/ Spencer Vossman

Fiction15 min reading time

“Well, I guess they saved the best for last!” That’s right. Loosen the crowd.

I’m on the stage of the Grand Sierra Theatre in Reno. The spotlights above are abnormally bright, so much so that I can barely make out the heads in front of me. It’s like I’m addressing a white-hot void. I jab my thumb up at where I remember the lighting operator to be, and turn it down to the floor, an unsubtle sign for less shine. “Bright outside, isn’t it?” I joke with the audience, the slightest note of derision in my voice. I smack the remote I’m holding once, twice against my left wrist. But the lights keep shining, no sign of dimming. I’m staring at a sky full of suns and this is how things will be.

Once again, I’ve been assigned the tantalizing role of delivering the closing remarks for this year’s iteration of NSS. That’s Nevada Speaker Summit, not National—I don’t score the big gigs anymore. I take what small potatoes I can get. Usually the NSS happens in some hotel in Laughlin, but I guess Carmichael wanted a change of scenery this year. Still, though, if it’s not Vegas, what’s the point? I’ve been told to expect an audience of 250, but I have no way of verifying that, of course. Blinding suns and all.

“Boy, believe me when I tell you it’s great to be invited back again.” Please believe me. “Always a pleasure to speak at this event, to the fine people of Nevada.”

I look behind me at my slides. Title slide:


in red 60-pt Calibri font, my pictured face just below, smoldering into the camera. I’ve given this same speech enough times before to remember the exact order of slides, every single piece of information. For example, I know the next slide is the one that features years-old reviews from my website, and with a click of the remote, I make it appear on the projector screen.

  • “Magical. You really feel like you’re undergoing some monumental personal changes as he’s speaking. And the humor he imbues into every one of his lessons...seeing him live is a tremendous experience.” - Sherry S.
  • “A God-given gift for oration. The world would be a much happier place if Neal Kapper was in charge.” - Jonathan K.
  • “He’s given me nothing less than a new outlook on life. It’s so refreshing to hear someone speak the unfiltered truth so passionately. Self-confidence, determination, curiosity, star power... he transfers all of his gifts to you, and more. The least mediocre person I’ve ever met.” - Sadie J.

I turn back toward the imperceptible audience. I’ve resorted to making a visor out of my right hand, the remote for the slide projector peeking out of my damp fingers. The little clicker’s drenched in nervy sweat. I’ve done this gig before, so many times actually that I could do it in my sleep. So why exactly do I feel so goddamn nervous this time? I can’t shake this current feeling of being right on the precipice of some vast sinkhole, looking down into nothing but space.

The bright vacuum of the spotlights does not ease this concern in the slightest.

Carmichael’s words blare through my head. I caught my long-time agent chatting to a fellow suit, not fifteen minutes before I was set to go onstage. I was walking past one of the hotel’s executive meeting rooms when his booming baritone announced, in no uncertain terms, his plans to dismiss me after the convention. I froze in front of the meeting room and peeked through the slit between the doorframe and the door.

“Not worth the price anymore. Even getting him booked here again was a struggle.” he said. “Washed-up—he’s practically a motivational has-been.”

I’ve spoken here the last four years, but apparently that’s no matter. Maybe he expects a thank-you from me, letting me earn one final paycheck before he casts me off for good.

Before he retired from motivational speaking a decade ago, Craig Carmichael was one of the nation’s longest-working speakers, a self-proclaimed expert on everything from corporate finance to establishing a commanding presence. He’s got that part down; I don’t think I’ve ever seen him without a cowboy hat on, and I feel like he wears it to take up as much space as possible. Now he’s like the Jerry Maguire of the orational world. It was Carmichael who saw me speak at my first gig, pulled me aside afterward and told me I reminded him of himself, with a twinkle in his eye. Business cards were exchanged, meetings were arranged, and before I knew it, I became represented by a titan of the industry.

Well, he burned that bridge. Damn it, I should’ve barged in then. What I wanted to say, an onstage epiphany of hindsight: Won’t be needing me anymore? I’m the one who took the chance on you, Carmichael. I’m the one who decided to speak at this podunk convention, as a favor to you. Know what I say? Good riddance.

I clear my throat. Back to the speech.

“Do any of you happen to know what the worst insult in the English language is?” Deep splotches of sweat are materializing on the armpits of my unpressed dress shirt. A vacuum of silence, before I hear someone yell out “Sumabitch!” It gets a chuckle out of the obscured audience.

