Motivation nation

It's easy to be cynical about motivational speakers. For every person inspired by a speech to climb an Alp or fight world hunger, there are hundreds who return to their desks or hotel rooms exactly as they were. The speakers, meanwhile, make out very nicely.

Take Rudy Giuliani. For the past two years, the former New York mayor headlined the Get Motivated! traveling show, which charges $50 to $225 per ticket. For his trouble, Mr. Giuliani gets $100,000 per event, private jet service, plus a lot of exposure for a man who's mum about running for national office.

He's not alone in commanding a fat fee. And the work isn't exactly heavy lifting. About all it takes is good posture, a clear voice, a catchy phrase – Zig Ziglar still says "Remember, stressed is desserts spelled backwards" – and the chutzpah to tell a crowd of strangers how to lead their lives. Most advice – parroted aphorisms from 20th-century pooh-bahs such as Napoleon Hill and Dale Carnegie – can be jotted on a napkin: Set Goals, Do It Today, Let It Go, You Are What You Think About.

But it would be a mistake to impugn the entire motivation business. For every charlatan like the Tom Cruise character in "Magnolia," or the wimpy dad in "Little Miss Sunshine," there are earnest speakers whose words can transform lives. In his talks, Commander Scott Waddle, whose submarine smashed into a Japanese trawler, doesn't blame bad maps or the VIPs on board. He takes responsibility, embodying the quaint notion of character.

Good motivational speakers – stress on good – strip away the props. They're live and in our face. They challenge our complacency and limited views of ourselves. At their best, they can shift an audience's worldview – for good.

Motivational speaking is quintessentially American. This country was founded on the belief that something better lay over the horizon. Newcomers could come here rootless and settle a valley. They could start with nothing and end up rich. Optimism is in our genes.

In the 19th century, the stage was the source of startling new ideas. People flocked to hear Henry Ward Beecher. William Jennings Bryan, a dynamo of the dais, made $100,000 speaking each year. The hot entertainment took place in tents during the Chautauqua phenomenon, a kind of adult education for the masses. At its peak, 10,000 towns had speakers booked for Chautauqua programs.

Today, we've lost that immediacy, the capacity to be transformed. The "self" in self-help books is often just a sop to our pride. In truth, we've become the help-me generation, in constant need of guidance or, worse, entertainment. We nod knowingly with Oprah's life coaches because change goes down easy on TV, where the "queer guys" fix our closets and an English nanny scolds our unruly children.

Adages don't cut it with audiences today. If motivational speakers hope to make a difference and salvage their reputation, they need to get back to inspired ideas.

Jonathan Black is the author of "Yes You Can! – Behind the Hype and Hustle of the Motivation Biz."

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