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Schticks and stones

By Arthur Goldstuck

Most motivational speakers or writers of self-help and strategy books have a “schtick”, or gimmick, or act, that they use to put across a model for success.

Edward de Bono is the lateral thinker; Stephen Covey unravels personal habits; Mike Lipkin uses the power of “Yes”; Kenneth Blanchard and Spencer Johnson came up with the one-minute manager; Peter Cheales puts himself in the customer’s shoes; Tom Peters thrives on chaos or excellence, depending on his latest buzzword; John Kehoe plays on the mind; Robert Kiyosaki contrasts the habits of rich dads and poor dads (and demystifies assets and liabilities on the way).

Whatever the angle, it is all really just a schtick, and its success depends not so much on the message behind the schtick, but how receptive the audience is to that specific kind of schtick.

The Wall Street doyen Alan “Ace” Greenberg, chairman of Bear Sterns for many years, had a schtick that ran for decades. He fired off regular memos on topics as diverse as reusing paper clips and hiring the best talent when everyone else was downsizing. His schtick was both the memos and a character by the name of Haimchinkel Malintz Anaynikal, whom he claimed to be his wise adviser and mentor. Everyone knew it was a schtick, but that didn’t diminish the value of the message.

Kevin Blanchard’s most recent work, “Gung Ho!” is told as a true tale of a wise old Native American who assists a new executive in rescuing a doomed business. Nowhere is a clear indication given that the old man, Andy Longclaw, is fictitious, but the clues are there. If Andy Longclaw is Ken Blanchard’s latest schtick, does that diminish the message he offers? Not in the least: the message, not the messenger, is the key to strategy, whether it be personal or corporate strategy. By using Andy Longclaw as his messenger, Blanchard is able to express wonderful lessons from nature for the business world.

Robert Kiyosaki’s schtick is the contrast between his educated but poor real dad and the ill-educated but rich dad of his best friend. His poor dad is real, but chances are the rich dad is not. Anyone familiar with “schtick strategy” can pick that up, but it is irrelevant to the message Kiyosaki has to offer.

A well-known debunker of real estate “gurus”, John T Reed, has taken it upon himself to brand Kiyosaki a liar. He points to fine print in one of Kiyosaki’s books that reads, “Although based on a true story, certain events in this book have been fictionalized for educational content and impact”. Reed’s response is: “I had not previously been aware that ‘educational content and impact’ justified lying. Also, I am now confused as to why Kiyosaki’s books are on the nonfiction bestseller list if they are fictionalized.”

Talk about disingenuous. However, it becomes quite hilarious when Reed attempts to unravel the evidence that the “rich dad” doesn’t exist. He cites statistics, newspaper evidence and his own memory in support of his expose. While Kiyosaki may not be a fiction writer, this is a little like a literary critic attempting to prove that Sherlock Holmes did not exist.

Those who attempt to debunk the likes of a “rich dad”, an Andy Longclaw and – when they suffer from severe sense of humour failure – even the existence of a Haimchinkel Malintz Anaynikal, take themselves too seriously, and underestimate the power of a schtick.

There is a great Standard Bank ad on TV right now that sends up the fad for gimmicky motivational speeches. The schtick in this case is a game ranger who uses the wild dog as an analogy for the owner of a small business. It is hilarious, and reveals not only that such schticks lurk everywhere, but also that they can be overstretched to the point of absurdity.

Throwing stones at schticks is equally absurd, however. By all means, shoot down the message if it doesn’t make sense. But the messenger is merely an allegory that carries the message, and stoning the messenger is as heroic as Don Quixote charging the windmills.

Arthur Goldstuck is editor of The Big Change and author of more than a dozen books on the Internet and urban legends. He heads the independent technology research consultancy, World Wide Worx. He can be contacted on :arthurg@internet.org.za

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The Big Change is a business strategy blog and newsletter published by Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx, a leading technology research organisation based in Johannesburg, South Africa.

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