Eleven Steps to Self-help Speaking Success

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National Post, October 22, 2002

Eleven Steps to Self-help Speaking Success

By Neil Hrab

My head hurts today. I think it has something to do with the series of self-help seminars I attended last week. The speakers assaulted my brain with non-stop inanities and bromides — the kind found in the worst sort of high school commencement speeches (‘The future is now,’ etc.). Each seminar consisted of an army of self-help platitudes that laid siege to my grey matter. Each subsequent speaker reinforced the previous speaker’s army with fresh battalions.

In the end, I escaped unscathed — I don’t walk around sounding as if I’ve swallowed the inexplicably popular Chicken Soup for the Soul series. But unfortunately, several days after the seminars, a Niagara Falls of self-help expressions continues to echo in my skull.

  • ‘You get rich as you use your mind.’
  • ‘Whatever you are ready for is ready for you.’
  • ‘Clarity is having purpose.’
  • ‘How do you get rich? Find a niche.’
  • ‘How much you breathe in determines how much you breathe out.’
  • ‘Don’t think about success. Think about significance.’
  • ‘All we really need to know we can learn from our children.’

Self-help speakers love to speak in platitudes. But platitudes are just part of their act. Although self-help gurus come in all forms — white, black, female, male, old, young — each one relies on the same basic components in building their speeches. The following is a list of elements of self-help happy talk that I identified during the seminars. I call it ‘Neil’s 11 Steps for Self-Help Speaking Success.’

1. Tell a joke, any joke. If it’s toxically cute, don’t worry. Audience members have paid hundreds of dollars to listen to you, so they are going to want to think the joke is funny rather than an insult to their intelligence.

2. Say something trite about how men and women are different. To make it sound less trite, mention how you interviewed 10,000 married couples in order to discover this fact.

3. Do you worry that your lack of a graduate degree from a famous university might be hurting your credibility as a speaker? No problem. Put up a quote from Thomas Edison or Jesus or Socrates on a PowerPoint slide. Next, put up a slide that quotes you. The audience will realize you are just as brilliant as those other guys.

4. Some audience members may be wondering if coming to hear you speak is really worth what they paid. To placate them, talk about how buying a ticket for your speech represents a tremendous moral ‘choice’ and a clear indication that they are ready to make ‘positive change.’ You can also flatter them by saying, ‘What a high-level group we have here today!’ That should lay their concerns to rest; they will realize that coming to hear you automatically and painlessly makes them better people.

5. Repeat something your grandmother/prepubescent son/wife said. Tell everyone how wise it is, even if its profundity isn’t readily apparent. Again, people have paid a lot to listen, so they’ll want to think it’s on par with Plato’s writings.

6. Relate an anecdote about someone famous, like Nelson Mandela. If you can twist it totally out of context to make your point, even better.

7. In order to introduce the idea that persistence pays off, tell a story about how many publishers rejected your first self-help book manuscript. Don’t bother telling the audience an inspiring story about some other person who succeeded in spite of a physical disability or social prejudice; your own lucrative tale of battling with publicists and literary agents to get your best-seller into print is obviously far more interesting than any paraplegic Special Olympian’s life experiences.

8. In a soft voice, talk about a tragedy you’ve experienced. Quickly move on to another topic, but make a big show of shedding a tear while you do this. The tear reminds the audience how brave you were to make a personal revelation in front of people who have paid to hear you speak. Your listeners won’t think for a second that you are being unnecessarily melodramatic or trying to create a phony intimacy with them.

9. Ask the audience a platitudinous question, such as ‘What do you want out of life?’ Answer your question with a platitudinous response like ‘love’ or ‘wealth’ or ‘greatness.’

10. Ask the audience members to hug one another or touch each other on the shoulder and say, ‘You’re doing OK.’ The awkwardness that ensues will make them forget how dumb your last joke was.

11. Plug the next speaker as ‘my good friend’ or ‘our good friend.’ It makes you sound gracious. To make yourself sound even more gracious, make sure you compliment the next speaker’s books/tapes/CDs or whatever they peddle. Hopefully, she will do the same for you. But just in case she forgets, you should mention that since ‘time is short today,’ you can’t get to everything you wanted to cover. Then say that what you wanted to cover is available to the audience in the form of a hugely overpriced tape set — conveniently on sale in the hall outside the auditorium.