How You Get Sold at Seminars: A Look at James Arthur Ray

by Dan on August 27, 2009


10/25/2009 UPDATE:  I had originally kept the identity of the speaker anonymous, but in light of recent events, I’m more comfortable using the speaker’s real name: James Arthur Ray.

I went to see a semi-famous public speaker last week, James Arthur Ray.  He’d been on Oprah, and had written two bestselling books.  One thing that was particularly appealing about him was that in terms of the hard-work vs. effortless manifestation polarities in self-help, he was smack in the middle.  He said that miracles do happen, but stressed that you have to be willing to take action in order to receive them.

Overall, I liked him.  This was a free two hour presentation, which can only mean one thing: a heavy sales pitch for a seminar weekend.  Maybe even a presentation of a week-long retreat to learn the “good stuff.”

In all fairness, there was a ton of great content at the talk.  There was maybe only a half hour or so of selling, and the rest was knowledge I could take home and implement immediately.

However, I want to bring to light some of the sales tactics that are common at these events and how to protect yourself from being manipulated.  The tactics I’m going to talk about today are ones I perceive to be unfair, yet are very common in the self-development industry.  My hope is that in revealing these to you, you will see past the manipulations for what they are, and make an informed decision on whether you want to buy a product or ticket to a seminar.

Remember that just because a speaker uses these tactics does not mean that you should run away.  They are so common that I would be hardpressed to tell you a speaker who does not use them.  Here they are.

Tactic #1:  The Instant Correction

In this presentation, the first thing James Ray said was “Good evening.”  Being the kind, polite audience we were, we returned the cordiality with “Good evening,” ourselves.  There was maybe one or two audience members that said something different.

Ray pointed them out and said, “At least someone got it right.  When I say ‘Good evening,’ the correct response is ‘Yes it is.’  Now let’s try this again.  ‘Good evening.’”

We answered back, “Yes it is.”

While seeming benign, this is a technique to get us to see the speaker as an authority.  It’s the first sentence of the night and already we messed up!  He gets to show us we’re off course and guide us to the light.

Tactic #2:  The Courage Test

A half hour into the talk, Ray took out one of his bestselling books.  He said, “Who would like a free copy of my bestseller, usually sold at $25?”

Instantly, our hands raised.  He held the book out, and more hands went up.  He just stood there silently as we wondered who he would pick and why he was taking so long.  A moment later, a man got out of his chair.  Then a young woman did the same.  They raced up, and the man grabbed the book out of Ray’s hands.

Ray praised this man and said to the rest of us ‘cowards’, “Now tell me what stopped you from getting up here and taking the book?”

One audience member said she was waiting for him to pick someone.  Ray responded with, “Yes, you’ve been waiting your whole life to be chosen, haven’t you?”  She nodded.

The young woman raised her hand and said, “The other guy got up there before I could.”

Ray said, “You hesitated.  You wanted to see it was ok to get up before taking action.  A winner doesn’t wait for approval before moving forward.”

It sounds like a nice lesson in itself, until you take a step back and realize the absurdity of what he was claiming.  If at another point in Ray’s seminar, a person ran up to grab whatever he was selling, that audience member would surely be told to sit down or be carted off by security. When you are a guest at someone’s speech, you do not assume you have the right to come grab something out of someone’s hands.

If at another presentation someone asked for a volunteer, and you ran up on stage, it would come off very rude and uncalibrated.  Similarly, if you were at a banquet, and when the host was describing the meal options, you grabbed a piece of steak off the display plate, you would likely not be invited back.

This was a situation designed for us to fail.  He knew we had good mothers and had likely been taught how to behave in public.  This was another way for him to “correct” us and show that we lacked the inner strength to pursue our dreams.

Tactic #3:  The “Application Test”

After giving us an hour more of extremely good content, Ray proposed a question to us, “What if I told you there was an easy method that would take care of all of this for you?  What it was completely guaranteed that I had the answers that would set your life straight in six months with a ton of extra income?  What if you absolutely knew that this would work?  Would you be willing to hear me out?”