“Nope. It’s mediocre.” More silence. The most effective tool a motivational speaker has is the dramatic pause. One of the last things I learned from Toastmasters before I got barred from meetings.

See, I’ve had to be careful. “Speak it into existence” is a very literal personal mantra for me.

I couldn’t have known that some little Logitech remote ordered from Office Depot would be the reason I’m standing here today. And yet, the very first gig I brought the clicker to — some obscure business convention in central California — I saw the audience rise several inches when I talked about personal growth, and their faces turning pale as snow when I addressed their inner fears. Everyone always returned back to normal; all I needed to do was say the words. And no one in the audience mentioned anything of it afterward, as if they’d been hypnotized.

It’s been with me ever since, at every subsequent gig. But I suppose even a magic remote can’t save a man’s career. Plus the little clicker’s not what it used to be. Damn thing doesn’t even work half the time anymore, no matter how many times I replace the batteries or smack it against my wrist. I gave this same speech at a convention two months ago where absolutely nothing happened, and the stasis of the audience left me numb. NSS was my highest-paying gig left, and just like that, it’s gone too.

“The last thing you want to be known as in a world of 7.5 billion is mediocre. See, sumabitch is acceptable. You know, that at least demonstrates that you evoke emotion out of someone, albeit negative. I’ll take that. And people are allowed to hate you, so long as they respect you. But mediocre?”

I’m at the edge of the stage now, pacing left to right, left back to right. If anything, the beams of light are getting brighter. My hand-visor is practically glued to my clammy forehead.

“Mediocre fails to convey love or respect. It is the verbal equivalent of a shrug. You’re given, what, 70? 80 years on this planet, and out of all of the infinite adjectives in the world you choose to be mediocre? No. We’re gathered here today because we wholeheartedly reject that notion. We’ve already achieved the hardest step: acknowledging we need assistance to become truly great.” I decide to give it another go, smacking the remote on my wrist, willing it to work. “Now, let’s ask ourselves. How do we stop being in the dark about how to get there?”

The spotlights shift to the audience right after, and I look out at the crowd in disbelief. 250 was a bit of a generous estimate. Still, my hand lowers from my head, and my heart’s bound to burst. The remote feels like a bar of wet soap.

I launch into my biographical spiel, barely able to contain my excitement. The clicker works again, after all this time! A voice in my head keeps repeating This is not the end, this is not the end, over and over until the words start to become abstract, almost nonsensical.

I was born in Cary, NC, the youngest child of an accountant and a homemaker. I went to school at UNLV for Biology, and then double-majored in Communications and Computer Science. I’ve held a myriad of different jobs since: grocery store bagger, ice cream shop attendant, marketing for a tech startup, cryptocurrency broker, channel news sports reporter. Motivational speaker. I joke that my credentials are at once both eye-popping and head-scratching. Then I gaze toward the front rows, and everyone’s eyes seem to bulge out several millimeters from their sockets, while they all scrape listlessly at their scalps. They look like they can’t decide between confusion or awe.

But I omit certain details from the now-visible audience. I tell them my job-hopping all stems from a place of nomadic curiosity, a noble desire to be well-rounded, and not from an insatiable inner dissatisfaction. I tell them I became a motivational speaker to enact lifestyle changes in those who need it the most, and not because I need constant gratification that I’ve done something with my life. I conveniently forget to mention that only two years ago, I was in Forbes’ 30 under 30 as a six-figure speaker, and that this announcement came just before I was slated to speak at TEDx Seattle, and that yes, these facts break my heart every time I say them aloud. I abstain from acknowledging that a tiny little remote is the sole reason for my past successes.

All of this info transmitted with nonstop gesturing, of course. Shaping the words into visuals. Another Toastmasters tip.

“We have to look at the very essence of our lives with clear eyes,” I declaim, and the audience cleans the fog on their glasses with pocketed handkerchiefs, or rubs their fists into their eyes, and my hands are stretched straight out, palms up, like I’m holding the world.

It isn’t until I introduce the CASS section (Charisma, Accountability, Service -> Success) of the speech that I can make out Carmichael’s jowly face in the fourth row of the theatre. He’s surrounded by some other suits, and they’re the only ones uninterested in anything more I have to say. They’re speaking to each other in subtle gestures and pointed glances, and my well-founded cynicism leads me to believe they are discussing either:

a) how many more slides I have to go through before this thing’s over

b) which next rising speaker they can replace me with for the cheapest price

or c) which restaurant in the hotel they’ll take their martinis at later tonight.

