Why aren't there any good business tapes?
All right, all right, the blurb on this article isn't quite accurate. There are a few worthwhile business-related audiotapes, and I'll get to them in a moment. But first consider the dreck that's clogging up tape players all over the country.
How to Get What You Want, by Zig Ziglar (Simon & Schuster Sound Ideas). Ziglar, the Dallas-based pitchman who pulls down $10,000 a pop for his motivational speeches, is yours on tape for only $8.95 -- cheap, if his rhetoric were worth more than a plugged nickel. His favorite question on this tape, repeated several times: "Are you a wandering generality" . . . pause . . . "or a meaningful specific?" Sorry, I don't know what it means. Maybe he doesn't either.
How to Manage People for Peak Performance, no author listed (Warner Audio Publishing). This is what you might call a low-concept (not to mention low-budget) tape. A radio journalist interviews "America's top executives" -- who turn out to be a New York lawyer, a consultant, a retired advertising man, and the president of the Dreyfus Corp. investment firm. Sample lesson: "The key to dealing with people is communication. I think it's difficult to deal with people as though they were products, not human beings." Cost: $7.95. (Blank cassettes: $2.99.)
The Organized Executive, by Stephanie Winston (Simon & Schuster Sound Ideas). Winston, a consultant, has a system called TRAF for processing paperwork. The acronym stands for what you can do with paper: toss it, refer it, act on it, or file it. Figure out the appropriate choice for every document that crosses your desk, then take the corresponding action. There, I've just saved you $8.95.
It would be nice if these were the worst of a bad lot. But surely that honor has to go to The Power of Subliminal Selling, by Ken Delmar (Warner Audio Publishing). Delmar has so much advice for salespeople! Like, always look at the prospect so he can see both your ears. With certain kinds of prospects, sit close -- but watch their blinks, and if they blink too much, move back. Keep your hands in a "log cabin," fingers interlaced, and "lay your log cabin on your lap or hold it just above your lap." Now, psychologically, "you are safe inside your log cabin." And Delmar is serious about this.
Why, you may ask, am I picking on audiotapes as a medium just because there are some inane ones on the market? This is, after all, the age of the Walkman and the auto tape player. That's why aggressive publishers such as Simon & Schuster and Random House (which recently bought Warner Audio) have jumped into the business, and why most big bookstores now include "audio centers" with rack after rack of tapes. What better way for a businessperson to wait out a traffic jam than by soaking up wisdom on audiocassette?
The trouble, however, isn't with a few bad tapes; the trouble is that there are only a few good ones. Publishers really haven't figured out how to make first-rate business tapes. They're starting with the wrong material, and they're doing a bad job with what they've got.
Most business tapes these days have a strong how-to orientation, not surprising since they're often adapted from how-to books. Listen to a sampling of Simon & Schuster's line, for example, and you'll be told how to buy real estate, how to get your point across in 30 seconds or less, and how to turn your stress into high-energy performance. (This leaves out How to Develop Your ESP Power, no doubt a favorite among economic forecasters.) But how much will you learn? To my mind, tapes are exactly the wrong medium for this kind of instructional material. You can't easily page back and forth to keep a sequence of ideas straight, as you can with a book. You can't ask questions or discuss the issues, as you can at a seminar.
If it's not a how-to tape, it's likely to fall into what publishers call the motivational/inspirational category -- "the Zig Ziglars of this world," as one executive put it. Now good motivational speakers can be inspiring in the right circumstances, such as when they're speaking to a group of people who share a common purpose. When you're all alone in your car, hearing a hortatory lecture is mildly embarrassing, like eavesdropping on a minister practicing next Sunday's sermon. (If you don't believe me, try putting Ziglar on the tape player -- loud -- and pulling up to a stoplight with the windows open.) Worse, most of the inspirational stuff isn't any good to start with. Too many motivators try to fire us up by cracking jokes and delivering homey homilies. Personally, I'd rather hear true stories about fired-up people who were able to accomplish something unusual.
Well produced, a tape is a powerful medium for nonfiction material. Regular listeners of National Public Radio's weekday show "All Things Considered," for example, know that clever combinations of interviews, on-the-spot sounds, and voice-overs can present compelling aural portraits of people and their ideas. Unfortunately, few publishers bother to employ such techniques; most business-related tapes consist of one or two people reading lines into a microphone.
Some day audiotapes may take full advantage of the medium's opportunities. In the meantime you'll find a few tapes that are helpful simply because of their content. Two examples:
The Frontiers of Management, by Peter F. Drucker (Simon & Schuster Sound Ideas), serves up bite-size ideas on business that are nourishing but easily digestible. You're filling a key management slot? Think through the assignment, not just the job description; a sales manager whose job will be opening up new markets needs different skills from one whose main task is recruiting a sales force. You think your company has too many managers? Try substituting job enlargement for promotion, leaving slots empty when people leave. The book Frontiers of Management was a collection of Drucker's essays, many of them published in The Wall Street Journal and elsewhere; the tape presents a few of the best.
Beyond a Passion for Excellence, by Tom Peters (Warner Audio Publishing) is one of several post-Excellence tapes by the book's coauthor, and if you haven't yet overdosed on Peters they're worth a listen. In this one Peters sounds his usual themes of quality, service, responsiveness to customers. But his examples are fresh, his statistics surprising, and his delivery engaging.
Both Drucker and Peters, of course, are original thinkers who illustrate their points with anecdotes and observations about real companies. That alone sets them apart from most of their taped competitors. But is it so hard for publishers to find material of this quality? Tapes that confront important issues, that present information in ways that are easily heard and understood, that challenge and provoke us rather than talk down to us -- well, I hope we'll see more of them in the future. There aren't many around today.