The Power of Two

Nightingale-Conant: The Pioneering Partners Who Created the Personal Development Industry

Lloyd Conant Earl Nightingale
  Lloyd Conant   Earl Nightingale

By John David Mann

The woman sits in her chair, warily regards the machine in front of her, and pushes a button. The contraption whirrs and clanks to life, drawing one end of a large roll of paper through its arcane mechanism. Like a player-piano, it pulls the sheet across a series of tiny punch-holes, as the woman stares, fascinated. Each time the surface of the paper encounters a hole, an electric-powered vacuum sucks through the hole, grabbing the end of a metal key and pulling it, crashing down, to strike the surface of a smooth, blank sheet of paper held in another roller. Hole after hole, crashing key after crashing key, now like a chorus of steel cicadas rat-tat-tatting a percussive symphony, a cacophony of delirious technology—

And just as suddenly, it stops—untended.

About 100 seconds earlier, when the clatter first begins, the woman stands up, moves to the chair on her left, inserts another blank sheet of paper—soon to be peppered with ink-laden marks of impact—and neatly types in a name, address, city and state. She then rolls it down an inch, taps it forward past the unfinished thought, “Dear” and neatly adds the words, “Mr. Brown.” She then pushes an identical button on an identical machine—and moves on to the next chair, and then the next, and the next. By the time, the first machine clacks to a sudden halt, she is there again, poised to keep the mechanical cycle going.

Like Alice at the Mad Hatter’s tea party, she will continue moving to the left, from chair to chair, in a circle, for the next eight hours.

The city: Chicago. The year: 1956. The IBM electric typewriter the woman pecks at has just been invented. The woman’s employer is a visionary and master marketer named Lloyd Conant. By hooking a circular bank of IBMs to a player-piano-like device, Lloyd plans to send out tens of thousands of identical letters—that is, nearly identical. It is a brilliant, dazzling concept for its day: mass-produced yet personalized marketing material. It is not the last innovation in which Lloyd will participate.

Several days later, one of the thousands of letters produced by Conant’s phalanx of mechanical woodpeckers sits on a desk in a nearby Chicago home. The man gazing at it thoughtfully is intrigued. He has just produced a recording of his thoughts on success for his little team of insurance salesmen, and he’s looking for someone to market it.

Neither man knows it at this moment, but this “personalized” letter will soon bring them together to form one of the most productive and enduring partnerships in the world of publishing. The recording, The Strangest Secret, will go on to sell over a million copies—the first recording in history outside the world of popular music to do so—and earn its author, Earl Nightingale, a Gold Record from Columbia records.

In the course of their 30-year partnership, the two men will pioneer a technology (audio learning), pioneer an entire industry (personal development training) and have a profound and lasting impact on another (network marketing).

Voice of the Nightingale

As a Depression-era child, Earl Nightingale was hungry for knowledge. He would later recall frequenting the Long Beach Public Library in California, searching for answers to his personal koan:

“How can a person, starting from scratch, who has no particular advantage in the world, reach the goals that he feels are important to him, and by so doing, make a major contribution to others?”

In 1941 while serving in the Marines, Earl was blown off the deck of the battleship Arizona into the waters of Pearl Harbor—one of the ship’s few survivors. Evidently there was no force, of man or of nature, that would stop this young man before his time.

Early on, Earl had encountered the philosophy of Napoleon Hill, author of Think and Grow Rich; it inspired him profoundly. Says Vic Conant, Lloyd Conant’s son and current president of Nightingale-Conant, “He had a vision of becoming a big-city radio announcer. He would practice trying to sound like the big city guys, even though he was just a guy in a tiny little town. They called him ‘Big City Earl.’”

Within two years, young Big City Earl had gotten himself hired for a position at WGN, one of Chicago’s top radio stations. He worked into a three-hour spot, becoming one of the first talk radio commentators in the country. He talked about success on his show—at one point, even narrating and discussing the entire text of Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.

“Earl had no desire to be a great businessperson,” he explains, “and my dad never wanted to be in the limelight. Earl would never have entirely been Earl without Lloyd—and vice versa. It was a match made in heaven.”
Earl also negotiated a savvy deal that gave him a commission on his own advertising sales. By 1957, he was so successful, he decided to retire at the age of 35. In the meantime, he had bought his own insurance company, pouring dozens of hours into motivating his little sales team to greater accomplishments.

“One day,” relates Vic, “he was planning to be on a fishing trip and decided to leave them a message, since he was going to miss the sales meeting. In the middle of the night, he sat down and recorded his thoughts. The recording had such an impact on Earl’s people, he decided to market it.”

The result of that late-night improvisation became The Strangest Secret, the first of Earl’s phenomenally successful productions. Earl went on to receive the Golden Gavel Award from Toastmasters International and The Napoleon Hill Foundation Gold Medal Award for literary excellence, and was inducted into the International Speakers Hall of Fame and The Radio Hall of Fame.

When Earl Nightingale died on March 28, 1989, Paul Harvey broke the news to the country on his radio program with the words, “The sonorous voice of the nightingale was stilled.”

