Selling NLP — Then and Now

Who Bought, Why, and the Next Big Thing


I “bought” NLP in 1986.  After I learned it, and eventually became a trainer, I began “selling” NLP along with many thousands.  I bought it as a therapeutic innovation and that’s how I first sold it.  Then, over the years, things changed.  Today I mostly sell it to business people— to leaders, managers, coaches, and consults.  Now when it comes to innovations, there is a simple model for this.  It describes who buys, when, and why.  It’s a model that’s been around for several decades and one that I’m sure you are familiar with, a model with stages: pioneers, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards.  Everett M. Rogers created this in his book, Diffusion of Innovations (1962).


The pioneers of course, created something new.  They innovated a new product, service, information, practice, or experience.  They translated a creative idea into something that added value to others.


The early adoptors, who like and want change and who seek change, are the first to get onboard.  They buy for the new values that are offered, the novelty, the functionality and the status of going first which the innovation offers.  They are risk takers.  They don’t mind the inconvenience, the expense, or the bugs that have to be worked out.  They like being first.


Once a product (product, information, service, or practice) is proven enough to be reliable, then the early majority start to buy.  The early majority buy not only for functionality of what the innovation offers, but also for reliability.  They also like what’s new and different, but they wait until the bugs have been worked out of the innovation.  They buy for reliability.  They are more cautious than the early adoptors.  When the early majority begin to buy, this makes the innovation acceptable, even popular.


Eventually there are many more entrants into the field or industry to compete with the originator or first innovator.  What results is that the innovation becomes much more convenient.  This attracts the late majority.  They buy for convenience.  They need assurance that the product or service works and while they also buy for its functionality and reliability, they won’t deal with the inconveniences that occur which the first two groups tolerate.


Finally, the laggards come in, they buy almost exclusively for price.  Now the innovation has become a commodity, is much more available, and so with all the competition, the price drops.


With this overview of the buying populations and the values and cognitive filters of people and their buying focus, let’s look at the evolution of how and why people bought NLP over the years.  Who were the early adoptors, the early majority, late majority, etc. and over what period of time?  Given this basic format, let’s use it as a lens for understanding NLP— how it has been sold, who bought it, and what the future holds.


The Innovators and Early Adoptors of NLP

When NLP appeared in 1975 with the publication of the first book, The Structure of Magic and then the other early NLP books (1975– 1980), what did NLP offer that was new or innovative?  What was its functionality?  The first book reveals the answer in the sub-title: A Book about Communication and Change.


Taking the communication competencies found in Perls, Satir, and Erickson, NLP offered a highly focused way to think about communication—the linguistic and non-linguistic variables that make up how we invent and share meaning, and how that creates change.  This was new.  Using the human senses as the foundation for a linguistic theory and practice was new to the field of psychotherapy as Bateson noted in his Preface to The Structure of Magic.  It also provided a new functionality in several surprising ways. What they offered provided a radical departure from how therapists operated—a paradigm shift in the field of therapy.  NLP shifted the focus from content to structure.  The reason it went first to therapy was because the persons they modeled were psychotherapists.


Picking up on the idea that both Korzybski and Perls explicitly promoted, they gave a practical way of using structure, rather than the content, to facilitate change.  Korzybski said that what we know lies solely in structure and Perls argued against asking why in favor of asking how.  Why evokes history; how evokes process.  For therapists this was a paradigm shift.  NLP came as a meta-discipline about the processes and structure existing behind and above the specific content of a person’s story.  Functionally this increased the speed of therapy as it got to the heart of things more quickly.  This focus went to the essence of things (structure) rather than the details of the content story.  Those most interested in this, the early adoptors, were psychotherapists, mental health workers, sociologists, psychologists, etc.

How many of those first into NLP were therapists?  My guess (and that’s all it is, a guess judging from the trainings and trainers I’m familiar with around the world) is 65% or more, then over the years it slowly dropped to about 15% where it is today


Therapists were not the only early adoptors, there were others.  These mostly included people in sales and people from the New Age movement.  “New Age” people, in part, because Perls, Satir, Bateson, etc. were second-generation leaders in the Human Potential Movement and all three, for a time lived, and worked at Esalen, which was the “headquarters” for the humanistic movement in the 1960s.  People there were trying everything imaginable from drugs, nudity, channeling the dead, etc.  Sales people also were some of the first adoptors because they found in NLP a communication model that they could use to help people change their minds and buy their products.  If early adoptors came in because of a new functionality that NLP offered.

