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Tech Industry

Sales technique, Vegas style

COMDEX--When you think about it, PowerPoint sales presentations are actually more interesting when read as a form of free-verse poetry. Nearly every slide (unprecedented design, low latency, large size!) carries a loony urgency that, with a few additional punctuation marks, can rival the entire annual output of an alternative college writing program.

"No new high-end cores shipped."
"Bipolar hopes extinguished."
"Where is main memory?

COMDEX--When you think about it, PowerPoint sales presentations are actually more interesting when read as a form of free-verse poetry. Nearly every slide (unprecedented design, low latency, large size!) carries a loony urgency that, with a few additional punctuation marks, can rival the entire annual output of an alternative college writing program.

It's not like the slides lose any of their impact when read this way. Sales execs have force-fed these presentations to audiences since trade shows began. Two days ago, most made sense. Even their accompanying statements--"We're looking for the monkeys, not the gorillas as far as IT management is concerned...You know, not the biggest, but some of the smartest"--seemed reasonable at the time. Now, except for the one slide that features a gaggle of cartoon pirates trying to pry open a chest that reads, "NT migration=$$$," I'm thoroughly lost.

Sales remains the black art of the high technology world, the embarrassing yet necessary wing of the industry without which everything else would collapse. Nobody respects sales reps. Derided as dopes by developers and annoyances by potential clients, salespeople travel the world like the plague in sport coats.

One day, it's a Marriott in New Orleans with a bunch of mid-level bureaucrats. The next, it's another pink room and another platter of shiny pastries. Pop up a few bar graphs and don't forget to remember everyone's first name. It's like a folk song with commission checks.

Of course, it's not like this skittishness is necessarily unwarranted. Some companies, apparently, snag as many Penn State fraternity guys within reach, load them up with color copies, and voila--the sales team is born. Still, it's not like everyone carrying a cell phone and a presentation kit is a goon.

Comdex endures mostly as a vindication of this wing of the industry. All year long, Internet executives and analysts gather for conferences in San Francisco, New York, and other tony locations to blithely propound upon the "new paradigm" or "digital content in the modern age." Everyone walks away convinced of his or her own brilliance and prescience. They believe, sometimes rightly so, that they are creating something new.

What's being created, though, can only exist because of the skills others have in moving glorified office products at remarkably high margins year after year to customers who probably don't want them. Do you really need a global positioning system that can locate the nearest two pancake houses from any location in the Western Hemisphere? Hell, yes, you do.

It's not that most of us don't do sales; most of us can't. That's why many of the top-flight reps look like they worked as extras in a gangland movie.

These people don't get to traipse with the digerati. Instead, they attend team-building exercises in Scottsdale, Arizona. In this vein, Comdex serves to strip away pretension and forces everyone to wallow in the gross fun of material accumulation.

No better place exists for stripping away pretension and dignity than Las Vegas. I know this well: I grew up in Nevada. (To answer your first two questions, no, my mother is not a cocktail waitress, and no, I know of no sure way to beat video poker machines.) I've watched families stampede into buffets as if they were boarding a refugee boat. I've met men who've crafted a comfortable living singing "Why, Why, Why, Delilah" in fireplaces lounge. I've cleaned tables for Shriners.

The garish spectacles are still here this week. What changes is the cast of characters. Executives who command seven-figure budgets end up groveling at the feet of a superhero throwing squeezable globes on the show floor. Others walk around for hours, shackled to a dream and a cardboard IBM briefcase full of junk brochures. Then there are the computers-on-a-belt people, back again to revolutionize both computing and fashion, if only someone would listen.

"The extent of human greed never fails to astound me," said Keith, who is spending his week at Comdex handing out key chains. "We had a woman get knocked down the other day."

So, for this week, forget your inhibitions. As the PowerPoint charts say, it's time for new horizons.