Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Sell me a story

During a typical week I spend some time doing hill runs and a good deal more time sitting around on my heiny. I am old. And far too busy dealing with things that already have my attention to afford time addressing problems that are merely brewing. I don’t believe in warming up before physical activity, nor do I believe in yoga, pilates, tai chi or stretching. So it should come as no surprise that I am a prime candidate for a psoas strain.

Wretchedness illustrated.

Well, well. Colour me surprised. And now I’ve got this darn nuisance, I can’t seem to shake it.

Actually my left leg really fucking hurts. I just want to scream. Or crawl to a corner, curl up, and die. I can’t get a handle on it. I can’t tell if the pain is in my groin, or in my buttock, up my back, or down my leg. Flexing my left hip is excruciating. I can’t sit, I can’t stand, so I just hobble around. I’m either too short or my bed too high that in order to get in I have to use both hands to hoist up my left leg whilst trying to balance on the right (there is no way I can possibly balance on my left leg). Or try to roll into bed from a standing position. Not that it really matters as I can’t get to sleep. I can’t get comfortable in any position. So I surrender to painkillers. My stomach churns from the anti-inflammatories I stuff down my throat or from the retroperitoneal irritation caused by the inflamed muscle. But I’d rather rot out my guts than deal with more pain. After all I still have to work. Every time I engage the clutch in my car something down there is ripping off my left testicle with its teeth. Trust me. It’s a big fat deal. Forget man flu. This is worse. I can’t run. I can’t ride. So I brood. It’s like - total - fucking - misery.

Wanna buy a house?

Meanwhile, in a solar system somewhere within the Orion-Cygnus Arm of the Milky Way Galaxy, I will be trying to sell a house. Not the one I am currently renovating. That’s my baby. The other one. The second child. You know. The spare one. 

Well then (now that we are on topic), apart from pain radiating down to my scrotum, I tend to take a somewhat dispassionate view about everything. Real estate included. And, although I might not know a lot about real estate, I have been around the block a few times and what I do know has been put to good use.

So I meet up with the real estate agent. He seems to be the right sort. Don’t take this the wrong way if you happen to be in the business, but all real estate agents are astucious, disingenuous, pretentious pricks. Just like a used car salesman. Only smarter. Such descriptors appear derogatory (well, ok, they are derogatory) but are appropriate. The virtual Rorschach test that goes on inside my head can only churn out the most immediate response and, to be honest, going beyond is gonna require some perspicuity. Or awareness. Or effort. But this isn’t a post about prejudice (I’ve gone off topic again), it’s about selling a story. The estate agent I have chosen is the right sort because he remembers stuff about people, and places, and, I hope, he tells a good story. 

Might take some skill to sell this.

Having spent some time wandering around ebay and even more time surrounded by shops offering a variety of goods and services I have come to a realisation that selling stuff isn’t actually about the stuff being sold. It’s about finding a connection. Find that connection and the job is done. Just about. Wind the customer in, get over the price hurdle, and close the deal.

Four months ago Barack Obama launched “The BRAIN Initiative” (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) which is an ambitious plan to map out the human brain. Truth is we already know quite a bit about the brain at a microscopic (ie cellular) level and quite a bit about the brain at a macroscopic level (ie which parts of the brain are responsible for certain things), but almost nothing about everything in-between. That is to say we don’t really know how it is all connected. Which means that we don’t really know how it works. Bold research initiatives like this, backed by big money, is all very exciting (a la the Human Genome Project) but even with international collaboration and ever-advancing technology I suspect that it’s going to take quite some time to work it all out. I also suspect that we won’t find a special place in the human brain charged with the role of processing the stuff that we humans like to accumulate.

Humans need to make connections. To people, to places, to experiences, to differentiate friend from foe. With the exception of the stone cutting tool, humans have had less than a 100,000 years to palp material goods ( That’s not to say that making a possessive connection to “stuff” is recent phenomenon. It is very possible that a relative way back could have identified “my stick” or “my rock” and the equivalent sentiment of “fuck off that’s mine”. But the predominance of seeking comfort in possessions is a feature of the modern man. I could be wrong but I’m guessing that 100,000 years isn’t quite enough time for the human brain to evolve specific networks and zones for material goods. Co-opting or jerry-rigging other parts of the brain: yes. Probably. Evolving unique networks and zones: I suspect not.

Alex Singer. Hubba, hubba

So, if you will indulge me, if there isn’t a locus in the human brain for material possessions, then why do we focus so much on them? Or rather, how are we able to expend so much energy and resources seeking them out if the human brain doesn’t actually have the hardware to deal with it?

