Coulda, Shoulda, Woulda
Friday, November 17, 2006
A new look at the motivational speaking industry shares the faults of its subject
By Jonathan Black
Bloomsbury Publishing, 2006
Gypsy Rose Lee would have made a fabulous motivational
speaker. Apparently, the key to this “biz” is having a gimmick.
Former Playboy editor Jonathan Black’s moderately amusing new book features a laundry list of such tricks. The Tony Robbins wannabes comprise firewalkers, speed skiers, weight-losers, astronauts, born-agains, and palindromists (“‘stressed’ is ‘desserts’ spelled backwards!”).
Many exploit physical disabilities; we hear from a speaker in a wheelchair who helps his audience rise from their “mental wheelchairs,” and a speaker with severe burns over 95% of his body who helps his audience conquer “internal scars.” Another, a climber, sawed off his own arm after it was crushed by a boulder—now he charges an arm and a leg for speaking engagements.
This gimmick is important because the message, often delivered for upwards of $15,000 over the course of 50 minutes, is often the same: Imagine what you want, and then do it. Without the gimmick, or an upbeat acronym to package this message, the speaker is just a Hallmark card behind a podium.
Black also whirls us through other sectors of the
motivational industry, like “product” (tapes, self-published books), speakers
bureaus (which book and take a commission on speaking engagements), and
personal coaches (sort of like paid friends). But for all of his broad research
into the “biz,” he doesn’t get much past the gimmicks. The book is packed with
so many quirky vignettes, there is little room for structure or insight. Don’t
get me wrong, the gimmicks described are individually amusing—but as they bleed
together, they produce a whole that’s less than the sum of its parts.
Besides surveys of speakers’ on-stage performances, Black also promises a lot of purportedly “behind the scenes” interviews and observation. But even “behind the scenes,” his interviewees are still obviously performing. Black himself senses this, frequently couching their quotes with “as he likes to say…” In the end, Black declares that motivational speakers are not the phonies and snake-oil salesmen he knew his readers had honest-to-God hoped they’d be. These guys are actually pretty sincere, Black says. Kudos to the author for taking an unpopular position—if only his interviews dug deep enough to support it.
For a book whose title sounds like an expose, Yes You Can! leaves many other questions
unanswered. Black promises his readers that he’ll find out whether expensive
motivational talks—comprising an industry worth billions of dollars—are
actually effective. He never delivers. Instead, he quotes various speakers
bureaus and conference organizers hemming and hawing about the indeterminacy of
this “return on investment.” They tell him that studies on the effectiveness of
motivational speeches are “ongoing,” and he apparently takes their word for it.
Without the gimmick, or an upbeat acronym to package the message, the speaker is just a Hallmark card behind a podium.
Black also totally avoids drawing any conclusions about, say, the demographics of this industry and its patrons. While there are tons of sound bites from speakers and the bureaus that represent them, he chooses very rarely to interview the consumers of motivational products and speeches or to delve into touchier sociological issues, such as why the motivational speaking industry, as diverse and niche-driven as he portrays it, is still mostly populated by Caucasian men.
The most engrossing parts of the book, by far, are those about his own skeptical participation in motivational events. He writes with an otherwise untapped energy about his participation in the Landmark Forum, a three-day motivational boot camp (allegedly based on HeideggerKierkegaard) that leaves him breathless—“I feel a surge of liberation, freed of the drag of endless gripes from my past”—and of his subsequent disappointment with the Forum’s follow-up seminar.
One pattern that emerges: Many people get into motivational speaking to motivate themselves. They end up lecturing about change because they changed their own careers to become motivational speakers. At the very end of Yes You Can! Black, who says he’s in between jobs, confesses that he himself is in this camp. He joins his local chapter of Toastmasters, a national public speaking workshop. Then, after waxing self-deprecating about his fits and starts as a motivational speaker, he finally reveals why he’s so insecure about meeting the demands of this potential career change: Black’s “preacher man” father was—drum roll please—a motivational speaker!
Black claims, implausibly, that he didn’t realize until the very end of his journey through the motivation business that he had a personal connection to the industry But the book’s disorganization and lack of depth—perhaps mirroring its subject matter—do make one suspect that he wasted little time on thought before beginning to write. Apparently intoxicated by the romantic personal stories of the speakers he has profiled, Black seems to recognize a moment too late that his book might have been better as a soul-searching personal odyssey. He needed a gimmick, I guess.