It was a chance encounter at O’Hare airport. We had met once before in New Orleans. He had introduced himself to me after a luncheon where I addressed my fellow members of the National Speakers Association who gathered at the Fairmont Hotel for a three-day convention.
Now, in the swirling masses of the busiest airport in the world, he was asking me if I had any time to spare. I had more than two hours before my flight to Phoenix, so we went to a coffee shop. To guard against the possibility of any embarrassment to him, we will call him John.
Ten years ago, while he was still working as a low-paid hardware clerk in a small department store, he discovered the world of self-improvement books at his local library. His life and world changed almost immediately. Starting a small company of his own with meager savings, he became a multimillionaire before he was 35 years old. Since he gives most of the credit for his success to books by Napoleon Hill, W. Clement Stone, Dale Carnegie and Maxwell Maltz, he decided to carry his message to the world—that the secrets of success were available to all, at no charge, at the nearest library.
After we had sipped our coffee and shared common complaints about various airlines, he said, “Og, I really need your advice. I have reached the point where I give more than 150 speeches a year, at a pretty healthy fee plus expenses, although, as you know, I’m not doing it for the money. But I have just come from a convention in Minnesota where I delivered a speech that was an absolute bomb. I mean, so help me, there was no reaction at all from a group of more than 500 franchised, small-store owners, and this has never happened to me before.”
“Everyone has an off day,” I said. He shook his head. “But this wasn’t an off day for me. I wasn’t ill or tired. In fact, I don’t recall when I felt better before a speech. I know I was as powerful as ever in my presentation, but this group just sat there, stone-faced, glancing at their watches. It was awful.”
“What was your subject?” I asked.
“It was the same subject and the same speech I delivered only two days ago in Atlanta to a group of insurance salespeople, and they gave me a standing ovation when I finished. I call my speech ‘The Magic of Self-Improvement Books’ and I tell my audiences with specific and dramatic examples how lives have been changed for the better with the help of great classics dealing with success and how to achieve it. Then I touch on specific books and what they did for me. I tell them how W. Clement Stone’s Success Through a Positive Mental Attitude taught me to develop a burning desire and how to follow through with my plans. I spell out for them how my business tripled after I began using the 10 Scrolls of success from your book, The Greatest Salesman in the World. And, of course, throughout my speech, I remind them that they can achieve what I did if they are willing to try.”
I said, “I’m sure your delivery to this group was terrific and your talk was dynamite. Unfortunately, you just learned a lesson all of us who are involved in the field of selfimprovement have to learn the hard way. I’m just surprised that it has taken you so long.”
He frowned and waited for me to continue. “First of all, you must remember that we are not a book-reading country, not anymore anyway. There are too many interests laying claim on our time, and reading requires some effort compared to turning on a TV.”
I continued, “Most importantly, the tools are available to people, but if they won’t make the effort to pick them up and use them, then the tools are useless.”
I told John that, years ago, when I was closely associated with W. Clement Stone, I attended many of his speeches. He would always say, somewhere in his talk, that if he could reach just one person who was listening to him that day, then he would not consider his time wasted. In the beginning I remember thinking what a strange remark that was, coming from a man who was always accustomed to thinking big. Only as the years passed did I finally realize the wisdom behind his words and understand his hope that he could touch just one life out of any group. And I am sure that in that stone-faced audience you’ve just come from, you have reached at least one person who doesn’t want to go on just existing from day to day, who may feel that he has nothing to lose by trying your suggestions, and who may be at a library or a bookstore right now as we speak.
John lowered his head and muttered, “I never thought about any of that. And what about all those who I fail to reach with my message?”
Tough question. I hesitated and replied, “Try to remember the words of a brilliant French writer, Blaise Pascal, ‘Pity the unbelievers; their condition makes them unhappy enough.’ ”