Preachers of Big Sell inspire millions

December 05, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

ROSEMONT, Ill. -- Zig Ziglar, the man, the legend, the 67-year-old titan of terrific, is on one knee, stage lights shimmering on his gold and diamond tie tac and cuff links, face contorting, voice dancing down an octave yet somehow rising over the noise of jets making their final approach to O'Hare International Airport.

The salesmen from Chicago and Cleveland, Peoria and Milwaukee, 16,000 of the gosh-darndest best people America has ever produced -- or so Zig says -- lean forward in their seats inside this hangar of an arena called the Horizon. They are waiting for the message, the profound words that could change their lives.

And ol' Zig delivers a zinger, the kind of advice once uttered by everyone's dad.

"What you do off the job determines how far you go on the job," he says.

Thousands of heads nod affirmatively. Another arena of salesmen saved.

This is Success '93, the Wrestlemania of the motivational speaking circuit, nine hours of wall-to-wall inspiration and perspiration dispensed by the masters of marketing. These are the sellers to the sellers, latter-day Dale Carnegies who go from town to town and arena to arena preaching a gospel of positive thinking mixed with business fundamentals. They sell success, along with books and videos at seminars that are part infomercial, part classroom, all upbeat.

And, led by Mr. Ziglar and Peter Lowe, the 35-year-old rising star of the feel-good circuit, they are bringing the show to the Baltimore Arena Tuesday.

"We give people hope and encouragement," Mr. Ziglar said.

Apparently, hundreds of thousands hear the motivational message, absorbing the five keys to success as if they were memorizing the Ten Commandments.

They come to these seminars armed with cellular phones and beepers, and they buy $70 videos on selling and $30 videos on courtship after marriage. They make a promise to stand in front of a mirror and shout out: "Today is the first day of the rest of my life, and it is wonderful."

They believe.

"I never thought I'd do something like this, but I love it," said Karen Pilarski, a saleswoman who paid her way from Cleveland to Chicago to hear Mr. Ziglar's speech and buy two of his videos.

'Rah-rah atmosphere'

"The rah-rah atmosphere is the outward appearance of these things," said J. Rodney Bryan, owner of an industrial valve business in St. Louis. "What I see is a can-do environment. You'll see salesmen here in their 50s and 60s, who've been knocked around and need a rebirth. And then there are young guys here for the enthusiasm."

Some would argue the whole motivational speech business is so much hot air, that after a quick one-day fix, few in the audience derive any real long-term benefits.

"It's all pretty much on the model of evangelical speaking," said Richard E. Vatz, professor of rhetoric at Towson State University. "It's mystifying. It's uplifting. It has that kind of pseudo optimism-uber-alles that carries an audience into a kind of ecstasy."

But it sells.

Been to a book store lately? The self-help, motivational section is crammed with books by everyone from Mr. Ziglar to Pat Riley, the New York Knicks' coach turned management magician.

"I know people who quote Ziglar more than they quote God," said Andy Kahan, a senior bookseller at Borders Books & Music in Towson. "He's the man."

Motivational speakers have found slots on three radio stations around the country that are all-motivation, all-the-time, Mr. Ziglar said.

There are even tentative plans to create a motivational cable channel.

But for now, the business is still door-to-door, people-to-people.

Mr. Lowe, promoter of the Success '93 tour, expects to play 46 dates in front of 200,000 spectators who pay anywhere from $49 to $200 to hear words of encouragement from the famous and the successful. On a good day, the seminar will gross $750,000.

"We run it like a business," Mr. Lowe said. "It's not all built on positive thinking."

It is Mr. Ziglar who dominates the motivational market.

Staff of 58

He oversees the privately-held Zig Ziglar Corp., which he says is a "multimillion-dollar company." With a staff of 58, the company aggressively promotes everything Zig, from $695 daylong leadership seminars to videos on selling, motivation and family, to books.

Mr. Ziglar's first book, "See You At the Top," still sells at the rate of 50,000 a year some 20 years after it was first published.

But the bread and butter of Mr. Ziglar's empire comes from speeches. The former pots-and-pans salesman whose first paying speech netted him $50 in 1959, now earns $20,000 a speech for corporate gatherings and $30,000 a speech for the arena seminars.

Mr. Lowe plays the roles of both headliner and tour promoter. With his red hair and freckled face, he may look like Ron Howard as Opie or the guy who always runs for senior class president. But don't be misled. Mr. Lowe is savvy, able to exhort his followers to comprehend something called "the precision model" one moment, while checking the box office receipts the next.

$128,000 salary

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