Of those who came in at first, my guess is that New Age people were 20%, sales people were 10%, and all others were 5%.



The Early Majority

As NLP then became popular in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the early majority began buying.  For example, NLP hit Psychology Today in 1979 in an article by none other than Daniel Goleman, ”The People who Read People.”  Perhaps it was the word “magic” that they used that made it catch on so quickly.  And what were they buying?  They were buying was the promise of fast change (“the ten minute phobia cure”), the “magic” of language, “the incantations of growth,” how to use language hypnotically (Ericksonian hypnosis), and the idea of generative change (in addition to remedial change).  As NLP spread, as more people were trained in it and more were training it, the reliability drew the early majority into it as people wanted this new content.

In the 1980s—my guess is that 40% were therapists, 20% were sales people, 20% for New Age people, 10% Business people, and all others made up the other 10%.


The Late Majority

The late majority started to come in sometime in the mid-1980s.  Robins’ best selling book, Unlimited Power (1985) gave NLP a highly visibility and public platform as he took it to television and large seminars.  As NLP was spreading around the world and into many countries, learning it was now becoming more convenient.  No longer did you have to fly to Santa Cruz, California to learn it.  It was increasingly available at training centers in major cities.  NLP was now beginning to be applied to business— to consulting, to creating wealth, to managing a company, etc.   Later, in 1992 when the field of Coaching was created by Thomas Leonard, NLP writers and trainers began applying NLP to Coaching— the first programs were launched in 1998 by Dilts, McDermott, O’Connor, and in 2002 by Hall.

Therapists (30%), sales people (15%), New Agers (15%), Business (30%), Coaches (15%) and all others (5%).


The NLP Innovations

What was new in NLP?  What did NLP innovate?  The first answer is the NLP Content.  Coming from the second-generation of leaders in the Human Potential Movement, NLP offered a robust Communication Model to facilitate generative change.  This was the kind of change that is connected to unleashing new potentials.   The content was first of all the Communication Model itself— the Meta-Model of Language, the Strategy Model for tracking the structure of an experience so one could model it, the Sub-Modality Model, then Meta-Programs for how people perceive.  In 1994, I extended this with a recursive, self-reflexive systemic model of communication (e.g., the Meta-States Model).  In addition, there were the practical applications called “patterns.”  Structured ways to “run your own brain” to achieve a particular outcome.  Patterns made the concepts immediately experiential.


All of this makes up what we today call “Neuro-Linguistic Programming”—NLP.  It is not a psychology, yet it deals with human functioning.  It is not a therapy (or psychotherapy), yet it has immediately therapeutic applications.  It is not sales, hypnosis, self-development, etc. although it has applications for all of these domains.

Instead, NLP is a meta-discipline about the structure of experience.  That’s why it can be applied to all things human.  This meta-discipline relates to how we humans construct our mental maps about reality and use them to operate in the world.


Looking back on that from today’s perspective, we recognize all of that was the NLP Content.  In the 1970s, 1980s and much of the 1990s, about the only way you could get this content was to attend an NLP training.  At first there was only the “Practitioner” content, later the “Master Practitioner” course was designed.  Then things changed.  From the meager selection of 10 books in the 1970s, the number of books grew to 20 or 30 in the 1980s, and then exploded in the 1990s to hundreds.1  So did videos, DVDs, manuals, the Internet, on-line trainings, correspondence trainings, etc.  By 2000 this changed the value of the NLP content.  These disruptive technologies brought about big changes.  No longer did a person have to attend Practitioner to learn NLP— the content information was everywhere.



In business innovation terms, NLP had became a commodity.  The content of what once was unique which had differentiated NLP from everything else had been commoditized.  Not only was the content now available for the price of a book or DVD series, you could find it in books and trainings outside of the field of NLP— in management, leadership, self-development, etc.


What then resulted for the field of NLP is what has happened to many, many other fields.  Once a unique offering is commoditized, its value is reduced.   Now, selling “NLP Training” became less valued, less valuable.  People could get the information without attending a live training.  Now they could also observe— see and hear a skilled NLP trainer demonstrate the structural knowledge on videos and, in some instances of on-line trainings, even write-in questions.