I rather like Alex Singer’s. And if you are reading this blog I suspect that you do too. Or you might have at least heard of them. Or you are “into” bicycles and are wondering when I will show some bicycle pictures. Or wondering when this diatribe will end. Or coming to the realisation that I have stolen 5 minutes of your life and you are never ever going to get that back. You might also recognise names like Ernest Csuka, Gino Bartali, Fausto Coppi, Poulidour, Anquetil, Desgrange, Hinault. More than 99.99% of the world don’t. And seem no worse off for it. Like most of you I have bounced through most of my life comfortably ignorant of Alex Singer but, over the course of a misspent youth, the name has become imprinted as a synonym of class and quality. I have never ridden an Alex Singer. I am not “into” randonneuring nor cyclotouring. Yet I want one. Ten years ago I thought Mr Singer just made sewing machines.

1976 Alex Singer. 

Sold USD $9,100.

Another mid 70s Alex Singer recently sold on ebay. With landscape. 

Imprints and connections are, by their very nature, acquired. I feel some gooey goodness when I ride a bicycle. And when I started riding just about every bicycle in existence was made of steel. So steel + bicycle = gooey goodness feeling. Of the set of humans that like riding bicycles there is a rather small subset of misfits with an outsized appreciation of the somewhat uncommon bicycle relic. Vintage stuff from a time when slavery was legal, women couldn’t vote and porn was some lacy thing around a girl’s leg. Stuff that is nowhere near as good as what we have now. Most of these misfits, like me, are old. Call us enthusiasts if you must but anyone spending vast amounts of time/ effort/ money on old bicycles is simply barking mad. Or stupid. But we are enthusiastic. And we will snigger at chopper and low-rider enthusiasts whose bikes are darn near unrideable at any time past or present.

There is an even smaller subset of riders who know about Bruce Gordon.

1979 Bruce Gordon.

I don’t know how many times this item has been relisted on ebay. But it’s lots. I’m also not exactly sure why no one is buying it. Maybe because it’s too big. Maybe it’s the two-tone fade and one of them colours just happens to be purple. Maybe there is a vastly smaller group of riders aware of Mr Gordon and only a few of them have a deep enough connection to be prepared to hand over coin. 

I also wonder how many people make a connection to this:

Cezary Bodzianowski. Giro d’Italia (2007)
Everyday object as art. Art as everyday object. LOL. 

Because it includes a bunch of people that don’t ride bikes, I’m willing to bet it’s more than the number who make a connection to a bicycle built by an unashamedly misanthropic man. 

So I have come to a realisation that selling stuff isn’t actually about the stuff being sold. It’s about finding a connection. Find that connection and the job is done. Just about. Wind the customer in, get over the price hurdle, and close the deal. Easy.

Well no. Not quite. 

Stuff doesn’t sell itself. Even good stuff like a Bruce Gordon. Sometimes a little magic is required to make or strengthen a connection. It’s called salesmanship. But take a look at privileged societies you will find a curious antipathy for salesmen and their marketing paraphernalia. Yet they play a crucial role as an intermediary when there is no immediate connection between buyer and seller. 

Most people seek an interaction with their environment. And the world is, like, really big. The young, inexperienced, and easily excitable (bless their little souls) often see the world as a joyous explosion of colour full of connections yet to be made. The older, wiser, more focussed folk often see the world as a sea of grey, full of weak connections with the occasional vibrant splash from established (strong) connections. The latter, often charged with guiding the former, don’t take to having a salesman in their face. More accurately, they don’t take to someone (or something) forcing upon them what is, in effect, a weak connection. Yet they will readily follow anything pitched at a strong connection. Nay, more often than not, they are blissfully unaware of the story evolving and unfolding around them.

We often see salesmen as opportunists extracting a commission for products they neither own nor produce. We also notice salesmen when they become a nuisance invading our lives with stuff we don’t really want. Salesman see a world of distracted consumers with plenty of choices. And when they weave their very best magic we don’t even realise they are there. 

The most consistent trait of a good salesman (apart from good looks) is his ability to find, amplify, or otherwise make some connection between the product and the consumer. To do that he will weave you a story. A story from the past. A story from the present. Or a story to be told. And, if he must, he will draw you into a world of abject fantasy. 

Maybe, just maybe, you will buy into it.

We are often not buying stuff. 

We are buying a story.

The best salesmen don’t sell stuff. They sell a good story.

And, as a young salesperson once told me, everyone has something to sell.