May 5

John Carlton on Copywriting: Tiny’s Panhead Harley


carlton-on-copy-imageJohn Carlton shows how basic street-level salesmanship can help you quickly bond with even hostile audiences.

His comments:

This is a good example of shallow knowledge. I was in a bar in Virginia City during biker week. They have them quite frequently. Bikers come in from all over the country to go up there and party down at these wild West saloons. Of course, there’s no closing time in Nevada, so the bars stay open really late. I have a friend in Virginia City, and I was housesitting one summer. I was at one of the bars, the Union Brewery, in fact. I was having a beer, and a woman comes up and sits next to me and just strikes up a conversation on her own. Early in the conversation, she said something about her bike out front, so I said “oh, you’re a biker chick”.

Now, this is how stupid I am. I didn’t know that that isn’t necessarily a friendly term to use to a woman who rides a Harley. She laughed, and turned around and said “oh Tiny, this guy just called me a biker chick”. And I turn around, and Tiny is, of course, 250 snarling, tattoos all up and down his arms, beard, the typical biker look. And Tiny looks at me and his brow furrows. And this really is the wild West up there. There are bar fights up there all the time. It would not have been a long fight. Right at the time his brow furrowed I remembered a phrase from the book “Hell’s Angels”, that Hunter Thompson had written.

I don’t know to this day if I had this right, people correct me all the time, but at one point, the Harley Davidson had a pan head engine. In the 50s they switched to what’s called a shovel head engine. I think I have that right. So, I looked at Tiny, and in a split second I knew I had to gamble, and I said “Tiny, is that your pan head out front?” Not knowing what I was talking about.

Tiny’s face breaks into this big grin, he puts this paw onto my left shoulder, lifts me out of the seat, says “come on buddy”, and hauls me out front. He had the only pan head out there. I could’ve said “is that your shovel head out there?” And I would have been wrong, because he had a 40-year-old bike. And I had to stand there for a half hour with Tiny, still with his paw on my shoulder, thinking about other things to say about the bike. “That sure is shiny chrome, Tiny”.

As it turns out, I know a little bit about art and stuff, my friend Mark actually spent some time airbrushing bike gas tanks (this guy had the flames and the skull and stuff), so I know a little bit about that. But this is a good example of how little tiny fraction of knowledge saved me.

I use this all the time when I talk to people. When I go into a room and don’t know anything about the people there, I don’t know anything about the business, I don’t have a photographic memory, but I am interested in the human race and its civilization enough that I can pull something up to just get started. And you don’t need much.

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