Now the problem with any product being turned into a commodity is that its value is reduced so it begins to be sold solely on price, price, price.  So in the late 1990s, and into the twenty-first century, more and more people were reducing not only the price, but the training itself.  The Practitioner course went from 21 days to 15 to 10 to 7.  With the content available, trainings could be streamlined to focus on the personal experience and integration.2


Unscrupulous trainers, however, took advantage of this.  Going for volume over quality, they reduced the time to 5 days, 3, and even one day.  Some offered “NLP Correspondence courses” and on-line trainings as a way to attain a NLP Certification as a “Practitioner” or “Master Practitioner.”  That reduced its value and made Certificates less and less meaningful.  It no longer provided any assurance that the person understood NLP let alone was able to perform the required skills to perform the models or patterns.  You can imagine the distress many NLP Trainers felt about this since what they had to offer was being reduced in price.


So All of NLP is now a Commodity?

While the content information of the Communication Model has been commoditized, is there any part of NLP which has not been commoditized?  Yes, I think so.  If the content of NLP is no longer new, fresh, and innovative, what does that leave?  If the content can be obtained in multiple ways apart from a live training, where does that leave the field?  Undoubtedly there will always be some who want to become a NLP Practitioner and Master Practitioner, yet because the content has been commoditized, NLP has shifted from being a growth industry.


Since the NLP content is now everywhere— in books, training manuals, videos, DVDs, the Internet, on-line training, etc., the basic content alone no longer offers a unique product.  The innovations of NLP’s functionality, reliability, and convenience which once was so innovative is no longer in high demand.  What then can we offer beyond the foundational content?


Yet has all of the content been turned into a commodity?  I think not.  Some of the more newly developed aspects of NLP, especially the niched specialities is still new and unique.  For example, consider the niching opportunities of NLP content that several trainers have developed:


  • Shelle Rose Charvet developed a specialized niche with Meta-Programs in her LAB Profile work, extending the use of the Profile for customer service, hiring, etc.
  • Lucus Derks developed the Social Panorama model and has developed many new applications for relationships, groups, families, etc.
  • I developed a niche speciality with Meta-States as a way to model reflexivity.  This has led to new applications in long-term experiences such as leadership, wealth creation, health, self-actualization, etc.  This led to other models: the Matrix Model, Axes of Change, etc.
  • Ian McDermott has been developing a niche for NLP and the Neuro-Sciences.
  • James Lawley and Penny Thompkins modeled David Grove and created Clean Language and Symbolic Modeling.
  • As already mentioned, several have developed the Coaching niche with NLP.


And there are many other niching opportunities for creative individuals who could apply NLP to specific areas such as health, fitness, sports, etc.   Doing this still leads to new patterns and even new models within NLP as we have done in Neuro-Semantics (e.g., Axes of Change, Meta-States, Matrix Model, etc.).


The Next-Level Innovations

Beyond niching some NLP content and/or expanding other aspects of NLP content, what else is there?  Actually, what’s still available is the most important and the most intangible.  Paradoxically, what is left has been inherent in NLP since the beginning.  The problem is that it is the most difficult to communicate and to deliver.

Experience, relationship, customized attention, adult learning, in-time learning, creativity and innovation, change methodology, critical thinking skills, etc.


Relationship and Experience

When NLP began, most of the trainers were pretty “solid,” because they did 20 and 30 days for each of the levels (Practitioner, Master Practitioner, Trainer).3 What mattered most was not who did the training, but the content of the communication model.  Now things have changed.  Today, with many trainers so inadequately trained, without a thorough understanding of NLP, the person training is today critically important.  That’s because today, you are “buying” a relationship with the trainer and for the experience he or she gives you.


This explains the value of getting a quality experience of NLP with the trainer and the importance of the trainer walking the talk.  This makes congruency far more important than ever before.  Today what trainers offer is a customized approach to learning and a quality experience in a social context, customized supervision with the application of a pattern and/or the development of a skill.  This, by the way, is one of the central reasons that the coaching methodology has become so popular.  The combination of training and coaching gives people customized attention, ongoing follow-up, and feedback until their outcome is achieved and sustained.



