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).

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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.

Read also “The man of destiny analysis”

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.

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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. As people have moved away from traditional religion, perhaps they are filling the void with information, and advice.

The particular brand of information is able to reach a mass audience because of the deregulation of the media, specifically the rise of the infomercial. In the early 1990s Anthony Robins reached the height of his fame and was able to sell millions of his audio program “Personal Power”. This was not possible in the days when commercials were only allowed to run a maximum length of twelve minutes, but today hour long commercials sell a variety of tools to help the ‘improve’ your life.

Infomercials are highly effective because they are able to bring together many of marketing tools. They often run at times when people are tired, or bored so they may be more susceptible to persuasion. The content is also repetitive and filled with slogans and enthusiastic testimony. The length of the commercials allows the marketer to use all kinds of testimony so that the product may appeal to most of the viewers. Celebrity endorsements for Robins include Quincy Jones and Liza Gibbons, and he claims to have helped the U. S. military improve their efficiency.

If the viewer is not the kind to be persuaded by big names, Robins speaks to a number of average people who have used his program, and if that still isn’t enough he goes to the experts. He does not claim to have any training in psychology or psychiatry, but he does have the support of many doctors and business experts to authenticate his methods. Using late night and then eventually day time informercials to sell his program Robins and other self-help personalities are able to not only sell his tapes, but make his face and his voice familiar to millions of viewers.

Perhaps the strongest promoters of the guru boom is the corporate sector, where speakers are hired to pump up employees and help them develop successful mindsets to become more effective as individuals and as a team. Many motivational speakers are not as general as Tony Robbins, who claims to be able to help everyone with everything. Motivations personalities like Stephen Covey, who is both a speaker and an author, concentrate on a target market. Covey specializes in helping people in the business world to become more efficient at their jobs.

Motivational speakers claim to be able to encourage people in a way that increases productivity for the company. If these claims are true then the thousands of dollars that the company spends to put on a seminar or concert style event is worth the investment because they receive a return in the form of increased efficiency (Kinni, 2000). The offering occasional seminars has also become popular with corporations because it is often a less costly alternative to other expenses that are meant to help employees relieve stress, such as access to a gym, or human resource counselors.

The company may also offer these seminars as substitutes for more vacation time, employee daycare, and extended medical, all bonuses that are proven to improve employee morale and quality work environments. Tony Robbins is one of the most successful motivational speakers of all time. His products and his face dominate every medium. Although his exclusive retreats, personal seminars, and concert style lectures are very expensive, he makes himself accessible through books, and if the potential customer is not adept to reading he has each of his books on audio tapes and compact discs.

And if a potential customer does not have the time or energy to find a book store to buy a Tony Robins product his infomercials run several times a day, everyday, and he is also available on the internet. Through incessant advertising and bold, enthusiastic self promotion Tony Robins is everywhere. Media saturation is probably one of the ways he has developed an aura of authority. That is because people are so used to seeing his face and hearing his message, they may through sheer repetition accept the claim that he is the foremost authority on self improvement.

Looking into Robbins’ history the only work experience, and training he had for this job was in sales. According to Lisa Gubernick, in an article titled “The Happiness Hucksters” Tony Robins entered the business as a ticket salesman for motivational speaker Jim Rohn, straight out of high school. In the 1980s Robbins stopped selling tickets and decided to use his sales skills as a speaker himself (1997). To persuade his audience that he could show them how to do anything they wanted, he learned to walk barefoot across a lane of flaming coals.

This gimmick helped him to get the attention of viewers and publishers. By 1986 Unlimited Power hit the bestseller list, and three years later his invasion of the people’s homes began with the production of this first infomercial. Today he not only dominates his field, and he has numerous business ventures which range from nutritional supplements to a resort in Fiji. With sales experience and exposure to motivational speaking, Robbins may have been able to learn how to speak, but being charismatic and articulate does not make a person an expert.

Although he began as a self promoter, his philosophies are now praised by many who believe in his teachings. His secret is that most of his teachings are not his. Robbins does not hide the fact that his formal education stopped after high school, in fact he is able to use this fact to reach more people. He also acknowledges that most of methods and philosophies he is teaching are not his, but bits and pieces from different successful people around the world. In Robbins’ presentations he is both the preacher and the star pupil.

