wait: the art and science of delay

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.