Toward the end of his presidency, George W. Bush described the amount of money he could make from post-retirement speaking engagements as “ridiculous.” He could have also been describing the speaking engagements themselves.
Next week, Bush will headline a “Get Motivated!” business seminar in Fort Worth, Texas, a touring outfit run by motivational-speaking husband-and-wife duo Peter and Tamara Lowe. That’s right—for only $19, you and your entire office can hear the former president of the United States talk about his formula for success! Other speakers include former quarterback Terry Bradshaw, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and former failed presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani.
Bush is hardly the first ex-president to talk for money after leaving office. President Reagan once got $2 million from a Japanese manufacturing company for two 20-minute speeches. George H.W. Bush made millions speaking to businesses across the world. Bill Clinton reaped more than $56 million in speaking fees between 2000 and 2008.
But unlike his predecessors, Bush is probably the least articulate buckraking ex-president ever. So I called a few motivational speakers to ask what advice they could offer him.
Most of the speakers gave the obvious (but no less true for being so) advice: Be yourself. “The most important thing he can do is to be the genuine, flexible, warm kind of personality that I’ve seen up close that he has capacity of being,” says Les Brown, the self-described “world’s leading motivational speaker.” Another professional speaker, Mark Victor Hansen, attested to Bush’s vitality in person. “When no cameras were on, he was winging it—bright, exciting, lively. He actually had a personality.”
Translating that personality to the stage means presenting himself as a human being with relatable foibles. “We know him as a president,” says Scott Greenberg, a Los Angeles-based “expert on resilience, leadership and peak performance.” “We know less about him as a human being having the job of president.” What does that mean in practice? Tell stories. Pull back the curtain. Talk about your mistakes and what you learned from them.
Reflecting on lessons learned has not been Bush’s greatest strength. In outgoing interviews, he resisted self-analysis. But he is in the process of writing his memoir, and reflection is key to motivational speaking, say experts. “Most speakers are sharing some of their life experience, what they learned from it, and how we can incorporate that knowledge without having to go through their experience,” says Brad Montgomery, a “corporate humorist” who teaches executives “how to use levity and lightheartedness to increase their bottom line.” “He doesn’t have to admit he was an idiot to go into Iraq. … He should talk about small things—the time he goofed protocol with a small country or mispronounced X.”
Which raises a separate problem: Bush can’t speak. No one expects him to be another Les Brown. But he makes George Bush the Elder look eloquent. “I’m astounded how bad he is as a speaker,” says Montgomery, especially considering how often Bush had to give speeches while president. You’d think that, with repetition, he would have gained some skills: “You can teach any guitar player how to get through ‘Hotel California’ if you give them enough time. I think President Bush is not really there with ‘Hotel California.’ ”
It’s not so much that he has to deliver a stirring speech, says Brown: “He doesn’t have to be a great orator. Whatever worked for him to become most powerful man in the world will work for him here.” Motivational speakers come in different forms. There’s the stage-pacing, arm-waving style of Tony Robbins. Then there’s the more laid-back teleprompter and podium style. Bush may be the latter, and that’s OK.
Of course, there’s another theory: It doesn’t even matter if he’s a good speaker, says Greenberg. He’s a celebrity. “There’s an inverse relationship between how famous you are and how good you need to be.” Plus, he’s got the best material in the world. “Even if he doesn’t tell his stories that well,” says Greenberg, “they’re gonna be great stories.”
Not everyone thinks motivational speaking is Bush’s calling. “I think it’s both a poor choice for him and a poor fit,” says John Di Frances, who calls himself a “content speaker.” (Content as in substance, not as in happy.) “They’re looking for people who are super rah-rah cheerleader people. George W. Bush is not that.” Indeed, motivational speaking conventions are usually more rock concert than fireside chat, with a heavy dose of infomercial. Bush could risk coming off not just un-presidential, but foolish. “It’s a performance-based thing,” says Di Frances. “If you don’t have great stage skills, that’s not the place for you. They’re Barnum & Bailey stuff.”
Whatever he says, agreement is near unanimous that he should not discuss current events. “He should stay away from politics,” says Brown. “I think he has to elevate the conversation to who we should be as a people.” Greenberg agrees: “He should stay out of the policy debate, given that we’re still dealing with issues that were part of his presidency,” like terrorism and a sagging economy. Save that stuff for 2020.
There was also consensus that Bush has the potential to be a great presenter. The question is whether arena-based motivational speaking—as opposed to, say, one-on-one discussions followed by a Q&A—is really his calling.
Speakers were split, however, on whether Bush should acknowledge his unpopularity. (His approval rating, which sank to 28 percent when he left office, has since risen to 33 percent.) “I think he needs to speak to that coming out,” says Brown. Luckily for Bush, it should be a supportive audience. Fort Worth is Bush country, and business owners are Bush people. A friendly audience, a nonthreatening agenda, and a cast of luminaries to back him up: It sounds a lot like a presidential town hall, circa 2004. Maybe this is the perfect venue for Bush after all.