Onstage Lessons

Tall centerpieces hurt fundraising auctions

Everyone wants their event to look great. The challenge is to strike a balance between form and function, especially when it comes to the centerpieces.

Even though they are see-through in the middle, the paper planes on these center-pieces are obscuring the podium.

Even though they are see-through in the middle, the paper planes on these center-pieces are obscuring the podium.

As auctioneers, our ability to engage a crowd is dependent upon two things: the crowd’s ability to hear us, and our ability to see them. It isn’t just the bidder’s paddles or numbers that we need to be able to see: we need to be able to look people in the eye, because it reveals a lot about their personality. Do they want to be played with? Do they want recognition? Are they smiling? Do they look to their spouse for the go-ahead between every bid? Are they looking to see who is bidding against them?

There is a lot we need to see from the stage, all of which enables us to raise more money for you in your fundraising auction. Tall, bulky centerpieces that block the line of sight from the stage to attendees’ faces hinder fundraising. They wind up costing you money – usually much more than you paid for them – in lost auction revenue.

If I can’t see the bidder as auctioneer, it means I have to move around on the stage until I can see them. Provided I know they are there, and know that they are trying to bid. But when I’m working around tall centerpieces, I usually just get to see the paddle number, jutting out over a mass of flowers.

If a bidder feels like they aren’t being seen, they either stand up or put their paddle down. Either are sub-optimal ways to get your crowd to engage.

Short, theme-appropriate centerpieces work best. They enable the people in charge of décor to flex their creative muscles without their vision literally getting in the way of raising money. If a designer insists on doing tall centerpieces, make sure they are as transparent as possible.

When in doubt, sit facing the stage at a table and ask yourself, “Could I look the auctioneer (or any other speaker) in the eye?”  If the answer is “no” you have to decide if there is anything you can do about it that night, or if it is an issue you’ll need to address the following year.  Because our goal is to lower barriers to supporting your cause, not build them.

Personalize your paddle raise

The paddle raise is the most important component of most fundraising auctions, often raising more than the rest of the auction combined. The way it is introduced is crucial to engaging the crowd and ensuring success.

A good paddle raise pitch tells stories that connect your audience to your mission on a personal level. It doesn't have to be long, it doesn't have to be overly dramatic, it just needs to be honest and engaging. Like this video of Trent Yaconelli, associate executive director of the Boys & Girls Clubs of St Helena and Calistoga, at their BIG Night gala.

Display live lot numbers by any means necessary

Every live fundraising auction should make sure the audience always knows what lot number is currently up for sale throughout the entire auction. It is not enough for the auctioneer to announce the number of each lot as they begin to sell it, there has to be some sort of visual display that serves as an anchor for the crowd.

Fundraising auctions are usually rowdy affairs, with people talking at their tables throughout the auction. It is unreasonable to expect each and every audience member to pay strict enough attention throughout the entire event to know exactly where the auction is.

Displaying the lot numbers gives people the ability to tune in when a lot they are interested in is up for sale, and to enjoy their friends’ company the rest of the time (something we encourage, wholeheartedly). Usually this is accomplished through a slideshow presentation projected on to large screens.

The Taste of Howell Mountain event takes place in St Helena in a tent during the afternoon in June: a projector simply isn't an option.

The Taste of Howell Mountain event takes place in St Helena in a tent during the afternoon in June: a projector simply isn't an option.

Sometimes, however, it is not possible to have a projector or a slide show. Few projectors can be seen outside during the day, for example. Some venues do not lend themselves to large screens, and some events simply don’t have the budget for high-tech solutions.

It may look a little home-spun, but this flip-chart lot number sign does a very important job.
It may look a little home-spun, but this flip-chart lot number sign does a very important job.

Our advice is to make the most of the situation in the best way that you can; be creative. Embrace low-tech solutions and find a way to make sure that your crowd remains informed throughout the auction. You can have volunteers walk the stage and into the crowd holding aloft a large numbers (like a high-class version of a boxing ring girl).  If you are in a gymnasium you can use the scoreboard to keep track of where you are.

