The Self-help Craze:
Motivational Speakers And Solutions They Sell
“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me,” says Guy Smiley as he looks at himself in the mirror. This is how each Guy Smiley skit opened on Saturday Night Live, with actor Mike Myers playing Smiley. The character is a comic interpretation of a motivational guru, who tried to use mantras like the one above to over come insecurities. Although Smiley is fictional, the self-help genre Myers was making fun of has been growing in the last few decades and it on the rise. The public is being bombarded on every medium by self proclaimed gurus who offer people solutions to every problem they could face. Through television, radio, audio tapes, and live seminars, motivational speakers promise to give audiences the keys to change their lives, for a price. In 1995 an article in Forbes revealed that the self-help industry was estimated to generate 1.6 billion (Gubernick, 1995). According to an article in Business Week the books, tapes, and videos alone generated seven billion dollars in sales in 1999 (Morris, 1999).
The followers of self-help gurus will enthusiastically swear that the teachings in a particular program have changed their lives, while skeptics view the programs as overly simplistic propaganda. As Marlin describes propaganda as a “systematic, motivated attempt to influences the thinking and behavior of others” (2002) and Tony Robbins may be the most influential name in an industry that’s product is causing people to change their thinking and behavior, an examination of Robbins work through the propaganda techniques described by Marlin may shed some light on the effect that self-help is having on its audience. This essay will explore the factors which lead to the rise of motivational speakers, and examine Robins’ Awakening The Giant Within to identify the use propaganda techniques outlined by Randal Marlin. Through looking at the rise of the industry, and some of the tools they may use to entice people to follow them, we may better understand the power of this field and be able to critically discuss the effects this growing force may have on society.
There are many books, and personal stories that inspire people and motivate people to change, or challenge them to reach for their dreams. Most people find at least one book or public figure during that helps them to think about life differently and or realize a dream. Many lawyers might have been inspired by To Kill A Mocking Bird, or athletes inspired by the achievements and stories of Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. The difference with self-help material is that inspiration is not an effect, but a product. Life coaching and motivational speaking have become careers in themselves with their own training programs, which teach people to become speakers. Some of the people in this industry are inspirational because they have been trained to be, and not because they have performed any heroic feat, or overcome any hardships. Motivators can be almost anyone, from celebrities to war heroes to average people who have a story of failure that turned into success. They are people that have packaged life’s complicated struggles into formulas, which can be purchased for $29.95. Some of them are spiritual, some of them are mechanical, some of them are doctors, and some of them are philosophers, but all of them are sales men. They are vendors in a growth market which has found a need, a means of effective advertising, and a way to target all industries.
The product they are selling is a kind of modern faith. Complete with a leader to emulate and a set of values to believe in. By breaking down self improvement into easy to follow steps, the motivational speakers are basically telling people how to live their lives ‘correctly’. In an interview for Ebony magazine, motivational speaker Les Brown stated that the reason behind the phenomenon was simply that “there is an immense and growing need for reassurance, for hope and for someone to say that everything is going to be okay”(Gilbert, 2002). He further states that traumatic world events, like September 11th has left people needing to find meaning in their lives. Such statements by Brown suggest that self-help is filling the cultural void that is created by secular society. That people need faith and hope, and the guilt free slogans of an enthusiastic motivational speaker, may be more compatible with modern society than religion. The pseudo-religious aspects of the genre extend beyond offering hope. In an analysis of motivational speeches a common aspect of the speech is often the speaker’s own testimony. The speaker will often open with personal testimony that follows the patterns that can be seen in the Bible (Buchen 2000). They are stories of being tested by the trials of life, and facing challenges, only instead of the speaker being rescued by his faith in a God, he is saved by his faith in himself. Not only has he overcome every obstacle, he is also grateful for his misfortunes because now he can help others succeed using the tools he discovered.