He uses his own success as testimony for the effectiveness of the products he is trying to sell. The 90 minute audio book Awaken The Giant With In, uses the analogy that every person has a giant spirit, or a greater potential that they must live up to. It tells them that his great potential is lying dormant inside them, waiting to be called to action. Robbins uses many analogies for unfulfilled potential, sometimes it is a sleeping giant, and sometimes it is a locked door. No matter what form the potential takes, Robbins has the alarm clock, and he has the key, and he is just bursting to share them with his followers.

Through these analogies and bold statements of promises and guarantees, Robbins feeds into the primary need for happiness and improved living conditions, which are two “pre-existing wants” discussed by Marlin. Polls and market research are also used in designing the programs to discover how best to reach the audience. Because this preparation is not scene by the general public it sounds like the speech has been tailored to the individual, and an illusion of intimacy further persuades people that these products may provide the answers that they were looking for.

The audio tape begins with a reading of quotes from famous philosophers, inventors, and heroes, these quotes run through the rest of the tape as well. They are read by a female voice at the chapter breaks, the quotes are from historical figures, like Helen Keller and Albert Einstein, but the last quote in any grouping always belongs to Robbins. Some may argue that this is merely a way to give the listener a break from Robbins’ voice while providing a segway to his next topic of discussion, but from a view of propaganda analysis, this organization of quotes is a method of authority transfer.

By placing the ideas of Anthony Robbins along side the genius of Einstein or the strength of Hellen Keller, Robbins is assuming their qualities, or giving the illusion that he is somehow associated with them, but there is not evidence that he can equal them or has studied either of their lives in any detail. After the quotations Robbins launches into his personal testimony, which draws on the ‘plain folks’ method of persuasion. Robbins establishes himself as an average guy by telling the audience about his leaner years as a janitor driving an old beat up Volkswagon.

This story of humble beginnings may help create a connection with the audience and make them more open to his suggestions because they will not be able to relate to his current stories of life as a multi-millionaire. His clichi?? story of rags to riches, also acts as personal testimony that his methods of life improvement work because he has “realized his dream”. In essence the use of his personal story gives him authority because he has woken his giant, and he wants to show other people how to do the same.

He further presents himself as ‘plain folk’ by repeatedly addressing the audience with “you and I”, to create the illusion that he is there with the listener, and he identifies with them. Through the use of “you and I” Tony Robbins is able to engage the audience and subvert his preaching. He is also able imply that the audience already shares his values, an example of this is when he points out a weakness in the general population by saying “most people just make excuses, but you and I don’t want to fall into this trap”.

He first identifies with the audience by framing himself as an average person, and then he elevates them excluding them from “most people”. Although testimonials are not used explicitly in this program, they are implied, as Robbins lists for the audience the people he has helped. This list runs from celebrities to powerful business men, and he even testifies that former President Bill Clinton, called on Robbins for motivation. The use of second-hand celebrity endorsements can be misleading because there is no way for the audience to qualify the specific contributions that Robbins’ was able to make to these famous lives.

Further, although the mention of a famous name may be impressive, people like Quincy Jones and Bill Clinton were successful long before Robbins ever wrote a book. The call to action is achieved by using ‘glittering generalities’ to appeal to the listener’s sense of obligation by stating that they must desire certain virtues. Success, love, and freedom are according to Robbins, virtues that each person owes to themselves. He also appeals to the less greedy members of the audience by repeatedly stating the importance of succeeding so that they can contribute to society.

Robbins passionately asserts the “you must stay committed to your decision to live your life at the highest level. ” This statement may stir a person because that it glitters with bold assertions, but it is so general that it doesn’t mean anything. In the moment that a person is listening to the program the only thing there is to commit to is the Tony Robbins philosophy. He goes on to use the emptiness of this statement by telling the audience that if they don’t know how to find this higher quality of life, he will be their guide. The last tool of persuasion I will discuss is ‘meshing fact with opinion’.

