This story has been a long time in the making, which should be some indication of how busy its subjects can be. Motivational speakers, corporate trainers, coaches of various flavours – they came in a series of emails from my editor, asking for a quietly observational piece, without snark. Things were thus set in motion, and I was to attend the “National Achievers 2019 Conference”. “Facepalm emoji”, said my screen-addled inner voice. However, as a middle-aged, balding freelance writer dependent on the good graces of spouse, editors and family, it made sense to expand beyond the odd automotive and tech story. There would be no fancy hotels and pandering – but there would be lunch.
Motivational speakers have always been around. You’ll often find them holding court for corporate leadership teams or ruling nations across the world. I’d heard of veterans in India – such as Shiv Khera and Priya Kumarr – but I wasn’t prepared for the sheer avalanche of information, and the number of individuals out there. Thanks to the internet and social media, it appears that a great many people are just waiting to help you change your life – a change that perhaps you are not equipped to effect independently.
That appears to be the basic premise of the programmes that motivational speakers conduct – to help you in your business, life, work, love and such. My lack of youth, a steady job and hair (not necessarily in that order) did, in fact, make me an ideal candidate for some motivation, in hindsight – but I was hired for my turn of phrase, so let’s go with that.
Entering the National Achievers event, I was handed a workbook of sorts, with the profiles of all eight speakers that we could potentially listen to, were we so motivated. The keynote speaker was to be Jack Canfield, of the “Chicken Soup for The Soul” series of books (this far down, you can probably guess what emoji came to my mind). All the speakers were authors, coaches and leaders of impressive-sounding institutes. I was clearly out of my depth because they seemed familiar to the hordes in the massive hotel ballroom; rockstars, even, however unlikely their visual persona. I was there to speak to a specific rockstar – “India’s leading business coach”, Rajiv Talreja. I have to say, I was unprepared for his schtick. Disarm and upsell was the order of the day.
Roaming the hall later as the attendees lined up in (several) single files for lunch, I heard more than one introduce themselves to the other as an “image consultant” or the like, while the other engaged them in polite, enthusiastic conversation. It looked like they were practising something. Talreja had made a convincing case for how he could help attendees build successful businesses, if they attended his advanced course – and line up they did, for the early-bird discount. The huge ballroom was a soup of expectation, excitement, hope, desperation – and separate Jain food counters.
Talreja had begun his session rubbishing the idea that he’s a motivational speaker. In hindsight, that seems almost a side-effect of his approach. As a business coach, his session outlined the basic elements of a business, and the steps needed to make them all work toward success. There was plenty of stating the obvious, and it clearly worked in connecting with the audience. “A lot of people sell a lie,” Talreja told me later, during our meeting. Of particular resonance was his distinction between being “self-employed” and a business owner. Simplistically, he likens self-employment to regular employment, in that you’re a slave to yourself, but not scaling the business at hand to where it should be – running without being dependent on you.
Talreja is relatively young, and one can be forgiven for some scepticism in taking business advice from someone for whom the grey is just barely making an appearance. He makes a point of his bucket list, which includes business success and holding on to his hair for as long as possible, and I see signs of some work done in that direction. He currently runs four businesses, including a celebrity badminton team comprised of members of the Kannada film industry. He also proudly claims to have failed at two businesses in the past, and that’s part of his pitch – “shabby success”. He explains how failure in the family business mired him in the uniquely Indian “Log ya kahenge?” quicksand, and how he extricated himself from it.
Like many others in the field, Talreja has been involved in the speaking circuit business from a young age, and credits the research for his book, “Lead or Bleed”, for his more recent rise in profile. He’s conducted 300 interviews over 15 months with corporate India’s whos who, to distil some sort of wisdom for his potential trainees, and for the public at large. SMEs started reaching out to him in 2016 after his book was launched, and he’s taken on more specific mentorship roles – even investments – in small companies where he sees the value. The message seems less unicorn, more profit. “Startups are great, but people are jumping into space for the wrong reasons,” he explains.
One success story Talreja likes to share is that of Satish Murthy, founder and CEO of Koorie, a same-day logistics company. An IT professional who worked abroad for 13 years before making his way back to the motherland, Murthy went into one of Talreja’s sessions with no expectations, accompanying some friends. In his words, he was “blown away” by what he heard. He cites Talreja’s approach of starting trainees off with templates to get going, improving processes along the way. “Version 1 is better than version none,” goes Talreja’s paraphrased quote. Koorie has gone from a bootstrapped business to taking on angel investments, to the point where they’re looking at private equity, eschewing the VC route altogether. Murthy feels that Talreja’s involvement in the business is far deeper than would be possible by an average board member. “It’s not just about the three-day course, but about all the hand-holding that goes on months after,” he explains. Talreja does not fit the mould of the fist-pumping motivator. There’s plenty of pep-talk, but there’s also paperwork – actionable items and processes. He also doesn’t espouse “hustle porn”, himself focussing on his life outside of work – travel, family, a bucket list.
