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Many voices, many messages --
see who's saying what among motivational speakers.

Motivational speakers

Golden rules

In this story:

Siding with the scriptures

"If it doesn't fit, you must ..."

Spate of speakers

What Waterloo?

The long and the short of it

'Shelf life'


(CNN) -- "I think a lot of these motivational speakers are vendors, they're snake oil salesmen."

Al Gini has written a play called "Working Ourselves to Death." He's a lecturer on business ethics with the philosophy faculty at Loyola University Chicago and author of "My Job, My Self: Work and the Creation of the Modern Individual."

"Take responsibility: Face it, trace it, erase it and replace it."
— Willie Jolley, Step Eight (of 12) in "A Setback Is a Setup for a Comeback," St. Martin's Press, 1999

And when it comes to motivating that modern individual, Gini says he's not always impressed with the career sermons he's hearing on the speaking circuit. "They're very often just delivery and presentation," he says -- lots of fire, little brimstone.

Frequently with evangelical fervor, many motivational speakers preach to congregations of careerists, spreading the gospel of positive thinking and self-improvement. The goal -- what causes many corporations to hire them -- is higher morale and performance.

"Any kind of corporate initiatives or anything like bringing in motivational speakers -- we've not found evidence that it's a significant driver of people's motivation. The bottom line with employees is 'my boss.' So goes with their manager, so goes with their motivation."
— Larry Emond, The Gallup Organization

Many of these speakers write their own bibles, self-help books full of fixed formulas and fancy phrases. But do they provide a lasting benefit? -- a more efficient and happy work force? Or do they just give workers a rush that dissipates faster than a two-drink buzz?


Siding with the scriptures

Often, what drives the podium-pounders seems to be their own misfortunes.

"If you pick the right story and it relates to that person's life, that story is with them forever," says Terry Paulson, a California psychologist and professional speaker who's past president of the National Speakers Association based in Tempe, Arizona.

"Gain these results forever: Surefire strategies for being a leader's leader ... harness the power of emotional hunger ... effectively expand your identity into a trusted consultant and outstanding salesperson ... mobilize your team and turn pleasure into results."
— Excerpted advertisement copy for "Results 2000: Join the Masters of Our Time," Anthony Robbins, executive producer

"It used to be you could send around a promotional brochure," Paulson says, "and you could always get business. Today, you have to be good at what you're doing because the word spreads like wildfire if you're not."

To Gini, that means content, not just style. "You've got to have a message," he says. "I think people confuse an interesting presentation with a meaningful presentation."

Worker motivation has been the subject of research by psychologists at The Gallup Organization for many years, says Larry Emond, chief marketing manager.

"Any kind of corporate initiatives," he says, "or anything like bringing in motivational speakers -- we've not found evidence that it's a significant driver of people's motivation. The bottom line with employees is 'my boss.' So goes with their manager, so goes with their motivation."


"If it doesn't fit, you must ..."

Nothing sticks in the mind like a punchy aphorism. And in the American workplace culture, those things are nothing new. Benjamin Franklin warned, "He who waits upon fortune is never sure of dinner."

Read business ethicist Al Gini on the issue of celebrity motivational speakers.

Maybe bookings-busy motivational speakers have taken that one to heart. They're publishing like tonight's dinner depended on it. Here are a few entrees on the motivational how-to buffet.

•  "Be Decisive: A Six-Step Formula for Making Your Best Decisions Every Time" (Lou Ann Smith, paperback, Change Your Life Books, 1999)

Al Gini  

•  "Doing the Work You Love: Discovering Your Purpose and Realizing Your Dreams" (Cheryl Gilman, paperback, NTC/Contemporary Publishing, 1997)

•  "100 Days in the Life of a Superboss: Stimulating People to Achieve Phenomenal Results" (David Freemantle, paperback, McGraw-Hill, 1998)

•  "The Board Book: Making Your Corporate Board a Strategic Force in your Company's Success" (Susan F. Schultz, hardback, AMACOM, September)

•  "1,001 Ways to Inspire Your Organization, Your Team and Yourself" (David E. Rye, paperback, Career Press, 1998)

Scottish-born Bertie Charles Forbes might have felt himself carrying on in Franklin's tradition when the first issue of his magazine was published in September 1917. Among Forbes' favorite sayings: "Aspire, then perspire." Notice that the popularity of rhyming aphorisms is nothing new. Another of Forbes' exhortations: "Put the 'I can' in 'American.'"

