Sunday, October 2, 2011

Motivating Factors

The self-help movement is all around us. From books to seminars, from week-long "learning at sea" cruises to executive retreats, lots of people are trying to improve their communication skills, brighten their futures, and overcome their inhibitions.

Whether attending a fat camp, a trade show, or a motivational workshop, the search for new tools to increase awareness, effectiveness, and personal magnetism does a great job of separating people from their hard-earned money. From Werner Erhard's famous "est" seminars to Landmark Education's motivational programs, the growth of the self-help industry shows no signs of diminishing.

Of course, no two motivation sessions are identical (in large part because of the ever-changing mix of presenters and attendees).  However, the recent San Francisco Fringe Festival presented two monologues aimed at very different audiences. One was focused on cube rats and corporate slaves who must suffer the daily indignities of petty backbiting and one-upmanship at work. The other zeroed in on the high end of the market, people who are willing pay more than a thousand dollars for a weekend's worth of inspiration.

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Bill Bernat has worn numerous hats in the corporate world ranging from computer geek to IT manager, from the engineering of a company that enjoyed a successful IPO to a web publisher. Over the years, the experience he has accumulated in corporate environments rivals anything that Scott Adams has put in his Dilbert comic strip. The promotional blurb for his one-man show, Microvation states:
"Unlike self-help gurus, microvational speaker Bill Bernat shows you how crazy everybody else is. Breathe huge, happy sighs of relief that you're not alone as the rest of the audience relates to the same infuriating workplace behaviors that drive you nuts. Meet the Job Stress Superheros, get cube etiquette tips from Darth Vader, find out why Maslow was wrong, and shorten meetings by 68.4% with the Validate Me handsign." 
Bill Bernat demonstrates his "Validate Me" hand sign.

Working with psychologist Bonny Shapin, Bernat has done an effective job of analyzing cubicle hell and identifying annoying types of coworkers such as "The Phaseifier" and "The Incompetent Kiss-Up." At the performance I attended of Microvation, his audience was filled with friends and coworkers who were all looking forward to a good time.  Although many of them found what they came for, I was not on the same wave length.

Using his superior skills as a programmer, Bernat relies on the tools of our corporate communication and its unique lingo to demonstrate what he is talking about. Doing so, however,  leaves him standing to the side of the stage in semidarkness, wearing a microphone.

As directed by Chela Noto, Bernat's show makes the classic mistake that sabotages so many lecturers and guest speakers. Although Bill looks like a lovable, bear-like computer nerd, as onlookers focus their attention on his PowerPoint presentation there is very little eye contact between the performer and his audience.

You can watch videos like the following two on Bernat's website. But unless you've spent a long time working in a cube farm surrounded by nerds and geeks (where your primary cultural references are to superheroes, Dungeons and Dragons, and Star Wars), his show may strike you as pretty lame.

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That was certainly not the way I would describe Steve Seabrook, Better Than You. Created and performed by Kurt Bodden, the Steve Seabrook character is shown in his "on" and "off" modes.

When Steve Seabrook is "on," he's the non-threatening guru leading a group of seminar attendees who are eager to improve themselves. At various points in his weekend workshop he slickly introduces his vertically integrated line of self-help/feel good products (which includes Steve Seabrook's personal brand of bottled water) and informs people of the "special" discounts they can get if they sign up for another seminar before they head home.

When Steve Seabrook is "off," he's desperately battling the loneliness of a road warrior, looking back on his life, and wondering how many more of these "self-help" sessions he can bring himself to lead. In those moments of human weakness, he seems as frail as some of the people who come to Steve Seabrook looking for inspiration.

What I really loved about Kurt Bodden's act was watching how easily his body language embraces the kind of slickly vacuous self-help advice that has become prevalent in American life. Watch him as he describes how to conquer procrastination and you'll be eager to get one of the free pocket flashlights he gives out as marketing tools at the end of his "seminar."

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