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Text Without Context is Forgettable: What Bogart and Gable Teach Us About the One Liner

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As I was watching The Maltese Falcon for the umpteenth time Sunday, I anxiously awaited the “showdown” scene between Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) and Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor). After a rough and rocky relationship (both business AND personal), Spade let’s her know that he’s turning her in for murder, even though he loves her. Spade’s wonderful dialogue, both mildly loving and extremely sarcastic goes like this:  “I hope they don’t hang you, precious, by that sweet neck. Yes, angel, I’m gonna send you over. The chances are you’ll get off with life. That means if you’re a good girl, you’ll be out in 20 years. I’ll be waiting for you. If they hang you, I’ll always remember you.”

To me the line is outstanding and it’s delivery by Spade, seals the deal. It’s almost as great, and not nearly as popular, as the famous, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn,” finally delivered to Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler (Vivien Leigh) by Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) in Gone With The Wind.  “Frankly, my dear….” is, in fact, so memorable that it is considered the greatest movie quote of all time by the American Film Institute. For me, the less remembered, but perhaps more crushing line occurs moments earlier when Scarlett says, “But I love you.” and Rhett returns with, “That’s your misfortune.” 

“Frankly, my dear”, even though it contained the shock value of being followed by a curse word (unheard of at the time in a movie), would fall short if it were not for the experiences the movie goer faces with/for Rhett Butler and the dialogue which precedes it. Same thing with Bogart’s dialogue. The great one liner, or three liner in Bogart’s case, like the awesome punchline, is not so great if poorly set up. Text without context is forgettable.
Like politicians, salespeople are great at the one liner, the soundbite, the quip. A few get remembered, most don’t. The ones we remember have substance and are sticky because they work within the context of what is being discussed. Others, not so much.

I remember sitting in a class once and the instructor was discussing overcoming commission objections. He told us, he recalled a Seller telling him that another agent would handle his listing for a considerably lower fee. His immediate response was, “Well, I guess some people know what they’re worth.”

Maybe for the non customer oriented or ego driven salesperson, this “works.” For someone bent on building relationships, the cornerstone of effective sales, it comes off mean spirited, defensive, or just plain nasty. Why, you ask? Okay, let’s talk about this:
Let’s look at three reasons the quip or one liner may not be any salesperson’s best option.

1) These are real live people on the other end of the conversation. In many cases, real live people that are struggling in today’s economy. If you’re a consumer, every penny counts. Consumers are scrimping, They’re trying to do our best to get by, They are genuinely questioning whether the fee an agent is charging is worth what we are getting. And they get a quip? And often it’s delivered in either condescension, sarcasm or both. Empathy, your ability to understand life in their shoes, would be a better sales tool.

2) Given the circumstances outlined above, the quip is disrespectful, rigid and clearly illustrates the agent is concerned only with their own world and not the world occupied by the consumer. A key step in sales is the interview: getting to know the potential client’s motivation and needs. Once known, the salesperson is better equipped to serve. Disrespect, shortness and rigidity does not lend itself to an open, honest, sharing relationship. Rhett KNEW Scarlett well. He had been through hell and high water with her. His line was not delivered spur of the moment by any means.

3) There is a better way. Sales is a relationship business and to practice the art of the quipster is to damage the relationship. Fee dialogues should be welcomed as an opportunity to validate value. The consumer’s question should be clarified and their motivation further explored. Mostly, consumers should be listened to with the utmost of care (we’re not in Congress, for cryin’ out loud). Only after careful listening, clarifying and validating should a decision be made.

In the end, the instructor may not have cut his fee (he never really told us and it isn’t written anywhere that he has to, right?). In the end, he may have prevailed by illustrating value commensurate with what he charged not bad mouthing the competition. In the end, maybe he did not make the sale (or want it for that matter). Hopefully, in the end, he learned to avoid being the quipster and engage in serious conversation with the consumer maintaining the opportunity to develop a better relationship with them. Maybe not. Maybe he just didn’t give a damn.

Is there a place for the great line in the sales world? Maybe. The jury is out on that one as far as I can tell. What I know is this: both Sam Spade and Rhett Butler worked hard at salvaging their relationship. They didn’t give up until it was clear that no other suitable result was available. So despite the fact that both are great lines (quips, even), “Frankly, my dear,” and “I’ll always remember you,” are in the end, their final play; the walk away line; the parting gift, the last resort.

We don’t know if Brigid was hung or if Sam was there for her prison release. We don’t know if Margaret Mitchell would have brought Rhett and Scarlett together if sequels had been the norm in the 30’s and 40’s. Personally, I don’t think so. Relationships damaged and sent to their last straw are seldom repaired.

But they make for great movie lines.