We all proclaimed, “Yes!”  Who could deny a deal like that?

He continued, “Then pick up the application that was handed to you tonight, and fill out your name, address, and credit card number.”

Yeah… right.

A number of people did fill it out.  I didn’t.

After five minutes or so, he asked, “How many of you DID NOT fill out the application?”  I raised my hand along with many others.

He went on to explain that this was why our lives were lacking.  He said, “I didn’t tell you to pay anything, I just asked you to fill it out, and that was enough to drive fear into your hearts.”

Ok.   “Put your credit card number on the application” while not asking us to buy is the same as “Hey, roll this joint up.  You don’t have to smoke it.”

Obviously, he knew that the hardest part of closing the deal is the credit card, so he wanted to get it out of the way, so an easy “Yes I’ll do it,” would be all he needed to make the sale.

What felt very disingenuous about this was that agreeing to buy something expensive without checking it out first was not something even a wealthy businessman like James Arthur Ray would do.

If I promised Ray I could write an award winning sales letter for James Ray International, do you think he’d write me a $2000 check on the spot, without verifying my credentials and considering the offer for a few days?  Careful consideration of your investments is not a sign of weakness.  Impulsive spending is.

Tactic #4: Misinterpret Objections

Ray put us on the spot, once again.  He said, “Tell me what went through your head when you decided not to fill the application out.”

Some people volunteered reasons such as “I can’t afford it,” and “It’s too soon to plan something like this.”

Since he asked, I thought I’d give him one of my reasons.  When he called on me, I said “What went through my head was, ‘How is this seminar going to be different from the many other possibilities I can choose from?’”

He answered, “I see what you’re saying.  ‘I tried this seminar and it didn’t work.’ ‘I fell in love once…’  ‘I don’t want to go through this all again.’”

I wasn’t sure if he was intentionally misinterpreting my question, or if he legitimately thought I meant that I’d taken other seminars and felt they were a waste.

I clarified, “Actually, I meant that there are a lot of great companies out there, so why should I pick-”

He cut me off with “No, no, I get it.  You tried it once and it didn’t work.  Now you’re thinking… blah blah blah”

Confirmed deliberate misinterpretation.  Not very genuine.  It surprised me that he didn’t have a legitimate response to why his show was better than the one next door.  He seemed like a salesman at heart so you’d think he’d have a reason for why he stands out.

He went on to say that everything he offered was 100% guaranteed.  I looked down at my blank application, and saw at the bottom in bold lettering “ALL SALES ARE FINAL.  THERE ARE NO REFUNDS FOR ANY EVENTS WHATSOEVER.”  It is possible that he would give you a refund despite what your contract said.  However, if he changed his mind, no judge would take his verbal promise over what you signed.  Written agreements trump verbal agreements in the law, so you’d be screwed if he somehow didn’t interpret his “guarantee” as “You get your money back if you’re not satisfied.”

Now this may surprise you, but I actually might go to his weekend seminar, if it fits my schedule.  I have five months before the event comes to San Diego, so it’s not something I need to commit to right away.

Why in the world would I go to a paid, multi-day event by someone who uses such underhanded tactics to part me with my money?

It’s the same reason I’ll read a spiritual book of a religion I don’t believe in, or study the business methods of people I never would want to do make a deal with.

I go where the value is.  If I can learn something, I will take that opportunity.  I reserve the right to take 40% of the advice and leave 60% behind, or even take 5% and leave 95% if suits me.  I can scan books and speeches for good content and ignore what doesn’t resonate with me or help me at this time.

This is an important skill to develop and I suggest you do the same as these opportunities present themselves to you.  Just make sure you never get caught up in the hype.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

1 Sean Patrick Simpson March 24, 2010 at 10:51 am

Dude, great article man. REALLY great demonstration at looking objective reality.


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