Boosting morale with hot air

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At first glance, the boom in motivational speakers is a harmless, almost charming, distinctly American phenomenon that reflects our healthy desire to improve - and our less healthy hunger for the quick fix.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with millions of Americans cramming into auditoriums each year to hear flamboyant speakers offer pithy, easily digestible formulas for fame, success, and wealth. No one seems to be injured by this business.

But the motivational-speaking boom is a troubling development. It undermines integrity, and at least tacitly rewards slickness rather than substance. It also perpetuates the ethos that quiet competence and modest achievement are pass, and that self-promotion is the best way to secure due rewards.

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The success of prominent motivational speakers demonstrates that the most important thing in life is not so much accomplishing tangible goals, but packaging - and selling - a program that offers a sure road to success.

"There aren't a lot of people in this business who have actually accomplished much in the real world," one motivational speaker confided to me while attending a National Capital Speakers Association meeting. "It's a lot easier to talk," he added.

I'm convinced the motivational-speaking craze imposes real, if subtle, costs to our country's values. By example, if not by specific injunctions, many of these speakers impart values that corrode our national psyche.

Analysts agree the soaring market for motivational speakers is generated in large measure by the proliferation of conferences, seminars, and meetings organized by businesses, trade associations, universities, and others.

Not surprisingly, scores of entrepreneurs have recognized that there is plenty of money to be made through motivational speeches which can then be used to promote books, tapes, CDs, seminars, and workshops. There is even a cottage industry of people who give speeches, seminars, and workshops on how to make money giving speeches, seminars, and workshops.

According to several Washington speakers bureaus, daily fees range from $1,000 for the moderately successful speaker to $15,000 for the niche celebrity, to more than $100,000 for national celebrities.

One speaker, Tom Morris, a former philosophy professor at Notre Dame, doesn't seem to find any limits in response to the fees he charges. "I keep raising my prices but people still keep calling, and I don't even do any marketing. I didn't win a war, I didn't win a national football championship, I'm just a philosopher."

The motivational-speaking industry has grown into a multibillion-dollar enterprise. Speakers such as Tony Robbins, Deepak Chopra, Zig Ziglar, Stephen Covey, and Keith Harrell have become millionaires and built veritable empires dispensing advice. I believe most participants in this business share culpability for the burgeoning hot-air charade.

Many of these speakers are unabashedly trying to cash in. While there are, of course, differences among the several thousand motivational speakers in the US, there are also common themes. Virtually all of the big-name speakers have developed impressively polished presentations that purport to distill elusive truths into accessible formulas. But beneath the impressive veneer, many of the programs do little more than package commonplace, even banal, observations into exotic-sounding formulations.

Speakers often hijack historical figures to make their programs appear sophisticated and erudite. For example, you can learn how to think like Leonardo da Vinci, take charge like Abraham Lincoln, or understand life's complexities like Shakespeare. But many speakers cynically twist the words and records of these historical figures beyond recognition.

The businesses and trade groups that largely pay for these performers often coach them to impart a specific message to their employees. That's their prerogative, but it would be more honest to disclose this. Of greater concern, motivational speakers are often used as a substitute for substantive, ongoing training or other employee benefits.

Management experts agree that most of these speakers are adept at providing a jolt of adrenaline and quick bursts of inspiration, but that this rarely translates into long-term, tangible changes in individual or corporate behavior.

Many audiences take these presentations with the proverbial grain of salt. But there are thousands who have developed almost cult like attachments to certain speakers and spend large sums each year going to talks, buying tapes, reading books, and then, eventually, searching for a new guru to embrace. Clearly this reflects a hunger for simple, formulaic responses to the complexity of life.

So, what is the preferred alternative? First, groups that hire speakers should employ serious people whose careers and accomplishments command emulation - not just their orations. They should trust that their staff will appreciate and learn from people of real weight.

Audiences should be suspicious of speakers who brandish glib formulas and catchy slogans, especially when they have no track record of success - except in giving speeches.

Most importantly, Americans would do well to return to proven sources of insight and inspiration: The recollections of wise neighbors and friends; those rarely touched classics collecting dust on the bookshelf; and even the quiet voice within each of us that can only be heard when chatter is tuned out and silence descends.

*John Shaw is a reporter for Market News International. He spent several months researching and writing about motivational speaking in the US.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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