Leading with laughter -- check out who's joking at JP Productions.

Despite today's crowded field, no American has become more famous in the motivational market than Dale Carnegie. His 1936 "How to Win Friends and Influence People" has sold millions of copies. "Believe that you will succeed, and you will," Carnegie promised.

As if taking that advice, the industry has grown steadily. Paulson's National Speakers Association, an organization of professional speakers, now has 4,200 members in the United States. Membership grew 30 percent between 1988 and 1998.

"I think this is the golden age for our profession," says Paulson.


Spate of speakers

Here in that "golden age," there are hundreds of motivational speakers ready to wax eloquent on topics from Joan Lunden's exhortation that you "respond, don't react" to Donald Trump's "three crucial steps to making a winning deal."

Corporate America is a receptive audience. Professional associations and companies account for a substantial chunk of the professional-speaker market, says Marsha Murdock, a spokeswoman for the speakers' association.

"(Cartoonist Scott Adams') Dogbert gives a team-building seminar in which Dilbert and his co-workers are asked to cut out paper dolls while blindfolded. Dogbert explains, 'This may seem absurd. But soon cognitive dissonance will set in and you will cry and hug and think you learned something.'"
— -- Joanne B. Ciulla, "The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work"

Some observers question whether it's money well spent.

"Very often, companies try to get these quick highs instead of fixing the more fundamental questions of fairness and being treated with respect," says Joanne Ciulla, a professor of business ethics at the University of Richmond in Virginia. Ciulla is a business consultant and author of "The Working Life: The Promise and Betrayal of Modern Work" (Times Books, February).

Joanne Cuilla  

"It's about fairness," Ciulla says, "not being unmotivated. Issues of fairness such as not being treated with respect, being talked to in a condescending way -- these are the things that really bother people at work. Instead of having motivational speakers or worrying about psychological issues of, 'How do we make everybody feel good?' I say the fundamental grounds for making people feel good is treating them well."

Gallup's Emond says his organization's researchers have discerned about a dozen factors that have the greatest influence on workers' levels of productivity and contentment. Among them: a supportive supervisor; knowing what is expected of employees; getting a chance to do what they do best every day; having a best friend at work.

Here's Gini again, talking about the corporate use of motivational speakers: "It's a pep rally. Pep talks do work. Napoleon was wonderfully insightful when he said you don't need plans to create heroes in your soldiers -- you just have to promise them medals and little rewards. The magic of the moment does sometimes work."

But, Gini says, "The long-term effects of these things are really very low."


What Waterloo?

Many professional speakers, of course, disagree.

"I think people want to be touched by people who have good content and do it in an entertaining way," Paulson says. "It's like 'edu-tainment.'"

Can motivational speakers help a careerist?

Yes. An inspirational shot in the arm is good for anyone's work life.
Depends on you, not the speaker. If you want it to "work," it will.
No. These people are modern P.T. Barnums. There's a sucker born ...
View Results

That's why many motivational speakers include stories about themselves or others who have overcome obstacles, he adds. "It's what penetrates. Optimism is often born out of an ability to overcome."

Says Keith Harrell, an Atlanta-based motivational speaker: "There is nothing new under the face of the sun. What makes it unique is your own personal experience."

Tom Bay is a California-based motivational speaker whose business background includes retail clothing and banking. He sometimes mentions the Harry Chapin song "Cat's in the Cradle" to stress the importance of holding on to one's values, including family life, in a hectic work world. The song is about a father who realizes too late that he should have spent more time with his son when he was growing up.

Years after one such presentation, a woman who heard Bay's talk saw him at an airport and told him she'd been guilty of the same thing with her son. One day, the boy asked her to color with him, Bay says.

"'Today, I have time to color,'" Bay says the woman told him.

"After I do a talk that includes that story, as each participant leaves they get a box of Crayons. And on the back it has, 'Take time to color.'"


The long and the short of it

Skeptics say it's unlikely a person whose behavior patterns are ingrained over many years is going to change appreciably after hearing a speaker for an hour or a day. Even many motivational speakers concede it's hard to quantify changes that can be credited to their talks.

