How to Seize Attention with the Secrets of a Sideshow Barker

Originally Published on on December 6, 2017  By Hernan Cortez

Step right up!

I learned a lot during my first time as a “barker” in the sticky Texas mud on a carnival midway.

Big Circus Sideshow, founded by the late great showman Jim “JZ” Zajicek, had over 40 attractions under a red and yellow 100-foot circus tent.

Jim “J.Z.” Zaijicek on right. JZ’s animal trainer, Racetrack, on the left. Photo credit: Lori Ballard
Jim “J.Z.” Zaijicek on right. JZ’s animal trainer, Racetrack, on the left. Photo credit: Lori Ballard

My goal? To sell random passersby on buying a ticket to the freak show.

“Freaks! Live! Dead! Other! SEE THEM NOW!”

Sideshow “barkers” prefer to be called “talkers”. Because they don’t bark; they talk— eloquently, thank you. Likewise, I am not here to teach you to ‘bark’ at your clients or prospects. Not today, not tomorrow, not ever.

Guaranteed! For a limited time only!

What I will teach you is how to talk to people in a way that affects them viscerally, so that your message sticks with them for a long time.

In this article, you’ll learn how to hone your new vocal communication skills in order to nail your next investor pitch, attract prospects into your trade show booth, bulldoze a sales presentation, electrify a date, campaign for public office, or even just add some fun and excitement to your next garage sale.

With even the smallest tweaks, you can ratchet up your energy and excitement to equal a circus full of spectacle and celebration. I’ve continued to use what I learned as a sideshow talker in the work that I do today as a street magician, physical comedian, and even as a business owner.

Step right up, step right up, step right up,
Everyone’s a winner, bargains galore
That’s right, you too can be the proud owner
Of the quality goes in before the name goes on
One-tenth of a dollar, one-tenth of a dollar

~ Tom Waits, “Step Right Up”

Carnival talkers have to compete with other alluring, time-proven distractions. Neon, blinking lights. Cheap speakers blaring music. Smells of freshly popped popcorn, diesel smoke, and exotic animals. Wheezin’ and teasin’ carousel tunes. Click-click-clack-clacking rollercoasters climbing and falling with screaming riders. Flags snapping in the wind 20 feet above billowing tents. Beckoning stuffed animals. Win win win!

Similarly, your message has to be heard above the thousands of distractions of phones, apps, internet, media of all kinds, and the cacophony of the streets.

The talker’s pitch evolved to elevate his talk over these other sales tools: the blinking lights, circus flags, etc. A skilled talker uses the complexity of frenzy as a frame for his pitch, rather than seeing it as a sales-stealing distraction.

Your client can tune you out with the siren call of the internet. The wild animals in the boardroom can yank away the attention of your coworkers. But you can use these situations to make an even bigger impact by intensifying your emotional punch.

The big banner-lined sideshows of yore are fading away, but skilled talkers can still be found on TV infomercials. Have you ever channel hopped and found yourself spending mindless minutes watching a commercial for ShamWow? Hundreds of cable stations beckon but you find yourself keeping the ShamWow commercial on for inexplicable reasons. There’s just something that attracts you to stop and watch.

That something is the cadence and emotional rollercoaster the pitchman orchestrates.

You can breath the same air as the top marketers in less than 30 days; if you are not 100% satisfied I will refund your investment and time. Some conditions and stipulations apply.

You too can learn these secrets to create your own carnival ride of a pitch, replete with thrills and chills, laughter and drama, and fear and fun.

Talk the bannerline

Bannerline of the greatest sideshow of this century, Jim Zajicek’s Big Circus Sideshow. Photo taken by another great showman and good friend, Rick West.

Scripting is your secret weapon. Prepare by putting down exactly what you want the client to take away. Why? The carnival talker knows that if she misspeaks just a bit, she waters down the whole pitch; the audience won’t stop — they’ll keep walking down the midway. Hone your script down to the essentials.

I memorized all the carnival talkers’ speeches and got as much training as I could find, and still my spiel often fell flat. Even with all this material, I watched from my elevated ticket booth perch as people walked past… and kept walking. Seeing that nobody was stopping, JZ advised me, “Talk the bannerline, no more.”

The bannerline was a hundred feet of 4×6 foot banners that touted just a few of the freaks, amusements, and museum pieces inside the tent.

See ‘Bessie’ the two-nosed two-mouthed cow! Greet Ertyl and Mertle, the two-headed turtle! Chupacabra! See Them Now!