The main message in this tape is that people must make decisions which reflect their standards, and the things in their lives that make them sad must become unacceptable to them. He wants to convince them that their decisions matter, not only for themselves but for society. Robbins solidifies his message using the story of Rosa Parks, stating “Rosa Parks made a committed decision, she held herself to a higher standard. ” The fact is that Rosa Parks did not move to the back of the bus, but it is Robbins’ opinion that frames the story to fall in line with his message.

There is no evidence to support that she ever shared the same values as Tony Robbins, or would agree with his aggressive methods of influencing a mass audience. Basically to “awake the giant with in” a person would need to make healthy, responsible decisions. It may be packaged better, but the advice Robbins gives in this program is similar to advice that parents might give their children. Making the right choices means choosing to study instead of watch television, or get some exercise instead of playing video games. Common sense tools like setting goals becomes “commit to your decision” and “achieve your destiny”.

Perhaps programs like these are helpful because they remind people of the things they already know. And they offer easy to follow instructions for people who are simply looking for a way to add a little structure into their lives. People also have a need to congregate around shared value systems, and self- improvement may have become a secular faith. For the people who believe in these programs there are many benefits. They have found a hobby, and a set of tools for realizing their dreams. Self-help programs are also less expensive and less drastic than entering into therapy.

For people who have fallen into a mild slump, or want to lose a little weight, books and audio tapes are more accessible and may be more beneficial in the long run. Reading a book can also be viewed as empowering because it is a way for the individual to gain knowledge and help himself, where as going to the doctor can feel like putting your life into someone else’s hands. And often when people go to the doctor for depression or weight gain they leave the office feeling worse than when they went in. The cult like, rock concert atmosphere of a Tony Robbins event could also provide the members of the audience with excitement.

And the burst of adrenaline combined with a few passionate, motivational slogans, could persuade someone to pursue a dream that they had forgotten about. So, there are benefits to being stirred up. Critical voices like John Shaw argue that motivational speakers are not aiding the public in self improvement, but feeding a need for “quick fixes”. And that the values promoted by the self-help industry are “shallow and formulaic” supplying immediate gratification through stirring speeches and simple step by step solutions (2002).

The general consequence for the followers of these programs may be that complex processes like personal growth and overcoming adversity have become standardized and served, like fast food. Another consequence these instant solutions may be chosen as an alternative to qualified help. Robbins claims that he can cure any one with any emotional imbalance within a day. For a person with suffering from severe depression or post traumatic stress, he may sound like a miracle cure, or be so persuasive that he sounds like the only cure.

Although Robbins has millions of followers, and celebrity endorsements, there is still some question as to whether his methods really work. Because of the cost of his programs most of the devoted followers are upper middle class professionals, who may find a mantra and an empowering speech useful every once in a while. In 1994 News Magazine reported that the province of Alberta paid for 25 young offenders to take the ‘Unlimited Power’ seminar. When the youths were interviewed a few months later most of them had not made positive changes, but a few of them did report a short lived desire to change.

When writer Art Levine followed Tony Robbins 30 day program and did not notice an improvement, he decided to go find Robbins and investigate why the program didn’t work for him. Robbins’ response was “You don’t feel bad enough to change” (1997). This reveals an odd polarity in Robbins’ philosophy because it appears that a person will only be motivated to adopt his positive messages, only if their own messages are so negative that they must be replaced. Therefore it seems that people may be drawn towards Robbins not because they are very fond of him, but because they are not fond of themselves.

The self-help craze has grown at staggering rates in the past few years. This could result from a growing public interest in awareness and a drive to be better people. It could also be a sign that people are feeling lost or empty. Whatever the reason people are reaching out there to be inspired and there is an increasing number of people ready to offer themselves as inspiration. No matter what the product we must remember to be critical and informed consumers and remember that the man with the message is the product.

He does stand to gain from the transaction and people must be critical of what they are receiving because some tools may help, and others may not. In the end, life cannot be reduced to a series of slogans and the challenges we face cannot be solved by prescribed steps. Before buying into the philosophy of any new age gurus and embarking on a mission to change we may want to take a lesson from Guy Smiley, by looking into a mirror and reminding ourselves that “I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it people like me”.

Cite this page

The Self-help Craze: Motivational Speakers And Solutions They Sell. (2020, Jun 02). Retrieved from

The Self-help Craze: Motivational Speakers And Solutions They Sell

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