A Match Made in Heaven

Nightingale was an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Earl’s friend and fellow announcer Steve King once said, “Earl Nightingale never let a day go by that he didn’t learn something new and, in turn, pass it on to others. It was his consuming passion.”

Nevertheless, the voice of the Nightingale is one few of us would remember, were it not for the man with his little bank of IBM’s—and his vision of changing the world.

“Lloyd Conant had a phenomenal vision, coupled with an enormous desire,” recalls Bob Proctor, who served as the company’s Vice President of Sales in the late 60s and early 70s. “Lloyd’s vision was to get this knowledge into every home in America. He used to sit with the group and brainstorm on how to do that. Every Wednesday for years, no matter where we were, a group of us would fly into Chicago to sit down with Lloyd and brainstorm, mastermind-style.” (Not surprisingly, the “mastermind” concept so central to the company’s success is a strategy straight out of Napoleon Hill.) Proctor adds, “He was also one of the most decent, likable men you’d ever meet.”

In describing the partnership of the two, Proctor talks about the “composite personality,” the dynamic formed when two people bring their minds together to work with a single idea.

“That’s what a hypnotist does: he forms a composite with his subject. Well, Lloyd Conant could form a composite with you faster than anyone else I’ve ever seen. He would meet someone for the first time and there would be an instant connection. It was extraordinary; I’ve never met anyone else like him.”

In fact, says Vic Conant, it was probably their striking differences that brought them so strongly together.

“Earl had no desire to be a great businessperson,” he explains, “and my dad never wanted to be in the limelight. Earl would never have entirely been Earl without Lloyd—and vice versa. It was a match made in heaven.”

Proctor agrees. “Working with Nightingale Conant was the most phenomenal experience in my life, and it was because of these two men. It was a magnificent partnership.”

Indeed, it was a partnership that transcended the two men—it created a dynamic that has survived the individuals and suffused itself throughout the company.

“The Conants have always been the behind-the-scenes people,” confesses Vic. “We take a back seat, try to do what we can to market their product as effectively as we can. In fact, this is one of the small handful of interviews I’ve ever given.”

If Vic and his staff are an extension of Lloyd’s self-effacing dedication to a larger vision, the Nightingale-Conant roster of speakers has its Nightingale counterparts, too. Dennis Waitley, Brian Tracy, Jim Rohn and scores of others—now including such newcomers as Seth Godin and Robert Kiyosaki—are respected, cared for and promoted just as Earl was in the early years.

The Power of Two

Intrigued by the “personalized” marketing letter, Nightingale contacted the man behind the plan. The two instantly hit it off; Lloyd soon became Earl’s exclusive marketing agent and the two men created a five-minute daily radio program based on self-improvement. “Our Changing World” became the longest-running, most widely syndicated show in radio; at its peak (in the late 70s), the show was carried by nearly 1000 radio stations around the world.

After four years of productive partnership, they incorporated in 1960 as Nightingale-Conant. Ironically, it would be Lloyd, more than Earl, whose vision would ultimately forge the partnership’s legacy.

Says Vic, “Earl was never particularly interested in the recordings. His passion was to be a radio personality—the national radio guy. My dad had a passion for the idea of growing a national business based on the recordings.”

Growth was slow for the first two decades; as Vic says, “It was very up and down.” For years, their most successful product was the “Our Changing World” radio program. But the world was changing in ways even Earl could not foresee, and it was their recordings that held the key to the future.

The partnership’s first recorded product was a series called Lead the Field—one of the classics of the self-improvement business and a best-seller to this day. Vic Conant explains how the original concept was radically redesigned by customer response—with happy results.

Lead the Field was designed to be a series of 12 separate recorded messages. The logic was, they could be sent out to an individual subscriber one at a time once a month. But once we had all 12 recorded, nobody wanted to wait—they wanted all 12 at once! We ended up packaging them together in a 12-record set…which later became 12 sides of six cassette tapes.”

Thus was born the concept of the audio album—and an entire industry. “The technology of the cassette changed everything. Before the cassette became popular, about 1970, audio learning really didn’t exist,” explains Vic. “For our first ten years, we sold programs on records, but it was….”

Technically challenging? Exactly.

“We used to sell a little record player you could put in your car; it would pretty much bounce around—you’d have to put a little rock on the head of the stylus,” Vic laughs. “Not exactly user-friendly.”

Proctor has a similar recollection. “When I first heard The Strangest Secret, I had a little battery-operated record player, about a foot long with a little rubber wheel on it, three inches wide, inch and a half deep, operated on two flashlight batteries. I would drive around playing Earl’s record over and over.”

The cassette, though, was a truly portable medium for audio learning. When the cassette proliferated into the automobile, in the late 1970’s, Nightingale-Conant’s growth began to skyrocket—as did the entire industry.

A Tale of Two Industries

In 1978 the company published, for the first time, a new personality. Dennis Waitley’s The Psychology of Winning was an instant hit. Says Vic, “It is still today the largest-selling audio program in history.”

In a very real sense, this moment marks the birth of the independent personal growth and development industry.

