It was basically just rich people shouting nonsense at poorer people.
The all-star line-up for the Success 2013 seminar
Do you want to be rich? Do you believe in yourself? Do you think you can change your life?
It’s exactly 11.50AM at the Success 2013 seminar when I stop nodding along with these questions and start wishing to be anywhere but here.
"Legendary online marketing strategist" Brendon Burchard is up on stage, talking to a room full of wannabe entrepreneurs who've all bought tickets for the business event because they want to "join those playing at the top of their game". They feel that listening to some millionaire motivational speakers might help them do just that.
Burchard is Tom Cruise if he'd started his career in telesales instead of Top Gun; he's a man who, at every moment, seems just another moment away from jumping up and down on a sofa. I’ve heard him talk of how he nearly died in a car crash somewhere in the Dominican Republic, how he was nearly suicidal after his first girlfriend left him for someone else and – a little more on topic – how the key to success is "world class content creation". I'm not exactly sure what links almost dying in the Caribbean to creating this "world-class content", but I'm sure everyone in the room today is just one more enthusiastic speech away from landing that Pulitzer.
However, Brendon – as it turns out – isn't just here to regale us with stories of how his life changed forever. The real reason he’s flown all this way and served up half an hour of his gee-whizz Montana boy shtick is to offer the audience a once in a lifetime opportunity: a place on his Experts Academy scheme.
Non-discount costs for the Experts Academy scheme
For the next ten minutes, a place on this scheme – which Burchard says has been used by "the majority" of the authors on the New York Times bestseller list – can be purchased at a knockdown price of £1,297, down 90 percent from its usual rate. He lists a number of people that it helped make rich; in truth, I've not heard of any of them. Then, directing the crowd to sign-up points around the ExCel Centre's ICC Capital Hall, he waits to see how many fish got shot in this particular barrel.
About 300 float out of their seats to the sign-up points. This process will repeat itself again and again over the next seven hours, as one slick salesman takes the stage after another.
My ticket for the general section of the Success seminar cost £19, and at 8.45AM I’m seated three rows from the front, carrying a camera I’ll later discover is worse than the one on my iPhone. But the event itself starts off fine. Australian hype man Scott Harris – who has worked alongside Tony Robbins, the giant lifestyle guru – is warming up the crowd.
Harris' confusing biography in the booklet I’ve been handed on arrival claims he can "transform your mindset, unleashing the real you that is ready to make your dream life real". He’s barking out breakfast-related success questions – should you eat apples or muffins? (Apples.) Drink coffee or water? (Water.) Take the escalator or walk? (Walk.) The crowd is lapping it up, and though I've taken none of the above decisions as of this morning, I can kind of see why.
Then Les Brown is brought on stage, to general whooping. Les is big, and his slogan is, "Go big with Les Brown." He’s wearing a sharp suit and tie, and his Southern accent is rich and mellifluous. Les' deal is motivation, pure and simple, and reality doesn’t intrude very often for the next hour (this will become a permanent feature of the event, but Les probably hits the grandest notes of all). He’s a master at shifting from japes – "money isn’t everything, but it’s right up there with oxygen" – to grave, po-faced seriousness. He patrols the stage, cackling and pointing. This is a pro at work.
A slide from Les Brown's slot
It's apparent pretty quickly that there's a religious overtone to his gleeful worship of moneymaking. Les's performance uses elements of gospel preaching alongside radio-DJ rhyming scat. He quotes from Mother Teresa and gets the audience involved in exchanges that remind me, a lapsed Catholic, of the catechism (Les: "I expect to win" – Audience: "I expect to win"). He also borrows the "exchanging of the peace", regularly asking us to turn left and right, look our neighbour in the eye and shake hands, saying things like "You have greatness in you."
When he leaves the stage, the crowd goes wild, and everyone I talk to over the day – even those who get furious at the later speakers – praise Les to high heaven.
Up next is the only man on the line-up whose name I recognise, James Caan. He's stayed relatively quiet after his run on Dragons' Den came to an end, but has been in the news this year for being appointed as David Cameron’s social mobility tsar, only to cock things up by imploring parents not to help their children find work when he'd personally hired his daughters on more than one occasion.
But I enjoyed his talk; he didn’t ask me to raise my hand about anything (something every other speaker does, at least once every two minutes), and the fact that he works full-time without salary at the government initiative Start-up Loans, helping young people set up businesses, is admirable. But if he were really a smart man – or a really scrupulous man – he wouldn’t have set foot on this stage.
He kept things in perspective, yes, hinting that not everyone can be as rich as they want. But Caan is as culpable, if not more so, than the other grinning men building up the expectations of all the aspiring entrepreneurs sat around me. His face on the brochure adds a veneer of legitimacy to an event set-up to exploit people, even if those people seem unbelievably keen to go along with their own exploitation. And the fact that Caan directly connects the Success Seminar to the highest level of British government is fantastically depressing to think about.