A company can look for a spike in sales or more effective presentations by managers after a talk, says Marjorie Brody, a speaker and sometimes "Corporate Class" business-etiquette consultant to "In any audience, you're going to find people who just need that little bit of a kick to get them moving in some direction. But how do you measure what you heard today, and its impact four years from now?"

"It's attitude and tenacity and risk-taking and resilience. If you can home in on those traits with people, you can give them hope and guidance. Can you change their lives? Occasionally. Is an hour short? You bet."
— Marjorie Brody, speaker, author, presentation-skills trainer

She and Bay say they stress follow-up with companies to try to measure whether they prompted lasting change. "What I want to know is are they still talking about me two to three weeks later?" Bay says. "That's where you find out if you kept the impact."

"When you're dealing with people in a clinical practice, you're dealing with people oftentimes at their lowest moment, when they're in crisis," says Paulson the psychologist-speaker. "Oftentimes in the business environment, what you're dealing with is a person who is somewhat on autopilot. What you can do in a brief period of time is give them a fresh window to look at their life."

Brody says, "I think when the student's ready, the teacher appears."

There's so much skepticism about motivational speakers that calling them that may not be seen as a compliment.

Spoken like a professor. Brody was one in public speaking and interpersonal communication for 22 years at Bucks County Community College in Pennsylvania. Nowadays, she runs her own corporate-training and consulting company.

"If I can give you one step where you move forward, then you'll take the next one and the next one," Brody says. "It's attitude and tenacity and risk-taking and resilience. If you can home in on those traits with people, you can give them hope and guidance. Can you change their lives? Occasionally. Is an hour short? You bet."

Willie Jolley, a Washington-based speaker or "inspirtainer" -- his phrase -- has a different take. A talented motivational speaker, he says, can make long-lasting changes in listeners, even if his talk lasts for only an hour.

"Create a nontoxic zone to keep negative people from destroying your A-Team."
— Keith Harrell, "Attitude Is Everything," Cliff Street Books/Harper Collins, March

"It's almost magical," Jolley says. "The great speakers have an uncanny ability. In a one-hour session, they can take a group of people and change the way they see the world. We all have the ability to understand people. We're really selling people on themselves."

The key, Jolley says, is for people to incorporate changes in their lives on a daily basis. "If they really want long-term, positive impact from my message, we encourage them to change their input," he says.

"Change what they're reading, what they're listening to, what they're doing on a daily basis. You've got to read and listen to positive messages for 30 days. It takes 30 days to change a habit."


'Shelf life'

Who's most likely to benefit from hearing a motivational speaker?

"Somebody who doesn't have a lot of self-confidence," Ciulla says. "Somebody who feels the need to have some kind of pep talk, who's not self-motivated."

"What do we sell in business now? What's the cry of every other dot-com commercial? Information. We sell access. We sell ideas. So what are (motivational speakers) doing? Selling another idea."
— Al Gini, business ethicist, author of "My Job, My Self"

Gini agrees. "The less self-confident they are, the less sure they are, the more of an ass-kisser they are," he says.

Maybe, but thanks to the Internet, motivational messages will have greater dissemination than ever in the future, Paulson says. "We're on the verge where we as speakers, just as entertainers do, will have short little segments of a message that has a story, a key idea. You'll be able to access that online."

The Gallup Organization's research indicates that letting employees know what's expected -- not a motivational moment -- may be the lead factor in a productive work environment.

People on both sides of the motivational-speaker question see no corporate speech impediments in the future. "What do we sell in business now? What's the cry of every other dot-com commercial? Information," Gini says. "We sell access. We sell ideas. So what are (motivational speakers) doing? Selling another idea."

Regardless of what medium speakers use to convey their messages, some observers, including Ciulla at the University of Richmond, likely will remain skeptical of their effectiveness.

"All of these things have a very short shelf life," she says. "That's why I argue that if you're worried about how you treat people in a moral sense, the level of honesty and respect and things like that, those are really long-term investments.

"The company may have its ups and downs, people may have their ups and downs, but unless you get that part right you're constantly having to search. That's why these people are in business because most companies are constantly having to come up with the next gimmick."


Execs head back to class at CIO college
August 24, 2000
Employees innovate to tackle worker stress
July 31, 2000

The Corporate Comedians
The Gallup Organization
National Speakers Association
Anthony Robbins' Results 2000

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