Paul McKenna sells success. But as well as his abilities to get people to give up bad habits such as over-eating and smoking, he also cures people of phobias and obsessive-compulsive behaviour. There seem to be no limits to the powers of neuro-linguistic programming (NLP), which McKenna calls a "sort of science of success".
Finding a more watertight definition of NLP proves difficult. He reels off one description after another, so that, it is not clear what exactly NLP is. First he says it is "an attitude and curiosity of human beings that leaves behind a trail of techniques", then that it's "the study of the structure of subjective human experience and what can be calculated from it".
He then leaps off the vast sofa, marches into the next room where he bellows through the wall: "NLP is the answer to the question: 'how is it possible?'"-a new description he's come across. "I just thought it was so good," he grins landing back on the sofa with a plump. Psychobabble aside, it seems quite straightforward, when he finally explains: "How anybody does anything is down to neuro-linguistic programming. So, if you are a really good accountant or salesperson, we can study how you do it using NLP techniques, and master your skills in a fraction of the time it took you."
He may go into a company, study the best sales person in a team, analyse how that person does it and, in a matter of days, pass on the skills to the rest of the team. "Businesses want greater productivity and what leads to that is an optimum state of mind-people feeling good about themselves, feeling motivated, confident and enjoying work. By working on this, we teach them greater efficiency."
But it wasn't the search for human efficiency that made McKenna famous. He made his name as a light-entertainer, hypnotising people by making them think they were a washing machine in the midst of the spin cycle, or a ballet dancer pirouetting across the studio floor. McKenna had a series of hugely successful stage and television shows including Paul McKenna's Hypnotic Show and the Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna and he sold out London's Royal Albert Hall for what was reportedly the largest ever stage hypnosis event.
Today McKenna is known as the master of self-improvement. Whatever you don't like about yourself, he can fix. His books, published in 40 countries, and DVDs promise to make you thin, give you instant confidence, help you stop smoking, and even mend your broken heart. And people love what he does. Last year, he signed a £3m book deal with Transworld Publishers; said to be the largest ever advance paid to a non-fiction author in the UK.
His weight-loss programme is claimed to be the most successful in the world, with a 71 per cent success rate, and the Sky show Paul McKenna Can Make You Thin received record ratings earlier this year.
McKenna chanced upon NLP more than 20 years ago, when he was working as a disc jockey with an interest in yoga and meditation. "I went to interview the local hypnotist and I was feeling stressed out so I asked him to hypnotise me," he says. "I just felt so much better and relaxed afterwards. It was like a burden had lifted and I felt a bit euphoric."
He borrowed some books from the hypnotist; one was written by Richard Bandler, the American inventor of NLP, with whom McKenna now runs his seven-day workshops. After reading the book, McKenna began to do hypnotism tricks on his friends for fun, but he also helped them overcome unwanted behaviours and he continued to be interested in self-improvement. While maintaining his job as a DJ, he moved into stage work and then television shows, and in 1990 he set up a training company. Back on his sofa, McKenna continues to rave about NLP. "As a communication skill, it helps people get a clear idea about what other people mean and it helps them become more persuasive communicators." That, he says, doesn't mean you manipulate people to do things against their will; something that he has clearly heard before because he immediately counters any attack: "Some people have tried to make that claim about NLP, but that says more about them and their desperation to sell their own crummy courses."
Another way of using NLP is to eliminate unwanted behaviour such as phobias, excessive eating or smoking. The theory is that we are computers and can be re-programmed. "Like a computer that has programmes in order to do its job, humans have programmes in the same way. In that sense, a human is similar to a computer, only much more complex. But, in terms of our behaviour, we are very simple-once we learn one thing, it is stored as a programme."
It is mind-boggling to hear McKenna speaking in NLP-ese, especially once he gets into the groove. One woman, he says, couldn't play the piano in front of an audience. "So I trained her, within a few minutes, and re-programmed her. I overwrote the software of her mind and I taught her how to feel the confidence of when she plays alone," he explains matter-of-factly. In other words, to make a person more confident, he takes them back to a moment when they were feeling confident and creates a trigger in their present life for that feeling.
