. You are an obstacle between what the crowd wants and what they are going to get.
Some people — like me — get off on this.
Many careers have been made by “winning ’em over,” from turning a collection of cold outsiders into a group of warmed followers. I’ve seen it happen at concerts, at professional conferences, in academic settings, and particularly at Just For Laughs, where I’ve heard the refrain, “I bought tickets for Performer X, but the act I really loved was Performer Y,” thousands of times over my career there.
But I’ve also seen it happen in boardrooms and offices, which switched on the light-bulb to this week’s learning.
In most cases, the difference between success and failure in business relies on one’s ability to win over a tough crowd. Whether you’re trying to land a contract, open a door for new business, or raise VC money for your start-up — you are facing a tough crowd. This crowd may be just one person, but it’s a crowd whose day you are interrupting and who would rather be somewhere else, talking or listening to someone else.
Go ahead — hop on one foot. Good luck.
And hop we do, because the alternative is worse.
And even when we succeed, there’s no guarantee that the crowd we just won over stays conquered.
Yes, like me climbing onstage in front of contemporaries, the business crowd that has bought into you gives you the benefit of the doubt. But one slip, and in a runner’s heartbeat you’ll see how tough that crowd can get. Just ask the band whose recent release didn’t do as well as the last one. Or the speaker who bored the audience. Or the comedian who had a rough set. Or the agency that lost the client.
So this week’s lesson?
Life, particularly business life, is a series of tough crowds.
Don’t be afraid to seek ’em out.
And win ’em over continuously.
Because even if the crowd is yours now, there’s no guarantee it’s yours forever.