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With Motivational Speakers, Talk Is Not Cheap : Consulting: ‘Great communicators’ specialize in educating, exhorting sales forces. Some audience members report productivity surge afterward.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Not sure you want to read this story? Stop for a moment and consider this: Isn’t it true that the only time you have ever really benefited from anything in your life has been when you said “Yes” instead of “No”?

If you’re still reading, you just fell for “power close” No. 6 from the arsenal of Tom Hopkins, motivational speaker and the author of “Low Profile Selling--Act Like a Lamb, Sell Like a Lion.”

Twenty-five years ago, Hopkins was a top-producing real estate agent in Simi Valley. He boasts that he went from being a Cal State Northridge dropout at age 19 to millionaire status by age 27. But his best year selling real estate brought him just a fraction of the riches he makes now as a professional speaker.

Hopkins is among an army of thousands who over the past 20 years have rushed into the speaking industry, offering themselves as answers to Americans’ growing appetite for motivation, self-esteem and ways to make more money.

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Hopkins’ specialty is sales training, and he is among the better-known speakers in that arena. But for every Hopkins, there are hundreds of others trying to make names for themselves.

Lorna Riley, a Thousand Oaks-based motivational speaker, said she started speaking professionally eight years ago and now makes about $150,000 a year. That’s nearly triple what she used to make selling advertising space for an interior-design publication. Professional speaking, she said, “doesn’t feel like a real job.”

Steven Power, a former marketing executive who lives in Ventura, launched his business as a consultant and professional speaker about six years ago. He said he now makes about $250,000 a year, one-third of that from speaking engagements. “People want to change their lives,” he said. “That’s why Jenny Craig is rich. That’s why Tony Robbins is rich.”

And that’s why Hopkins is rich. Last spring, more than 1,000 salespeople paid $130 apiece to participate in a Hopkins seminar at a Burbank hotel. He holds about 80 such seminars a year, collecting $12,500 for each appearance. The rest of the box-office take goes to the companies that arrange the events and sell the tickets.

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Hopkins said that last year he made about $1 million in speaking fees and several million more from sales of his videotapes, audiotapes and books--products he hawks aggressively at his seminars, which feature all the clapping, shouting and fist-waving of a high school rally.

As his Burbank seminar got under way last March, the lights dimmed, pictures of Hopkins and his books flashed across a giant screen, and a booming voice promised the audience that they were embarking on “an exciting journey that can change your life!”

Soaking up a standing ovation, Hopkins pumped his fists into the air, leading the crowd in corny chants that many in the audience knew by heart: “I feel good! I feel fine! I feel this way all the time!” The chants are also printed on plastic cards that Hopkins distributes. Audience members are told to hang the cards in their showers and read the chants aloud every morning.

For more than six hours, Hopkins kept his dressed-for-success audience in a state of rapture. They applauded vigorously when he defended the honor of their profession, laughed uproariously when he tossed out hackneyed one-liners and bowed their heads solemnly when he ended his seminar by urging them to help return the country to its religious traditions.

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Sitting to the right of the stage was muscle-bound Sam Mohamed, who makes his living selling memberships to the Powerhouse Gym in Huntington Beach. Mohamed, 31, said he attends at least two motivational seminars a year and routinely checks out Hopkins’ books and tapes.

“In sales, you get burned out, stressed out and you lose interest,” Mohamed said. “When you see Tom Hopkins, you leave the seminar motivated to set goals for yourself.” Mohamed said his productivity often jumps 20% after a motivational seminar. When his numbers start to slide again, he knows it’s time for another session.

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Sitting in the back of the audience, Scott Widdifield, a mortgage broker from Costa Mesa, was less impressed by Hopkins’ show. “His energy is powerful and you feel a sense of recharge,” said the 28-year-old Widdifield. “But the man is obviously a salesman, and he’s selling everybody in the audience as much as when he sold real estate.”

With millions of salespeople like Mohamed lining up to attend sales seminars, it’s no wonder thousands of speakers are lining up to give them. “When I started speaking, there were maybe 25 professional speakers around,” Hopkins said. “Now there are more than 3,000. I would hate to start today.”

Membership in the National Speakers Assn. totaled 3,500 last year, and officials estimate that at least 35,000 people are trying to break into the business.

The group’s catalogue lists speakers for dozens of topics, ranging from “Alcoholism” to “Women in Society,” but association officials figure that half their members cater to sales audiences. One such speaker is Riley, a former New Hampshire schoolteacher.

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Most speakers make names for themselves by stringing together gigs at chambers of commerce and Rotary clubs, but Riley entered the business by answering a help-wanted ad in the newspaper. The notice, she said, was placed by Dan McBride, a motivational speaker based in Fountain Valley.

Riley’s job was to give free, half-hour presentations to sales groups across the San Fernando Valley, espousing the merits of McBride’s seminars. After the presentations, Riley would sell $125 tickets to upcoming McBride events. Riley would keep $45, and McBride would get the rest.

She soon became one of the top producers in McBride’s nationwide network of 100 salespeople, and before long she was making plans to go solo. “I started to burn out saying the same thing over and over again,” she recalled. “And people started to say I was better than the guy I was [selling] for.”

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Today, she charges about $3,500 per appearance and is frequently hired by Southern California companies, including Amgen, GTE and Mattel, to conduct seminars on sales techniques, time management and motivation.

In fact, most speakers who lack widespread name recognition depend heavily on corporate work from companies like GTE, which brings in motivational speakers several times a year. “I don’t see spikes” in sales performance after a seminar, said Pat Lewis, manager of GTE’s pay-phone sales unit. “But what I do see is people that are excited. We are convinced that happy, motivated or inspired employees translate into happier, more satisfied customers.”

Of course, there are plenty of skeptics who see motivational speakers as nothing more than overpriced cheerleaders. Aware that the rah-rah side of the business is an easy target, Hopkins tries to distance himself from it.

“ ‘Motivational speaking’ has the connotation of a hype session,” he said. “I’d rather be known as an educator in the field of sales.”

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Indeed, those who attend his daylong seminars are asked to follow along in workbooks filled with sales tips, including:

* Customers are terrified of sales jargon, so say fee for service instead of commission , visit instead of appointment , paperwork instead of contract , and autograph instead of signature .

* Because successful deals are culminations of a sequence of minor agreements, ask questions that demand a “Yes” response: “You would like to enjoy your golden years in financial security, wouldn’t you, Mr. Johnson?”

* And because most deals get snagged on disagreements over price, learn to flip the cost argument on its head: “I have never yet found a company that could offer . . . the finest quality and the best service for the lowest price. I’m curious, Mr. Johnson, for your long-term happiness and enjoyment, which of the three would you be most willing to give up?”

Hopkins has been teaching many of these techniques for more than 20 years, and even his loyal followers admit they’re a bit hackneyed. “What’s fun is when I spot somebody using one of his techniques [on me],” said Nancy Richards, who manages the Glendale branch of TRC Staffing Services, a temporary-employment agency. “I’ll say, ‘You did that well, now go for the close.’ ”

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Less charitable salespeople say many of the techniques are useless. “If I ever said some of the things he was saying, my customers would laugh at me,” said Widdifield, the Costa Mesa mortgage broker.

But like any good salesman, Hopkins knows not to dwell on the unhappy customers. Cynics “are often turned off by a guy like me,” he said.

“Anybody who’s not excited about selling would say, ‘What a scam. He’s teaching people to sell and pushing things down their throats.’ But I could pile letters a foot thick over a 50-square-foot area from students who have thanked me for giving them tips to make more money.”


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