In Motivational World, It's All Yes, All the Time

  By Bonnie Harris

It's not even 7 a.m., and Michael J. Herman is a whirlwind of positive energy -- pacing, whispering to himself and sizing up the audience he's about to face.

Fewer than 20 people showed for this Rotary Club breakfast meeting in Burbank.

And although he gets only $300 for a speech such as this, Herman is warming up to the group as if they paid 10 times that much.

He checks out the room for light, acoustics, seating. When he finally takes the floor, Michael J. Herman is Mr. Motivation.

He beams as the audience laughs at all the right places and applauds when he's through. One woman asks whether he'd consider talking to her sales group sometime.

Herman hands her his card -- "speaker, author, trainer, coach, entrepreneur, humorist and motivator!" -- and she promises to call.

He heads back to his home office in Los Angeles, scribbling inspirational notes to himself along the way.

"I am the next big thing," he turns and declares. "I am in the process. It may not be true to you, but it is for me. And in the business of motivation, that's all that matters."

If there's a silver lining, a happy ending or an inspirational message to be found, Michael J. Herman will finesse it, package it and sell it.

There are an estimated 50,000 people trying to break into the motivational-speaking business -- legions of Michael J. Hermans deciding to take the microphone, inspired by the country's insatiable appetite for motivation, direction and plain old pep talks.

Companies big and small have bought into the trend with bookings and seminars and motivational workshops, all of which were responsible last year for putting professional speakers in touch with more than 25 million Americans.

"There is an incredible desire out there to be goaded, spurred or kicked swiftly in the rear," said Mark Goulston, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and author.

In the past three years, Herman has been hired to motivate workers at such companies as 3M, Toyota, Lockheed Martin and Boeing, and he pens a daily column (via the Internet) called "The Motivational Minute!" which has 23 corporate subscribers.

Like countless others, Herman dreams of being the next Tony Robbins, a Californian who came from a broken home, grew up poor and has since become one of the richest and most recognizable figures in the self-help market.

Robbins was everyman, and now he is "the" man, able to pack Madison Square Garden with paying followers.

Herman's bookshelves overflow with titles that encapsulate his passion: "The Joy of Failure," "How to Say It," "Ten Ways to Stay Super-Motivated in the Business Game."

He plasters notes to himself all over his apartment walls, doors and cupboards: "Mike, remember whatever it is, wherever you're going -- You can do it!" He is on the phone, on the computer, on the move -- networking, networking, networking.

Never mind that Herman's resume doesn't exactly qualify him to motivate sales staffs or help chief executives deal with an earnings slump or boost morale during a merger. He's never worked in the corporate world.

But that's not unusual for professional speakers. There are only so many Colin Powells and Lee Iaccocas to go around.

What's left are regular folks who believe they have something to say and somehow get paid to say it.

"You don't have to have a doctorate or be a professional athlete to make it in this field," said Deanna Berg, an Atlanta-based psychologist who studies motivation.
"In fact, many people want to hear speakers who are more like themselves, not the larger-than-life figures."

Most of the 4,000 members of the National Speakers Association are middle-aged, on their second careers and making a decent living by stringing together speeches at the local chamber of commerce or Rotary Club.

To join the association, speakers must first give 20 paid presentations in 24 months -- hardly impossible given the craving people have for learning how to regain emotional strength.

Few members, though, ever see the big money. Roughly 8 percent -- or 320 members -- have earned NSA's "Certified Speaking Professional" title, which is awarded when they give 250 presentations, make $250,000 in five years and have at least 100 client testimonials.

"You can't print up business cards saying you're a doctor and then go out and get patients," said Chris Clarke-Epstein, NSA president.

"But anyone can launch a Web site, get some letterhead and say they're a professional speaker. That's why (NSA) has the membership requirements that it does. We want to distinguish ourselves as motivators, not manipulators."

Like most entrepreneurs, motivational speakers aim to claim a niche. Some base their messages on themes, such as failure, change, stress or leadership. Many focus on sales.

Herman claims a bunch of niches. He is a self-described "melting pot" of inspiration and expertise.

When he was 5, he fell 12 feet while playing in the rafters of a friend's garage and suffered temporary blindness and paralysis.

"We didn't think he'd live," said his mother, Jeri Herman. "But that fall, it changed him. He's been a fighter ever since."

Now Herman spins stories of his recovery and rehabilitation into lessons on overcoming obstacles and perseverance.

He tells audiences how he refused to use a walker after the accident, and how his stubbornness resulted in his repeatedly "falling on my face."

He confides how he wanted the slight twitch in his face to go away so badly that he stood in front of a mirror for three hours willing it to stop.

Somehow, Herman tailors these and other lessons so they apply to the corporate world, or a sales staff, or a group of real estate agents.

The moral to his walker story? Don't be afraid to fall down, just as long as you get back up!
The twitch story? Believe in yourself, and you can do anything!

Even one of Herman's residual disabilities -- he lacks peripheral vision -- is transformed into: Stay focused on your goals!

"My life story is great motivation for others, I think," Herman said. "It instantly establishes me as an authority on all kinds of subjects. It's through my story that people hear, 'Hey, if he can do all that, my problems are nothing!'"

Indeed, Herman has managed to earn a loyal following, particularly among the nearly two dozen companies that pay as much as $400 a month to receive his daily "Motivational Minute!" and distribute it to their employees.

"It's always a positive message that says a lot about the little things in life that we sometimes take for granted," said Simon Atkins, corporate director of Advanced Forecasting Corp. in Wilmington, Del.

Atkins said about 50 employees at the weather risk-management firm read the column each day.

"I truly believe it brings increased work flow, better employee relations and a terrific return on investment, when you consider that happier workers bring more revenue to a company."

At an NSA conference in San Francisco last month, 500 members filled a banquet room and attended workshops designed to polish their speaking skills.

There were speakers on all levels, from Michael J. Herman to Mary Sue Koontz Nelson, a flashy Texas ranch owner who said she charges "a fortune" for the speeches she gives on success and personal improvement.

"This is where the egos come out," drawled Koontz Nelson. "We're all A-types, talkers, thinking we're the next big thing. I can't believe any of us can get a word in edgewise."

For such a competitive industry, NSA members generously dole out advice to each other.

They give seminars on humor, marketing and how to land more speeches. There are workshops on how to stay motivated, how to publish a book, what to charge for a speech.

Herman blazed through them all, suddenly inspired to set a new goal for himself: to get, by year's end, a million readers to the "Motivational Minute!" which doesn't have half that now.

"I know I can do it," he says, more to himself than anyone. "I am a writer, and I have something to say! I can help people be amazing. I can, and I will."

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