We’ve even done a number of events that took the most straightforward, low-tech approach possible: a flip chart with each lot number pre-printed on it. Keeping your audience informed will always yield better results than doing nothing. And any auction with more than three lots needs a way to keep the audience informed.

The scientific case for hiring a professional fundraising auctioneer

One of the challenges of being a fundraising auctioneer is the number of amateurs who think they could do my job – and number of seemingly otherwise intelligent event chairs willing to believe them. I don’t know what it is about being an auctioneer that makes so many people think they could simply jump onstage and do it. Maybe it’s the fact that we all learn how to say numbers in sequence in elementary school.

When the stage has been set for success, don't leave it up to an amateur to maximize the potential of your crowd.
When the stage has been set for success, don't leave it up to an amateur to maximize the potential of your crowd.

We are professionals who have focused on fundraising auctions as a craft so that we can hone and perfect that craft. I’ve long argued that anyone can look brilliant when an auction is going swimmingly well, but it is a true professional who can handle an onstage challenge with aplomb. And now I have scientific proof to back me up.

A fundraising auction is a high-intensity affair, a continual stream of in-the-moment decisions being made that range from the mundane to the extraordinary, and sometimes extreme. Most of the obvious decisions seem easy enough to make, especially to the untrained eye. But when an extraordinary situation arises, the person onstage has microseconds to respond before the crowd starts forming an opinion – good or bad. And it is when the time pressure is greatest that the amateur is most likely to mess things up.

Law and Finance expert Frank Partnoy, in his book Wait: The Art and Science of Delay, uses chess as the example of how novices cannot cope with time-sensitive pressure. Most of us novice chess players can muddle through a game of chess well enough to present ourselves as competent. But add a timed element, such as in blitz chess where you only have 30 seconds per move, and the difference between novice and expert becomes profound.

“Expert chess players cope well with this kind of intense time pressure,” writes Partnoy. “When grand masters play blitz chess, the quality of their moves hardly deteriorates at all. They instinctively pick the best move, right away. But when novices play blitz chess, it is a disaster. Either they tap their conscious system and use up too much time thinking about the next move, or they make quick, bad moves. Either way, their systems overload and they lose.”

In the real world and on the chess board, Portnoy argues, “The message is clear: if you only have a few seconds to make a decision, you had better be an expert.”

Why then, with tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line, would anyone risk giving the reigns of their auction to an amateur who is, statistically speaking, prone to messing it up when it matters most? The amount of money one “saves” in such a situation is outweighed by the performance a professional will bring to your stage.

And this isn’t just me saying this, it’s science.

The Top 5 Worst Ways to Introduce an Auction

The way in which a fundraising auction is introduced tells the crowd a lot about what is to come. Successful events carefully map out the transition to the auction, ensuring that we’re building momentum to an important moment for the evening and the organization.

Occasionally, however, instead of setting the stage for success the person who introduces the auction (and auctioneer) sends a completely different message. Here, then, are the top 5 least successful ways to introduce a fundraising auction (all of which we’ve experienced at real galas):

  1. “I hate to interrupt your dinner, but it’s time to do the auction.”
  2. “I know everyone is having a good time, but…”
  3. “Boy, has anyone else’s 401k/portfolio taken as brutal a hit as mine did this last week? Seriously. I’m glad to see so many people given how bad the economy is…”
  4. “There’s going to be some dancing later, we’ve got a great band, so just sit through this and we’ll get to the fun part.”
  5. “I know we all hate auctions, but ours is short.”

That last one is, if you can believe it, verbatim from an event Ed did last fall - I was there, and saw the whole thing. And while a bad introduction for the auction and auctioneer isn’t the end of the world, it certainly didn’t set the right tone from the onset.

A bad introduction is also a sign of a lack of clear messaging across the entire event. If just one of your representatives onstage isn't tuned-in to your message, how off is the rest of your event? The lesson isn't simply to write a good introduction for your auction, the lesson is to do a message audit for your entire event, and make sure everyone is focused on your ultimate goal.