Friday, February 13, 2009


My boss and I went down to San Antonio today for a speaker/trainer showcase: a half-day sampler of motivational speakers broken down into easily digestible, ten-minute chunks.

I mean, the presentations were broken down into ten-minute chunks. The speakers themselves seemed to be more or less physically intact, and none of them looked particularly appetizing anyway.

One of the interesting things about this format is that, when you have to go through them every ten minutes, the gimmicks speakers use to engage and involve their audience really stand out. Or stand up, as the case may be. Stand up, hold out your arms, find out a random fact about someone else in the audience, make a circle with your thumb and forefinger and put it on your chin (as the speaker places his on his cheek and half the audience does what he does instead of what he says - hilarity and enlightenment ensue), close your eyes, take three deep breaths, point in different directions, now point in the same direction, turn around, sit down, stand up, sit down, fight! fight! fight!

Conflict resolution is a popular topic for corporate trainers. It's a great topic to train on, because you can deliver inspiring platitudes all day without ever actually solving any problems, and therefore rendering your further services unnecessary.

My favorite speaker today talked about negotiation. "There are four possible outcomes to a negotiation," he said. "One, you could get everything you want and the other person could get nothing. But how often does that happen? Two, the other person could get everything they want, and you get nothing. Three, you could compromise; but if you do, how do you feel? That's right. Compromised. Or four, you can go for the win-win."

One, win-win is a myth. There's always compromise; in a relationship, you may take turns getting your own way, or you may know and care about one another enough to give on the things that matter to the other person, and stand stronger on the things that matter to you. Personally, I think that's as close enough to win-win as makes no difference. I once took a negotiation-skills class where we divided into two groups fighting over an orange crop, each needing it desperately for our own particular purpose. Of course, once the exercise was over and the groups revealed their instructions to each other, it turned out one group only needed the fruit, while the other only needed the rind. So there really never had to be any conflict at all, and if the students had only been smart enough, we'd have worked together and each of us would have gotten everything we needed for half the price we had been prepared to pay if the other guy got shut out, you see? But come on - is life ever really like that?

Two, he was wrong. The four possible outcomes are win-lose (both of his first two options were examples of that one), compromise, win-win, or lose-lose. He forgot that last one completely, but sometimes I suspect that's what happens most of all: you can't reach an agreement, your pride gets in the way, you need appeasement, the other party feels equally hurt and angry, everything goes horribly wrong, and finally, talks break down completely, nobody gets anything they want (not even what they started out with), and hope is lost forever.

Another favorite gimmick of motivational speakers is the random, unsubstantiated statistic. Did you know that 68% of customers who don't return aren't staying away because of bad customer service - they stay away because of indifferent customer service? Maybe there's a study somewhere that backs this up, but the speaker didn't cite it. I've been leery of statistics like this ever since a trainer I had to listen to in 2001, to back up his assertion that we all needed to expunge the word "try" from our vocabularies ("Don't try... Do!"), claimed that ever since Avis adopted the motto "We Try Harder," their sales had dropped by 75%.

This is obviously rampant bullshit, because of course if there were any truth to that claim, Avis would have gone out and found them a new motto, toot sweet - something less offensive to the car-renting public, like maybe "Avis: We Kick Puppies."

Oh well. At least it got me out of the office all day.

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At February 14, 2009 8:36 AM, Blogger Billy Joe said...

I hate motivational speakers. I actually walked off the job once because of one. I was one of those customer service reps for a now defunct long distance and prepaid calling card company in College Station, TX. They kicked me out of the session because I wasn't laughing on cue and I had the audacity to pose questions that didn't fit neatly into their format. One of my unfair questions was something like, "So let me get this straight. Our services suck and so we've got a thousand angry customers waiting in the queue at any given moment to rip us a new one, and this is the situation from the moment we walk in the door until the moment we leave. Our services suck because this company, instead of investing money in upgrading ancient phone lines and computer systems or even give us a small raise, would rather pay you to come here and tell us all how much we should love our company and have pride in our work. And you're doing it by making us draw pictures of good customer service with crayons. Am I the only sane person in the room?"

I had a lot more to say. None of it went over well with the motivational speaker, though I have to say that by the time the boss was summoned and I was directed to go back to my desk, nearly all of my co-workers had stopped laughing on cue and were now talking seriously about the obvious issues I was pointing out. The speaker had completely lost control.

Instead of going back to my desk, I went straight back to the boss' office and explained my position. She actually seemed to understand, but she had a migraine and said she couldn't deal with this right now. I persisted (imagine that) and she finally asked me to go home (without pay) but to come back tomorrow and we'd talk about it. I told her if I walked out that door I wasn't coming back, and so it was.

Six months later the company folded. It had nothing to do with me, obviously. They were on the fast track to self destruction. But to this day I have a sour taste in my mouth concerning that experience and any "professional" that is hired by a company to come in and do exactly the kinds of dumbass things you describe. I've yet to come across such a person who doesn't make me start seething with anger from the git-go.


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