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Motivating through words

(Published July 3, 2000)


Staff Writer

In a spacious chamber of the Washington Convention Center, a nattily dressed man takes the podium to deliver a sermon to the 300 or so faces in the crowd.

But this time, the homily isn’t about having faith in God or Jesus. It’s about having faith in oneself.

Willie Jolley moves the crowd like it was a Sunday congregation.

"They’ve called me a secular preacher," he says, "and I think that’s a good way of describing what I do."

Just exactly what Jolley does is what he calls "inspirtainment" – a mix of inspirational speaking and entertainment. Apparently he’s pretty good at it. He recently was named "Outstanding Motivational/Inspirational Speaker of the Year" by Toastmasters International, a prestigious award from the group that promotes excellence in public speaking.

"My strength is in big rallies, big programs and success rallies, because I really am a performer," he says. He began his career as a singer, performing in nightclubs and recording commercial jingles.

Jolley is a hometown boy, a second generation Washingtonian. He grew up here, went to high school here (Roosevelt Senior High School), went to college here (American University) and got his master’s degree here (Wesley Theological Seminary). And he still lives in the District despite his hectic touring schedule.

On May 19, students, teachers and family members were assembled at Eastern Senior High School. They were ready for inspiration. They needed to be entertained. Jolley was speaking at nearly all of the District’s high schools in the wake of the shootings at the National Zoo.

This speech, Jolley remembers, was particularly powerful.

In an atmosphere of grieving students, teachers and parents, he gave one of his most memorable talks. "Some of the speeches are good, but this one was magic," he says.

Jolley is a performer, and his style of motivational speaking has hints of a capella rhyming and singing. His words fly off the tongue at a furious rhythm, leading to surging buildups of emotion in the audience.

His background as a singer is evident – he sounds like a gospel singer or jazz band leader when explaining how he moves a crowd: "I may want to bring ‘em high, and then bring ‘em low with a story that really hits them in their hearts." His goal, he says, is to leave each and every audience member with a feeling of "being on cloud nine."

So just how does one become a motivational guru? "It found me and I found it," Jolley says.

After being told his nightclub gigs were being replaced by a karaoke machine, Jolley took a job as a drug prevention coordinator for D.C. Public Schools.

"They were looking for someone to take the kids with a talent…and mold (the program) into a show and give a message about staying away from drugs," he says.

Jolley’s flair for performance soon caught on. "After we created the program, I started getting more and more invitations to come speak to kids,’ he says. "People would come up to me and say ‘you changed my life.’"

Eventually Jolley left his gig at DCPS for the motivational speaking circuit. He now does about 100 speeches a year, sometimes for as many as 10,000 people at the larger conventions. He has also written two books, "It Only Takes a Minute to Change Your Life" and "A Setback is a Setup for a Comeback."

Speaking in front of a group of job training graduates and their families last month, Jolley’s message was one of resurgence. The newly self-sufficient graduates were in a frenzy. It’s not about their past failures, Jolley told them. It’s about having faith in their own rebound.

"Ladies and gentlemen," he said, "you’re gonna have setbacks, but let me tell you, a setback is really nothing but a setup for a comeback."

Copyright 2000, The Common Denominator