“You have to be a good storyteller,” says Simerjeet Singh, an international motivational speaker who has over 7 lakh subscribers on his YouTube channel. Like Talreja, Singh also digs deep into a personal experience to inform his message. With a background in the hospitality industry, he left his erstwhile career to focus solely on motivational speaking, which he came to believe was his purpose. Whether in his YouTube videos or in conversation, Singh projects a Zen-like calm, tackling questions matter-of-factly.
“Growth and chaos go hand in hand,” Singh says. On the growing popularity of motivational speakers, he points to the last 5 to 7 years in particular. The wider reach of the internet has meant more penetration, and the explosive growth of smartphones has created a giant platform. Ultimately, people need a sounding board; a way out of their confusion. The business itself has changed, too While 70 per cent of the work Singh does caters to leadership cadre incorporates – the old style business model – today, motivational speakers come in all flavours, catering to mass audiences in person and on YouTube.
Singh is an articulate speaker in English and Hindi; a mix of both languages populate his YouTube channel, and he lives in Jalandhar, not a metro. As jobs move populations toward the cities, urban isolation robs people of the informal guides and mentors that would otherwise be available to them nearer to their roots. “It’s a huge vacuum that is not fulfilled by work or social circles,” he says. Previously, this is exactly the sort of void that spiritual leaders and gurus filled. To his mind, coaches and speakers also fill that void, albeit with a more pragmatic, up-to-date format.
There’s clearly a lot of young people in the motivation profession, and Singh’s response is fairly pragmatic. “There’s a market for everything these days.” Youth also brings prejudice, which he’s faced plenty of, particularly since he caters to an elite management cadre, often with decades of experience. Then there’s his hospitality background. “People tend to put you in a box based on what they think they know. That’s part of the challenge,” he explains. Much like Talreja, there’s an element of “shabby success” in his anecdotes and experiences. His website lists plenty of humble jobs he’s had to do on his way to his present state – petrol pump attendant, car washer and security guard, among others. There’s an element of theatre, even rockstar-like status to motivational speakers. Singh cites Tony Robbins – the hugely successful American motivational speaker and author – and his pageantry while contrasting with people like Shiv Khera, who relies solely on the “power of words”. With Singh, there’s a bit of both in his approach. His YouTube channel is clearly working to bring his old-style approach to new audiences, and there’s less pomp and more sincerity in the delivery.
Sirhud Kalra has “The Free Man” on his well-followed Instagram profile. Of all the personalities I spoke to, there was one properly of the time, having gained a following via social media and YouTube in the most Search Engine Optimized ways. He describes himself interchangeably as a coach, mentor and brother, and has created a men-only community called “The Brotherhood” around his online persona and talks. Much of his YouTube and coaching content is focussed on success with women, getting out of the “friendzone” and such, but he insists that he’s not in the genre of the “pickup artist”. It’s a tough sell, especially when so many video thumbnails appear to indicate otherwise.
Kalra doesn’t consider himself a motivational speaker; “they bring people up, I bring people down,” he explains. His videos and meetups are unscripted truth bombs, and those usually tend to be bitter. “People don’t like to know how they’re screwing up their own lives. I’m not trying to be anything or anyone, I just express myself. Somehow, this has helped people so much that I’m doing it on a large scale.”
Kalra is only 26 but speaks with an ease and authority that belie his age. He’s jacked like a powerlifter (his preferred sport), and groomed like a Punjabi rapper (likely better – one of his videos explains how to trim your pubes). Originally a strategy consultant in Europe with E&Y, he had the decision to move back to India made for him in 2016, when he broke his leg and was confined to a wheelchair for six months. By then, he had already been informally mentoring friends and others and decided that this was his true purpose.
“One of the major areas where I help young men today is with girls. I’m part dating coach, part divorce coach, part marriage counsellor,” he says. Much of his content leans toward sexual conquest and is aimed at men, but he insists that this is a classic “bait and switch” ploy. Grab them by their eyeballs (or balls, in this case) and hopefully, they’ll stick around for the important stuff. This does bear out in much of his spiel, where he encourages men to become better versions of themselves. “Why just men?” would be a common cause for scepticism. The fact that his first video was an instructional guide to cunnilingus would perhaps be another.
It’s a lot to overcome to get to the real message – he wants to help men, because while there’s a lot of social momentum toward helping women, there isn’t as much to help men not be assholes – something he’s happy to point out in meetups and in person, in his telling.
Kalra, I suspect, is self-aware enough to recognize the reasons for his success – jacked, foreign-educated, former MNC employee, Instagram model, ladies man. Sounds like an ideal recipe to attract an audience. Hopefully, he says, the bait-and-switch will work. His community efforts are paying off, with the “Brotherhood” becoming a self-nurturing organisation. “It’s emotionally taxing,” he says, of his coaching sessions; he claims he occasionally suffers from depression himself.
A common thread that I’ve discovered across everyone I’ve heard or read about in the speaking business is the ultimate realisation of a sense of “purpose”, and as I sit at the computer in my shorts, eating Kraft cheese shavings, the irony is not lost on me.”