Selling Hope

A professional speaker's little book is a big hit.

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You can probably win a bar bet with this one: Who is the only Memphian to have authored a New York Times number-one best-seller?

Not John Grisham, who used Memphis as the setting for some of his early novels but never lived closer than Southaven. Not Elvis Presley, whose autobiography doubtless would have been a best-seller if he had gotten around to writing one. Not Kemmons Wilson, who made the cover of Time magazine as the founder of Holiday Inns. And not Shelby Foote, whose three-volume history of the Civil War should be in every serious home library.

The answer is Don Hutson, a motivational speaker, business consultant, and co-author with Ken Blanchard of The One Minute Entrepreneur. As the title suggests, this is no tome. At 130 pages, it would fit neatly into Foote's footnotes or your coat pocket. Each of the 14 chapters is followed by a page of "one minute insights" summarizing key points (sample: "Keep your priorities in order"). The co-authors co-authored it with Ethan Willis, who shares cover billing. The Times, it should be noted, lists best-sellers by categories, one of which is "Advice and How-To."

Still, a best-seller is a best-seller. The One Minute Entrepreneur, like Blanchard's 26-year-old The One Minute Manager, is a modern publishing phenomenon. Books promote seminars and speeches, which sell tapes and more books in bulk orders or at $19.95 per single copy, which builds the brand. Hutson's claim to fame is the culmination of 40 years of hard work in the super-competitive business of sales training. At 64, he makes 75 speeches a year and embraces web-based technologies, blogs, and social media to promote himself.

The book is written as a fictional parable about "Jud," who, like Hutson, graduates from the University of Memphis, becomes a speaker, and starts his own company. Hutson says it's mostly fictional, although there are some real people and some incidents are drawn from his or Blanchard's personal experience. Hutson's company, U.S. Learning, does training for several Fortune 500 companies.

The book, published in 2008, was five years in the making. Hutson pitched it to Blanchard as a book about mentors. Blanchard and his publishing committee, swamped with proposals, were lukewarm. Hutson's proposal went on the back burner. Willis suggested changing the focus to entrepreneurs instead of mentors. Bingo.

"It wasn't so much any negatives about mentoring as it was excitement about entrepreneurship right now, with a lot of people getting laid off and doing their own thing," Hutson says.

The store of American proverbial wisdom goes back at least 250 years to Benjamin Franklin ("Time is money") and Poor Richard's Almanac. Famous practitioners include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mark Twain (as prolific a speaker as he was an author), Will Rogers, and Dr. Norman Vincent Peale (The Power of Positive Thinking). Peale and Memphis homebuilder and positive thinker Wallace E. Johnson, author of Work Is My Play, inspired a "Believe in Memphis" civic campaign after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Hutson was browsing through 25-cent books at a yard sale when he came across one written nearly a century ago called The Miracle of Right Thought by someone he'd never heard of, Orison Marden. It changed his life. He has collected 41 more of Marden's books, calls him his literary mentor, and reads him aloud with his wife for daily sustenance.

The public's appetite for self-improvement and inspirational maxims appears to be insatiable. Every celebrity, famous athlete, fallen angel, wronged woman, and aging politician grinds out a book that enjoys a few weeks of display in the book stores and on the "new releases" shelves at the library. It is an easy transition from the sweetness of Hallmark cards to the cynicism of Stephen Colbert's "Word" segment. A new book called Confessions of a Public Speaker, by Scott Berkun, says the real secret is that audience expectations are low, so practice, be early, and don't worry.

Hutson would call a comedian's one-liners "takeaways" (as in the pearls that audience members take away from a long speech) and a contrarian book about public speaking "product differentiation." He is a proponent of both concepts.

But more than ever, in these hard economic times, he believes in mixing hope and advice with wit. Like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, today's audiences are longing for "a little good news." As for whether a speaker should use humor, Hutson invariably says "only if you want to get paid."

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