‘Talking the bannerline’ forced me to kill words. Although I’d lifted the spiels of masterful talkers, these were words of other shows and other times.

We all tend to fall in love with our words. If you overdo it, you can make it a chore for the audience to listen.

Talking the bannerline means reducing your pitch to its strongest points.

Fortunately, the carnival talker has repetition on her side. She only has to be loud enough to be heard — her words, her subjects, and herself more colorful than all else combined. If the casual listener doesn’t have time now, they will remember and return later. The bannerline and the pitch stick.

Prepare your message in advance. Write down what the listener will take home. Trim it down to the barest, flashiest words. Then talk the bannerline.

Since sideshow talkers are hard to find, the easiest way to see a polished pitch man or woman is through infomercials. Don’t expect to be that polished on your first try, and try not to buy what they are selling! But do notice that, even with your guard up, you can be convinced to buy. Old time revival faith healing preachers, like AA Allen, are entertaining examples of what good talkers sound like.

Write your script. Decide on your bannerline— the essential selling points you’re trying to make. Then cut it down. Here are some tips for editing your script:

  • Rank your talking points and use only the top few. If a talking point is neither strong nor relevant, cut it.
  • Focus on the main point. Always be closing! Every single word should build to the close, or the main point. Do not go off on a tangent. Stay focused on your topic and arguments. Don’t be afraid of using repetition.
  • Locate and erase all adverbs. It is better to use a stronger verb. Verbs are the heartbeat of your message. For example: “You’ll rise to the top…” becomes “You’ll skyrocket to the top.” Or: “It completely removes problems,” becomes “It destroys problems.” Be diligent in finding the perfect verb. Don’t settle for anything less than the best verb you can find.
  • Choose adjectives judicially. Mark Twain said it best in a letter he wrote to a student: “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them — then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are far apart.”

When you finish editing your script, it should capture the bannerline of your message — the most exciting and salient points that will stick with your audience and make them stop to take a deeper look.

Deliver with dynamic range

A colorful string of words is like the colorful string of bright, blinking lights all around the carnival lot — they don’t work if they are not turned on.

If you do not elevate the energy while communicating, the lights aren’t on, and the words you chose so carefully will fall flat.

Put energy into your pitch. Note that “energy” is not always volume — a whisper can have more impact than a shout. A smile can be like a switch for the JOY bulb.

If there is an emotion that you want the listener to associate with your talk, you have to live it and breathe it into their subconscious.

Think about the lighting in a theater: transitions of brightness and shadows evoke emotions in the audience. Blinking light conveys more excitement than static light — even if it’s full-on and colorful.

Do the same with your words and how you deliver them. Don’t keep your volume full-on. You have an entire dynamic range to work with: go with varying levels of loudness, “flash” it on and off, and yes, occasionally, turn it up to full blast.

Here are some tips for lighting up your words:

  • Try out the “power pose”— think Superman: arms on hips, cape blowing in the wind— for a few private minutes before you speak.
  • Remember to smile. Your body and mind react to your smile, and this works towards your persuasiveness.
  • The advice you might have heard to over-emote is good, but it has to be done authentically. Be patient and find the emotion in your body, in your memories. Imagine a situation where you experienced the emotion.

As you work with the dynamic range of your talk, you may need to make adjustments. As a professional street performer, I need to watch for feedback from my audience and make adjustments constantly.

For example, I have one magic trick that I had to refine for small audiences on the street. Even though the act itself is very good, it’s too big in that context — kids become frightened and that’s the end of the performance. I had to practice dialing it back or preparing them to see something explosive.

Use cadence for impact

Blinking ferris wheel lights outline the structure of the ride, guiding the eye to see up, out, and around.

In a similar way, cadence can outline your message structure.

Use cadence along with dynamic range to draw the audience’s attention to where you want it to be. Lights flashing pull not only your eyes but your imagination. Your words must draw them along in the same way.

Sideshow talkers are masters of cadence. These are some tricks I learned from mentors on the carnival lot…

Talkers know that each word must land on the ears of the listener, then seep like hot butter into the popcorn of their inner soul in order to have maximum effect.

You can’t have that kind of impact if you talk too fast. You must slow down.

My teacher here was echo. On the carnival lot or in a circus tent, sound bounces, and if you talk too fast, the first word echoes over the following words. You lose power and intelligibility. So even now, off the carnival lot, when I say a word there is a moment where I imagine the word echoing off the back of a circus tent. Then I continue with the next word after a brief pause, and the next.