McKenna believes the effects of NLP are positively life-changing: "If you do a good NLP course, it is likely you will come away more confident, more optimistic, in better health-and you will probably make more money and almost certainly enjoy more harmonious relationships. And it is very likely you will get more of what you want as well." All this, achieved over the course of seven days, seems a snip at £1,500.
He has almost certainly practiced a great deal on himself over the years. He seems to exist in a hyperactive NLP bubble, full of confidence. He clearly enjoys the trappings of success-a Ferrari and a Bentley are parked in front of his London office and house, itself in a smart Kensington mews. Yet he has an almost childlike enthusiasm for his work, which he says he loves so much he would do even if he weren't being paid.
He stopped doing television shows in 1997 because he felt he had run out of material. A year later, in 1998, McKenna was sued by a man who alleged he had developed schizophrenia as a result of being hypnotised by McKenna in 1994. McKenna won the case, but found the experience a strain and left the UK for the US, where he spent the next couple of years. While there, he had a successful run on Broadway and made quite a name for himself on US television.
Even so, he claims not be to too concerned with the public's perception of him. "I was categorised as a sharp-suited entertainer for a while and some people still have difficulty squaring up the stage hypnotist with the serious business trainer. That's OK with me. I am now Britain's best-selling self-help author and I like to think that is because of the quality of my books."
He claims that the NLP course he runs alongside Bandler is the biggest in the world and although it is easy to believe, the basis of this claim seems hard to substantiate-"I have checked out the training in most places around the world and I believe we are the best," is all he can offer. McKenna also claims that Bandler is widely considered "the world's greatest behavioural scientist". But he carries with him a significant amount of controversial baggage. A child of the 1960s, Bandler reportedly meandered through the 1980s in a cocaine-induced haze and, in 1988, was tried for, and acquitted of, the murder of a prostitute.
Still, there is no end to McKenna's admiration for Bandler and he compares learning NLP from him to learning physics from Einstein or painting from Picasso. "He credits me with being one of his greatest students and I credit him with being my teacher."
It seems an unlikely pairing-the squeaky-clean entertainer and the wild-child genius-but together, Bandler and McKenna have made enviable headway in the business world and count among their previous clients T-Mobile, GlaxoSmithKline, Vodafone, British Airways, BT and Dixons. But the people who turn up for the courses include all sorts: drivers, cleaners, hairdressers, rock stars, royalty, secret agents. "Everybody comes to our workshops," he says.
He reckons he has trained 50,000 people over the past 10 years; at least half of them business people. "People are the best judges of how to run and develop their own business. You are the expert on you. I don't necessarily know how you could run your business better, but I have the access codes to put you in touch with you. So suddenly-boom!-you feel better in yourself, you make more money and the quality of your work is higher."
Delegates are taught in groups of 500 to 700; a huge number of people considering they are there to change their lives in so little time. But that is no problem, says McKenna. "I'd rather be in an audience of 5,000 to 7,000 with somebody who knows what they are doing at the front than in a small group with an idiot up there. All this stuff about class sizes is nonsense-it is about raising teaching standards."
The workshop line-up is completed by Michael Neil-"life coach to the Hollywood elite"-and author of the book You Can Have What You Want, and John LaValle, president of the Society for NLP. "It is a bit like being in the best rock band because we work as a team, it is a bit of an ensemble feeling," says McKenna. But it is obvious, though, that McKenna and Bandler are the Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of this particular band.
He emphasises again and again, as if it were a mantra, that you cannot afford not to use NLP today. It has, he says, become mainstream. "NLP is no longer a curious, leftfield, esoteric sort of communication tool. It is mass market and everybody is using it." He says the British, although traditionally cynical about American-style self-improvement techniques, are now more open-minded about the changes that NLP can bring in a short time.
"Years ago it took psychiatrists six months to remove a phobia-I've done some in six minutes, although 60 minutes is my average. Six months to six minutes. It's an exponential… increase… in… development," he says, banging the coffee table hard to emphasise each word.
It is difficult to see McKenna ever getting tired of creating successful, confident, non-phobic, slim, non-smoking people. In fact, he spent the summer writing a book about a new technique to stop smoking, which he has just developed. For him helping people to improve is the name of the game. "It really is just the best fun. Having 500 people who want you to brighten their lives up… it's awesome."