Culture Magazine

So You Want to Be an Auctioneer [the Art of the Chant]

By Bbenzon @bbenzon
Katy Vine, Do You Have What It Takes to Be a Master Auctioneer?, Texas Monthly, June 24, 2020.
The auctioneer's chant:
Live bid-calling is like a series of contracts, and when an auctioneer says “Sold,” accepting the bid, the highest bidder is on the hook. Therefore, each part of the chant is crucial. “A chant is made of three components: a statement, a question, and a suggestion,” Jones began. The jumbles of syllables between the numbers are called filler words. The class scribbled. The basic chant Jones proposed—the one we would employ for the remainder of the class and that would provide a soundtrack for all our dreams and nightmares—was “One dollar bid, now two, now two, will you give me two?”
This chant was the “Dick and Jane” of the form, the starter set upon which we would build our own auctioneer identities. A chant is as much a trademark to an auctioneer as James Brown’s scream and Bob Wills’s high-pitched holler were to them. All chants, Jones stressed, must be conducive to rhythm, melody, and clarity, exploiting words that easily roll off the tongue. Filler words and phrases like “bid ’em at” and “gimme” and “I’m bid” and “how ’bout” are better than “what about,” since consonants that use the front of the mouth (like b) require less breath than letters like w. Jones asked us to hold our hands in front of our mouths to compare “who” to “gimme” to demonstrate how much more breath was required for the former. The numbers need to be clear; the filler words are there for pleasure—to add an energetic, pressing, hypnotic quality. Filler words should give buyers time to consider their next offers but not so much time that the rhythm of the chant is broken. A clunky chant could lead to a hoarse auctioneer and confused or sluggish audience members, reluctant to bid.
“There is no book,” Jones continued. “There’s no company that says, ‘This is how you do it.’ There is no professor except me, Professor Jones.”
Jones' own chant:
I’ve listened to Jones’s own chant several times; in 1998 it won the International Auctioneer Championship. Best I can tell, it begins, “Five dollar now five gidibid five dollar now ten gidibid ten, ten now fifteen digibigit now fifteen now fifteen gidibid, now twenty?” He varies his hum around a low F key, breaking in with updates like “You’re out here!” and acknowledgments like “Thank you, sir!” The chant strikes the perfect balance between soothing and invigorating, like mall music.
Standing before the class now, he launched into a short example. “I’m at fifty dollars, now seventy-five, will you take it at seventy-five?” he started. Watching an authority chant up close was hardly demystifying. Jones held the microphone with his right hand. He used his left to both acknowledge bids and query potential bidders in the audience—fingers together, palm facing up, reaching high to direct his attention to the back of the room, extending low to indicate a bidder in the front of the room. He was a performer and a conductor at the same time, scanning the crowd for any hint of interest and responding with an inquiring expression. Physically, he exuded calm, steady authority.
“You have to sound melodic, but you don’t have to do a lot. If you roll it out right, it sounds like you’re doing a lot of work, but you’re not, really,” he said. He stressed that the chant needed to fit the situation. “If you’re doing a charity auction and you go too fast, you’ll lose your crowd. In real estate, you’ll scare them to death.”
It's mine!
People often pay more at live and online auctions than they would in a more straightforward transaction. They suffer from afflictions like “the winner’s curse”—when auction winners pay either more than they planned to or more than the item is worth—and “bidder’s heat,” a frenzied mindset as old as ancient Rome (calor licitantis). We’re helpless against the primal pull of competition.
While buyers may come to an auction looking for a bargain, a funny thing happens after they take their seats. “You need to know this, as an auctioneer,” Jones said. “The minute a lot of buyers place a bid on an item, they’re desperate to keep it. They become territorial. They’re thinking, ‘I’m not letting someone else get it’—then someone outbids them on it! ‘How dare you!’ ”
The increments also have a huge effect on competition. Starting low gives the crowd the impression of a deal, which sticks in their minds even as the bids begin to soar. Then, once the auction gets rolling, the increments usually increase: if an auctioneer is raising the bid in ten-dollar upticks and a bidder shouts out a twenty-dollar raise, bids generally keep going up at that rate. That causes other bidders to think, “Hey, this Garfield mug is hot!” They become even more motivated.
It's like being in a secret club:
At an auction, “actual worth” falls away. Worth is dependent upon bidders’ momentary whims—various, unique, personal equations that neutralize the outside world’s opinions as well as the seller’s sentimentality.
The bidder, I saw, was like a spectator at a magic show. Audience members walk in with a skeptical mind, but they secretly crave a portal into another dimension, where anything is possible. Where financial realities are suspended in the face of tantalizing urgency. Whether that old poster is really worth the thousand dollars you paid for it is almost irrelevant. You won!
There's more at the link.
H/t Tyler Cowen.

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