Beware the cliched motivators

Abstract: The snake-oil salesman of the Wild West is a firm fixture of modern-day business…

Beware the forked tongue of the snake-oil salesman! This may sound like dated advice from the Wild West but it’s as true today as it was when American frontiersmen, desperate for alms to aid their various ill fortunes, fell foul of the smooth talking quack hawking his quick fix mixture.

Times are just as wild in today’s business environment, where ever-expanding frontiers demand more than just sound sense and the employment of time-honoured trade philosophy. Just as you invest in a formula that rewards your prospecting, someone edges closer to your stake and you are forced to try new measures to remain one step ahead of them.

And who can provide this nostrum for superior profit? Today’s answer to the snake-oil salesman – the motivational speaker. When you’re feeling down he can lift you up. When you think you can’t, he shows you how you can. He can cast light upon the path to true enlightenment, but get there quickly to avoid the rush!

It’s important to separate motivational speakers from business speakers in general. The latter are experts who talk on various topics such as investment and business strategy. Motivational speakers are a different breed altogether and generally fall into three categories: the original, the copycat and the charlatan.

There are few ‘originals’ in the line of motivational speakers. These are people who have achieved a tremendous feat for which they are universally respected and they regale us with true stories of adventure and courage in the face of danger. These include those who have fixed insulation tiles on space shuttles with their teeth. Unfortunately, those who have climbed Mt Everest no longer qualify unless they are the first Black lesbian with a clubfoot to do so. ‘Originals’ are also those who have survived great personal tragedy and can thus offer a glimpse into the darkness of real suffering and the strength needed to pull through it. Top sportsmen, who, through a cruel stab of fate, are now confined to a wheelchair and have shelved self-pity in their drive to walk again, fall into this category. However, human nature dictates that such messages of courage are invariably misinterpreted as a ‘whew, I’m glad I’m not in a wheelchair’ response. People who have been savaged by dogs and then gone on to become SPCA volunteer postmen, don’t make the grade!

Whereas ‘originals’ also include people who have come up with a unique or creative concept that works, ‘copycats’ are people who haven’t. They either tap into someone else’s work or they buy the programme and simply flog it as part of an intellectual franchise. The latest doing the rounds would make us believe that because we were born at a certain time and supposedly affected by certain events we have certain characteristics that should, or should not, be used in certain positions within an organisation. Just to help sell the package, such people-characteristics are given catchy names like ‘Boomers’, ‘Millennium Brats’ and ‘Y-Kids’. As an example ‘Boomers’ were affected by the assassination of JFK, and therefore don’t buy cabriolets; tend to horde stuff because of food shortages during the war (that’s the Second World War, by the way) and would make good accountants if they weren’t so old. ‘Millennium Brats’ were born with fast-moving thumbs and are plugged into the very latest generation techno hardware, demand instant gratification and should be made to work somewhere near a coffee machine. This is all very entertaining and sounds helpful but it’s simply a modern equivalent of saying don’t use Virgos in your typing pool. Motivational speakers who sell such packages generally follow a set script with an accompanying slick audio-visual presentation and steer you towards their website for true enlightenment – at a fee.

‘Charlatans’ prey on those who are unfortunate or just unhappy with their lot. Their unqualified talks are based on ethereal logic supported by clichĂ©s such as ‘Achieving Your Ever-So-Very-Very-Best’ and ‘Being Truly You – But Better’. They lure you away from your reality as an auditing clerk with promises that you really can be an astronaut although everyone else knows you can’t. You don’t have to actually buy their product to be duped.

If the Western ideology of free market capitalism is to be won, we need to rein in these peddlers of false promises and instead reflect some brutal truths. In brief true motivational speaking in business needs to be fuelled by honesty. I suggest we start with a talk entitled: “You’re Just a Worker. Get Used To It”.

Published in the Saturday Star on Saturday 13 August, 2005