Maybe it’s all of the above. Either way, I make direct eye contact with the bastard. The remote’s bound to burst with how hard I’m clutching it now. Let it. It may very well be my last time up here anyway, and he’s the one who helped decide that. So why don’t I give them a show?

“See, with my help, I will turn you all into warriors. Erase even the slightest fragments of self-doubt, no more walking with your head down, no more biting your lip so hard it could bleed when you have something to say.” I’m descending the steps from the main stage to the seats. I seem to have earned Carmichael’s attention now, and the look on his face is not one of puzzlement, but fear. He’s heard my talk enough times in the past to know that I’m ad-libbing now, wildly veering into metaphorical territory. A surge of adrenaline. “You will exude pure power. Peers will gaze upon you in awe when you walk into the room. It isn’t enough to not be mediocre. We have to be actively anti-mediocre.”

Red fabric seats distort into the limestone rows of a Greek amphitheatre. Corinthian helmets adorn the faces of the audience. And for some reason, Carmichael is the only one in the theater unaffected, helmet-less. I provide another gladiator metaphor, and another, and yet he’s the only one who remains unchanged. I’m struck with the realization that I now have no effect on the one person who has any power over my career, and the irony makes me sick. The hopeful repeating voice has ceased. Everyone rises to their feet, spears in hand, ready to die in battle, except for the petrified old man in the fourth row. Somebody to my right chucks their aspis across the theatre like a wooden Frisbee.

“Take all you’ve learned today, and use it. Use it to reach unheard-of heights, to surpass every limit, every anchor you’ve ever placed on yourself. You’re above those now. You will grow so much that you will see your past self, and everyone else you’ve outshined,” — the spotlights become slightly brighter — “as little specks on the floor of the Earth, and they’ll wave to you as insignificantly as waving to a passing plane.”

The audience rises like magic beanstalks, tall enough to reach out and touch the ceiling with their fingertips. They’d be quite disappointed if I stopped now. Another adrenaline surge, that precipice feeling rising up again, stronger than ever.

“It is these people, the earthbound, that you have to look out for. The ones who refuse to acknowledge your greatness or grow alongside you, the ones who will stomp out and spit on your dreams, they are the real dangers. Their jealousy and hatred of your successes will keep you shackled to the ground, never allowing you to breathe. These are the ones who help place those anchors, tie those chains. We will not accept that. We cannot accept that. So, good people, what do we do?”

I lock eyes with Carmichael, now the only audience member of normal height. His face is one of weary acceptance.

“We stomp them out first.”

A provided estimate of 249 feet, each one laced up in a gladiator sandal, descends toward one lone cowboy hat. The soldiers’ helmets sit in piles now, laid to the wayside. The majority of the audience rubs their sandals into the theatre carpet right afterward, like it was some immense doormat, trying to get shreds of Carmichael unstuck from their soles.

And when their faces turn back toward me, the job being done, the pride and sweet relief I expected to feel give no signs of arriving. There is only an emptiness. A white-hot void. I’m staring at a collection of Nevada’s finest fifteen-foot warriors, and they’re staring back, and this is how things will be.

How funny. A motivational speaker with no more motivation. The thought makes me smile.

The audience remains standing, expectant, awaiting a conclusion.

“In the end, it’s all up to you. All that I can possibly offer to you is the truth. But there is no way I can enforce what you’ll do with it. Now that’s just going to have to be your own choice. So I conclude by asking, what will you do next?”

I begin retreating back up the side staircase, with intent.

“Of course, the original option will always be there, and maybe you’ll retreat to it for comfort. You can choose to return to the way things were, drive back home from here, sleepwalk through the rest of this day until you lay anchored in bed tonight, staring at the ceiling, wishing for more and wondering how on earth to get there. Or? Or you can begin to see that life is not meant to be experienced passively, and instead in... in a blaze of glory.”

My mother always told me when I was younger that I belonged on the stage. And here I stand. The warriors have gifted me with a standing ovation. Oddly enough, it’s the walls that are the first thing enkindled in flame. Then it jumps to the seats, and the scent of burnt fabric is spread around the theatre. I look up and stare into the stage lights, deep smoke blurring their brilliance. I let my remote slip out of my fingers, and it lands on the floor with a plastic thud.