The Show

by Chris Arlen on March 22, 2012

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The Show: A Parable about the Right Way of SellingSometimes selling is not about how-to. Sometimes it’s about context. This is one of those times.  Besides, when will you find Shakespeare, Petronius, Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando all together in the same article about selling? It’s true, Google it.

Selling is Theater

Using theater as a metaphor for selling is relatively new. It’s only been around since sales trainers sold training, less than 100 years.

However, theater as a metaphor for life has been around much longer. In 1599, Shakespeare wasn’t the first to use the metaphor in his “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players”.

In the first century AD, Petronius (ca. 27-66 AD), wrote quod fere totus mundus exerceat histrionem: because almost the whole world are actors.  As a Roman consul and courtier in the reign of Nero, Petronius probably saw a lot of sales presentations and must have suffered through many painful ones. However, in Nero’s time bad presentations likely received harsher punishment than losing a sale.

Back to the present.

Selling is Acting

Since we are all actors in life, so we are when selling. And that brings us to a common misconception about acting. There is not one but two forms of acting. And the difference between them can make or break your success selling.

Sir Laurence OlivierLaurence Olivier, arguably the greatest English stage and film actor in the last century, felt most comfortable acting when wearing a wig, a fake nose or some other elaborate make-up. According to one of his film co-stars, Peter Ustinov, Olivier often insisted on this, even when it wasn’t particularly required for the role he played.

As an actor, Olivier crafted his performance from the outside in. He presented his character by altering the way he spoke, moved and looked. In acting parlance, he “indicated” the character he was playing, and was brilliant at it. However, he was the extremely rare actor who delivered great performances by “indicating” them.

Compare Olivier with his American counterpart, Marlon Brando. Brando was arguably the greatest American film and stage actor of the last century. Yet he approached acting far differently than Olivier’s outside-in approach.

Brando lived his characters. Before performing his roles, he got inside their skin. He knew his character’s  lives as if they were his own; their histories, beliefs, values, prejudices, likes and dislikes.

Marlon BrandoHe asked himself what would he do in his characters’ situations if he knew what they knew. Then using the Magic If, he behaved as if he were in their situation.

As a result, Brando behaved naturally, he was present in the moment. Unlike other actors who pretended to be characters, Brando just was that person, authentic and honest. He acted from the inside-out, which is also known as Method acting.

About Selling

The difference between indicating and behaving honestly is that we, the audience, can be persuaded to follow a Brando-type sales rep and do what is asked. Because that rep is present and authentic in what they’re doing, and they’ve done the right work in preparation. We instinctively know they are genuine.

However, with an Olivier-type sales rep, we know they’re acting, pretending to be something they’re not. We won’t follow their advice because we sense they’re lying, even though they may be very good at it. We can smell their insincerity.

Imagine if your customers felt you were not honest; you were only pretending: you only wanted your commission and not a good deal for them. That would be the end of your career.


But here’s the issue. Most sales reps believe (or want to believe) they’re viewed by their customers as authentic, honest, and genuine.

Yet when sales reps “indicate” they’re selling, their performances show them for what they are;  self-interested, shallow, and dissembling.

As it is with acting, so it is with selling, except more so. We believe (or want to believe)  we’re much better than our performances reveal.

The Parable Closes

And so ends this story about right-behavior for sales reps. If all the world is a stage, and all the men and women merely players, then how can sales reps become better actors?

Method acting, though it may be helpful in the long term, is hard work, time consuming and requires spending money, not making it. So:

  • How do you become more authentic in your sales performances?
  • What can you do to avoid customers seeing you as self-interested?

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ed Selkow March 22, 2012 at 2:57 pm


You hit it right on the head once again! Authenticity is difficult when it has to be conjured up for a performance. A narcissistic, highly manipulative personality giving off the “appearance” of authenticity, can’t help coming through with the long sales cycle we have in this industry. Tough to be in the service business when it is the sales reps own interests outweigh all others.

Chris Arlen March 23, 2012 at 7:12 am


It’s easy to see the reptiles among us sales folk. But there are authentic people selling who have picked up “sales tricks”. When they put their sales hat on they unknowingly use those tricks on customers. That’s bad acting unintentionally.

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