Here’s some advice I got from a great talker: “Make the pauses big enough to drive a tractor through.”

A great way to practice this is telling jokes. A well-timed pause before delivering a punchline creates more impact— it gives all the elements of the joke a chance to click into place for the listener.

Changing the speed and tempo of your delivery enlivens your content and keeps the audience listening.

Practice these pauses with your script to achieve the greatest effect, letting your words seep in like hot butter or solidify like caramel on a sticked apple. You can direct attention to an important idea you are about to convey with a simple, microsecond pause.

Cadence is not just full stops and full starts.

It is also part of the the musicality of your delivery. “Add music but don’t sing it,” was the advice of my favorite teacher.

A simple tactic is to actually practice singing your talk, perhaps to the current song on the radio. Of course, you won’t sing it when you deliver your pitch, but you can use this exercise to inform you of the ups and downs in your delivery.

Singing your pitch can reveal places where a pause or change of volume can have a big impact.

Carl Stalling’s music is great for this practice, particularly his Warner Brothers cartoon music. You might want to find The Carl Stalling Project: Music From Warner Bros. Cartoons, 1936–1958; the music here is very emotive. It is episodic, rich, and full. In this collection, it spills from your speakers in bits and pieces (and even includes musicians’ comments and chatter). It’s perfect for this exercise.

Look at the script of your words and pretend to assign a musical phrase to each one. Consider the importance of the word to your overall message. What word needs to bleed? Which ones need to dance, which ones to crawl? With Carl Stalling’s compositions, you hear the cartoon character’s temperament in every musical note. This gives you creative hooks to experiment with both cadence and dynamic range.

Come in a little closer and I will tell you a secret.

Your pitch won’t be a wacky cartoon soundtrack (unless you want it to be). What you are doing here is learning to emphasize words: stretch them out, squeeze them into imaginary musical containers. You won’t put your audience to sleep if your word-music is conducted like a Wurlitzer organ orchestral masterpiece.

Imagine Meryl Streep enunciating her best part to a Bugs Bunny soundtrack as she is learning it. By the time she is through, there is no sign of Bugs’ twitching tail or carrot.

There is an added benefit of fun to squeezing and unpacking your pitch into cartoon music. You sweep the cobwebs out of the dusty corners of your mind and you may even get an unexpected creative spark — or simply lift your spirit as you elevate and hone your words.

Learn from a Master—Reversing the Musical Exercise

Instrumental music like that of Carl Stalling can provide insight into how to vocally punch-up your talk. But there is so much to learn by carefully listening to some of the great musical vocalists. Their delivery of lyrics can take words from ordinary to sublime.

Try this exercise for yourself. Read these Amy Winehouse lyrics. Now, read them out loud as entertainingly as you can.

Now, find her performance of the same song and listen to Amy craft those lyrics into a rollercoaster ride. She climbs, climbs, climbs and then jumps onto a balloon made of cotton candy. She simmers on the kettle of a popcorn popper, getting hotter and hotter, and then unexpectedly explodes! She growls and whispers, intimates and betrays. She takes you to school on how to vocalize a boring script.

Find a great vocalist you enjoy and study their delivery. Look at their lyrics before listening to them craft them into something more. Where do they pause, punch it up, or suddenly soften? What inspiration can you find for your own pitch?

Bring it All Together and Mark Up Your Script

Talk the bannerline. Deliver with dynamic range. Use cadence for impact.

Now that you’ve been working on your pitch, mark up that script.

Use arrows to show where your ups and downs are (volume, speed, and intensity). Where will you breathe? What speed do you use to deliver certain lines? Use fluorescent highlighters for emotions and feelings. Then use this to practice.

Actors learn over time how to mark up their script. They can do it in the hallway minutes before an audition. Using their own symbols, they transform a handful of sugar into a giant cotton candy confection.

With experience, you too can spin a dull pitch into impactful verbal art in minutes.

Use this to push the words out into the world. The more you find and use your emotive vocabulary, the easier it becomes.

And then, practice. Use your marked-up script to hone your pitch into a performance that no one can turn away from. Calibrate! Ask a friend to listen to your delivery, and turn it up or down based on their response.

Using the tricks of the carnival talker, you’ll deliver ideas that soak into the imagination of your audience like butter on a hot popcorn kernel— memorable key phrases, paused and amplified by drama and spirit, as you talk your bannerline and usher them into your tent.


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