Within the relationship and experience comes the NLP attitude or spirit which is a prerequisite to effectively using NLP and which is more valuable than the NLP content.4  Normally this attitude slowly emerges over time when a person is immersed in NLP methodology (which was the value of long trainings).  But far too often, the content is over-emphasized above the attitude.  The attitude is mostly captured by what’s called “the NLP Presuppositions.”  Typically these are taught as content, content to be memorized, and many trainers do not know how to integrate them as their attitude.  This is especially true for NLP trainers who do not know the Meta-States Model given that the structure of an “attitude” is a meta-level (or meta-state) process.5


The value of integrating the attitude of NLP is that it is the spirit that makes the models come alive.  Without it, the models are often impotent to effect change, let alone transformation.  This is especially true for anyone who wants to use NLP to model experiences.  Effectiveness comes from the spirit of wonder, learning, no failure, etc.  So whether you want to find out how something dysfunctional works (and mess it up) or how something that is extremely excellent works (and how to replicate it), you need the attitude.


Competency Integration

While the content of the NLP communication models are pretty well known and oftentimes plagiarized and/or integrated into many other domains, one unique economic value is the ability to think, do, and apply NLP.  This experience cannot be learned from a book.  It is learned in experience and is best learned via mentoring, coaching, and internship.  As a highly experiential model, NLP began in the small groups that originated the discoveries (1972-1975).  That’s why NLP is best learned and experienced with other people.


If “the meaning of your communication is the response you get” then the functional give-and-take of feedback person-to-person will always be critical for learning how to practice and deeply live the NLP attitude.  That requires minimally two persons and a context of experimenting to find what works and what does not.  That also requires a special attitude, namely, “there is no failure, only feedback.”  There’s experimenting and reflecting which leads to insight.  When someone creates that kind of space, whether for one person at a time like individual coaching or in a group, then we create a healthy learning environment.  And how much is that worth?


Just in Time Learning

Ah, learning!  With the speed of change and the acceleration of change, there is less and less time in organizations to send adult employees back to University.  They need adults learning on the job in real time.  This has led to the growth of the field of coaching.  Yet for that to happen, leaders of organizations are discovering that they have to create the business culture so that the organization itself becomes (and stays) a learning organization.6  Today we know that the company that learns the fastest and innovates the fastest will be the organization that dominates its industry.  This requires a change that most companies are still not ready for— becoming a place where learning, group learning, team spirit, critical thinking, creativity, etc.— where collaboration is given a primary role.  These are the experience and transformations that we can sell and will continue to sell in the future.


What’s needed today is not just the learning of content, but learning how to learn– meta-learning.  When people know their best learning strategy, learning state, and know how to learn then learning itself becomes a tremendous valuable resource for that person and that company.  The challenge for those in positions of managing and leading is how to create a learning culture so that people discover the joy of learning together as a team.


With the speed of change, the overwhelming amount of material threatens to drown us each day.  The need to think clearly, critically, and precisely now becomes all the more important.  This is true for people at all positions and levels in organizations.  Those who do will be the leaders and the entrepreneurs of the future.


Over the twentieth century, organizations learned how to measure things.  Beginning in the 1970s manufacturers started benchmarking what they were doing on the assembly lines and looking for best practices.  The idea was that if they could measure something, they could manage it.  So benchmarking the tangible aspects of a job led to Lean Manufacturing, to Sigma Six, and to many approaches for keeping a scorecard on a company’s activities.  But what has been very difficult to “measure” have been the intangibles— leadership, learning, listening, supporting, respect, charisma, persuasion, etc.


Today most companies are still measuring either the wrong thing or measuring something that is actually irrelevant to the company’s well-being and productivity.  This opens up a whole new dimension for the field of NLP.  In Neuro-Semantics we began the process of benchmarking intangibles in 2002 when the need to measure the competencies of professional Coaches arose.  Since then we have benchmarked over 100 experiences.7   There are other content still worth of providing, modeling excellence, critical thinking8, and so on.


Forecasting the Future

Many years ago, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore write about the new emerging economy beyond commodities.  In their book, The Experience Economy: Work is Therapy and Every Business a Stage  (1999), they argued that when the offerings of any industry become a commodity, the next economic development would be the creation of experiences.  Actually, they mapped out five economic offerings and therefore five economies of value: commodities, goods, services, experiences, and transformations.  We can view these as a pyramid that moves from the most basic and fundamental to the most transcendent.


NLP began as a service.  It was an intangible, educational, skill-development, personal development service.  Eventually those who created products (manuals, books, CDs, training centers, etc.) developed and made goods that were tangible.  Those who were really good at doing more than providing a service, provided a memorable experience.  The economic value here was the personalized memory.  Pine and Gilmore differentiate an experience from a service.

