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'I Am the Next Big Thing'

Motivational speaker Michael J. Herman is one of 50,000 people seeking fame and fortune in a business that feeds on an insatiable appetite for self-help.

April 18, 2001|BONNIE HARRIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

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 Burbank Rotary Club breakfast meeting. And although he gets only $300 for a speech like 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 Encino, 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 last 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!" that has, so far, 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 and fly in his Learjet to any number of island homes.

But by the Tony Robbins standard that is so often referred to in this industry, Michael J. Herman is an unpolished rookie. He drives an older-model Camry, lives in a nondescript apartment and wears untailored linen suits. His promotional literature is riddled with typos, printed directly from a clunky home computer. His Web site is down more than it's up.

However earnest, however intent he may be on propelling people to be amazing or to become the complete champion or to overcome failure, odds are he'll never reach "celebrity-speaker" status, or draw thousands of people into an arena at $250 a pop. Chances are he'll never be on TV or get rich selling motivational tapes and books.

And yet Herman, a 35-year-old bachelor, presses on, seemingly undaunted. His 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. He's never even been a manager.

None of which is unusual for professional speakers. There are only so many Colin Powells and Lee Iacoccas 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."

These days, companies put so much stock in the value of motivational speaking that credentials take a back seat to more pressing questions: "Are you available and what's your fee?"

"I can't believe how many companies will dole out big bucks for pure fluff in the way of motivational speaking," said Alysia Vanitzian, vice president of training and development for Employers Group, the nation's largest employers association.

Even in a slowing economy, executives seem loath to cut back.

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