One of Brendon Burchard's very helpful diagrams
Burchard follows Caan. As the first person to start selling people fantasies of easy money, he’s the man who extinguishes any remaining feel-good factor at Success 2013, at least for me. Burchard’s gig is some sort of online marketing assistance, helping you get your message out to the big boys and turning big bucks from doing so.
He claims that the "world’s most followed people" on Twitter have come to him to ask how they can monetise their accounts, but a quick check tells me he only has 7,868 followers for his @ExpertsAcademy feed. He talks again and again about how he knows the secrets to making money online. I work for a digital newspaper – weirdly, it’s not as easy as he makes out. Then, before he gives us the chance to become an inductee to the Experts Academy and hear these secrets, Burchard casually adds that the programme can make New York Times bestselling authors from 200 people in this room. I involuntarily recoil.
At lunch, two men tell me that the speakers who don’t get paid to attend these seminars often have to sell some kind of product to make money instead. Both are seminar veterans and neither seems perturbed by the barefaced shyster-ism of the past hour. All around me, people who look like Apprentice contestants are speaking over each other. If every sinner is destined to find their own version of hell, I imagine that for many people hell looks like this.
As I try to make my way back into the hall, a bouncer takes a look at my wristband and points me to a different entrance 20 feet away. The one I’m stood at is apparently for those with VIP tickets. From what I can tell, access to this entrance is pretty much the only perk a VIP ticket buys you, at a cost of £79. Technically, you also get to sit in the front two rows, but there’s no VIP section or anything approaching one, just a couple of blue balloons tied to a chair separating those Very Important People from the rest of us. I wonder if Success Resources, the event organisers, are the people here who know most about making money.
By the time I take my seat, Andy Harrington is going at it, sympathising with anyone "stuck on a level of income", selling places on his Professional Speakers Bootcamp and promising he can help double salaries.
All you need to make hundreds of thousands of pounds, he says, is a bit of training in how to conquer your fear of public speaking. Then, like Andy, you can tour the world, raking it in. Andy takes pressure-selling way beyond Burchard's level. He asks audience members who want a place in his Speakers Bootcamp to come up on stage, then berates those of us who remain sitting down for lacking ambition. Finally, he says that for four minutes – FOUR minutes only – he’ll take as many people as he can into the bootcamp, at which point at least 50 people start running towards the sign-up desks. Others follow in less of a hurry.
If there’s one thing I’ll remember about Harrington, it’s the time he said that anyone in the audience could make £30,000 in two weeks, if it was to save the life of one of their children.
By 2PM, I’ve got the basic MO for people like Harrington and Burchard figured out. You take an area that people don’t quite understand and are possibly afraid of, but know is connected to wealth, then put in some impressive-sounding slogans ("The Tri Summit Story Telling Strategy"), tell a personal tale of some hardship you've overcome, then promise great sums of wealth in return for signing on to your training system. I won’t go into every act that went on over the next five hours, but they all followed that pattern: offering help on the stock market, eBay selling, property, etc.
Bob Kittell getting everyone to raise their hands
The stock market man is Bob Kittell. He deserves special mention for inviting single mothers up on stage, acknowledging how they might need a little extra cash, then generously presenting them with a copy of his beat-the-stock-market software, a "powerful tool" worth £2,000. At one point, however, Kittell stumbles. The projected advertisement for his "three-day" October training session states that the whole thing runs from "Saturday – Sunday", which doesn't seem quite right.
On and on it goes – the same lines, the same offers, the same run to the sidelines to sign up. And the truly stunning thing is just how many people keep raising their hand on call, keep repeating the slogans ("Cha-ching!") and keep chuckling at the tired jokes.
For the ten hours I stayed, I sat next to a friendly Indian woman who looked like she was in her early thirties. She had been to ten seminars in total and wanted to set up an "image and branding" consultancy. As my mood continued its steady nosedive, she remained almost as radiant as she was at the start of the first talk, enjoying the positivity, though not signing up to any schemes. Everybody I stopped at the exit also said they’d had a good day.
Perhaps those who stayed to the end didn’t notice the stink, or the way the speakers big each other up like long-time cronies. And maybe, somewhere down the line, some of the speakers' programmes make some people money. But what they cannot possibly do is fulfil the hopes they've raised.
Because what's going on here is the manipulation of people's desire to find an easy way out, a shortcut away from a tough life. Almost every single speaker asks the audience to think of a sum of money that would allow them to live comfortably, then suggests his programme will provide it. It doesn’t feel like a coincidence that when somebody asks the jobless people in the room to raise their hands, at least a sixth of the audience oblige.
Everyone has their dreams, I just can’t think of worse people to trust them with than the speakers of Success 2013.
Memphis Barker is a writer and editor for the Independent, follow him on Twitter: @memphisbarker
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