“When a person buys a service, he purchases a set of intangible activities carried out on his behalf.  But hen he buys an experience, he pays to spend time enjoying a series of memorable events that a company stages—as in a theatrical play—to engage him in a personal way. … Staging experiences is not about entertaining customers, it is about engaging them.” (1999, p. 2, 30)


This next step in economic development gives a provider a way to transcend commoditization.   And yet, sadly, even experiences can be turned into a commodity.

“Consumers today crave experience, and the surest route to give them that sensation is through individualization like they used to receive from the corner butcher or baker. …  [But the] second time you experience it, it will be marginally less enjoyable than the first time, the third time less and so on until the experience doesn’t engage you very much.  Welcome to the commoditization of experiences as expressed in the statement, ‘Been there, done that.’” ” (p. 70, 164)


The solution?  Move to transformation which in terms of economic value and nature are as distinct from experiences as experiences are from services.

“When you customize an experience to make it just right for an individual—providing exactly what he needs right now—you cannot help changing that individual.  When you customize an experience, you automatically turn it into a transformation. ….   Buyers of transformation seek to be guided toward some specific aim or purpose, and transformations must elicit that intended effect.  Such buyers are aspirants—they aspire to be someone or some thing different.  Without a change in attitude, performance, characteristics, or some other fundamental dimension, no transformation occurs. (p. 165, 172)


The fascinating thing about transformations is that the customer becomes the product.  That is, what you offer to the person is the person him or herself changing and becoming new and different.  Pine and Gilmore describe the economic difference between the levels in this way:



  • If you charge for stuff, you are in the commodity business.
  • If you charge for tangible things, you are in the goods business.
  • If you charge for the activities you execute, you are in the service business.
  • If you charge for time customers spend with you, then you are in the experience business.
  • If you charge for the demonstrated outcome the customer achieves, then you are in the transformation business. (p. 194)


If a fitness center moved to the transformation economy they would not charge for the use of the machines in the gym, but for a fitness goal, say lose 30 pounds or bench press 250 pounds.  In this they would be helping people turn their intentions into actions.  If consultants moved to this economy, they would not charge for producing reports, but for staying and working with the client to get the results that are desired.


Peeking into the Future

The robust NLP Communication Model that facilitates change (both remedial and generative change) was a paradigm shift in 1975.  It shifted the emphasis in both communication and change from content to structure with the result of increased speed, efficiency, and productivity of results.  But over the past 40-plus years of NLP, most of the content of NLP has become a commodity.  Yet not everything has been commoditized.  Among the things that have not been turned into a commodity is the relational experience of integration, the spirit of learning, and the ability to actually develop the required competencies, in a word, transformation.  And that, I see, as the future of NLP.


Because the new transformation economy, as well as the experience economy, seems to be what offers still an open future for NLP, that’s explains our focus in Neuro-Semantics— not only the exercise of taking NLP to a higher level professionally and ethically— to be more congruent, collaborative, and professional, but to also focus on the experiential nature of this model.  In recent years, Neuro-Semantics has come up with two powerful change/ transformation models (The Axes of Change, the Crucible).  We have identified the Trust Spiral for groups and teams, a Leadership Axes, and much more.


Author: L. Michael Hall, Ph.D., best selling author, visionary leader in NLP and Neuro-Semantics, see



  1. Joseph Yeager in his 1985 book, Thinking about Thinking with NLP mentioned that there were now a whopping 24 books that were now available on NLP, 1985 (page 5).
  2. Much of this was legitimate as a person could now read and watch videos and learn much of NLP prior to the experiential training component.
  3. For example, my 1989 Master Practitioner was 24 days, 9 am to 9 pm, and cost $3,000 USD back then.
  4. See, The Spirit of NLP (1996).  What mostly impressed me about NLP at the beginning of my journey was the spirit or attitude that was inherent in the model.  I wrote about this in the book, The Spirit of NLP, about the 1989 Master Practitioner training with Richard Bandler to convey that “spirit.”
  5. See Meta-States: Mastering the Higher Levels of Your Mind (2012 third edition).
  6. See Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization (1990).
  7. See Benchmarking Intangibles: The Art of Measuring the Unquantifiable (2011)..
  8. See the training manual, The Neuro-Semantics of Critical Thinking.

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