Back in 1960, there was no “self-development” or “personal growth” industry. Says Proctor, “There were very few people making any human development materials at the time. There was the Businessman’s Record Club; they would find great speakers, go record a public appearance and press it into a record. They went bankrupt before they got off the ground.”

Vic Conant agrees. “There was a company called Success Motivation Institute; W. Clement Stone had Success magazine, of course—it was a tiny little journal back then; Norman Vincent Peale was around; Zig Ziglar was just starting up as a speaker. There was kind of a convergence of like-minded individuals in this area.”

That “convergence of like-minded individuals” is the most fascinating part of the Nightingale-Conant story. Not coincidentally, about the same time that the car cassette player was turbocharging the growth business, the famous federal court decision in FTC v. Amway took the brakes off the young network marketing industry.

Says Proctor, “There’s a definite parallel in the two industries’ history. Of course, they both began about 50 years ago, and both began to really grow about 25 years ago. But it goes beyond casual parallels in their timelines. The two businesses have grown up intertwined with each other.

“A lot of the people who created the network marketing industry came out of that first generation of companies: Holiday Magic, Koscot, Dare To Be Great, and a handful of others. Those companies were all big on human development—they all used recorded personal growth material. William Penn Patrick, who founded one of these first-generation companies, also started the seminar business, along with Alexander Everett. The original students in their programs went on to create other programs, and this led to the seminar business as we know it today.”

It’s no surprise that the two industries have fed each other from the beginning: like Earl and Lloyd, as Vic points out, they are “a match made in heaven.”

“There is not a category of human being on the planet more self-improvement-oriented than network marketers. That’s one reason they join network marketing in the first place: not just to grow a business, but also to grow themselves. Our best customers have always been salespeople—and the best of the salespeople have always been the network marketers.

There is not a category of human being on the planet more self-improvement-oriented than network marketers.
“Network marketers are entrepreneurs. They’re looking for that edge that will speed and enhance their growth. They’re open: they’re looking for ideas. And that’s our perfect customer.”

Bob Proctor takes the connection one step further: personal growth and development, asserts Proctor, is really what the networking business is all about.

“As good as the products are in network marketing, they are really secondary to the personal development. Go to any network marketing convention: what are they talking about? They talk about the freedom they’re enjoying, the fabulous growth they’re experiencing, how their children have benefited from it all, how wonderful their relationships are, how much they’re learning about life and about themselves, how they wouldn’t be married today if it hadn’t been for this company…. It’s not the supplement or the skin cream that did that. Sure, in many cases, you do have life-changing products. But what’s really changed is their entire life.”

Says Vic, “We’ve sold tens of millions of products to millions of people. But it’s network marketers who really know who we are. It’s always so gratifying to go to network marketing conventions. I can count on the thrill of having people come up to me and talk about the changes in their lives that have happened because of the material we’ve provided.”

That Something Special

still comparatively few,” points out Vic, “when you consider all the authors who are out there. We are highly selective.” Indeed, Vic estimates they turn down 100 potential authors for every new one they take on.

With the proliferation of self-help authors in the past decade, isn’t it difficult to find someone who is saying something really new? Yes, says Conant—and at the same time, it keeps happening.

“It always takes me by surprise. It’s kind of like a little miracle. You think, Gosh, we’ve got all these great people, there’s just nobody left—and then a Robert Kiyosaki comes out of the woodwork.”

What makes Nightingale-Conant so special? Proctor has an interesting perspective.

“I watched other companies start up; they would hire a psychologist to write the material, and then hire someone with ‘good pipes,’ like a broadcaster, to narrate it. But something was missing. I couldn’t figure out quite what it was, but it wasn’t the same.

“I finally put my finger on it: it was a spiritual aspect. These speakers sounded good, but they were not emotionally involved in the truth of the concept that they were communicating.

“The good authors today teach what they’re doing, what they’ve learned. It comes from inside. That’s what makes the difference in a recorded message. It’s the most important element. Earl did all his own research and all his own recording. I learned to record watching him. He would turn the microphone into a person. No matter how wide his circulation, he always talked to one person.”

The Legacy of Two

Today, the name Nightingale-Conant is synonymous with quality, universally respected anywhere self-improvement is held as a governing value. At the same time, it is an interestingly discreet high profile.

Nightingale-Conant has unabashedly called itself “the world leader” for years (the phrase is even labeled on all their products)—yet this is an elegantly modest leadership. For example, they do essentially no “image advertising.” (When was the last time you saw a magazine ad for Nightingale-Conant?) They promote their speakers—not themselves.

It is also well nigh impossible to pry any far-reaching visions of world domination or grandiose mission statements from Vic’s down-to-earth demeanor.

“Our mission has always been to create world-class products, and market them to the broadest possible audience. We’ve never wavered from that initial mission, but we try not to get too grandiose about it. We’re really a mom-and-pop shop that has grown a little beyond that. We do our little thing and love what we do.”

No question: the Nightingale legacy of great teaching lives on in the 300-plus Nightingale-Conant speakers. But the Conant legacy lives on as well, and it is a quietly powerful model of servant leadership. As network marketers, we could do worse than adopting Vic’s words as a mission statement:

We do our little thing—and love what we do.

John David Mann is Editor of Networking Times.