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So What Do You Do, Paul McKenna, Best-Selling Author, Hypnotist and Host of Hulu's McKenna?

'I think all success in life comes down to people backing you.'

By Aneya Fernando - July 23, 2014
Paul McKenna, perhaps the most popular hypnotist in his native England, is an international best-selling author whose books have sold more than 7 million copies and been translated into 32 languages. McKenna has worked in almost every medium, from radio and TV to books and digital. And he's used his hypnotherapy on everyone from Ellen DeGeneres to David Beckham.

McKenna's latest venture is a talk show on Hulu, aptly named McKenna. He's already interviewed such media moguls as Simon Cowell, Ryan Seacrest, Harvey Weinstein, Rachael Ray and Randy Jackson to uncover their secrets to success. Here, McKenna shares stories about his own wild start in radio, the day he went from hypnotherapy skeptic to believer and how a chance encounter on Simon Cowell's boat resulted in his latest gig.


Name: Paul McKenna
Position: Best-selling author, hypnotist, talk show host
Resume: Started off in radio at the age of 16 and quickly moved up the ranks to the top channels in the UK, Capitol and BBC Radio One. Became an expert on hypnosis and NLP (neuro-linguistic programming) and in 1993 got his first show on TV, The Hypnotic World of Paul McKenna. Hosted various shows through the '90s and 2000s in the UK and the United States. Authored 16 nonfiction books, including I Can Make You Thin, which is the best-selling self-help book in UK history. Currently hosts his talk show, McKenna, which debuted on Hulu in 2014.
Birthday: November 8
Hometown: Hackney, East London
Education: Saint Ignatius College, East Hartfordshire College, International Management Center; holds two doctorates
Marital status: In a committed relationship
Media mentor: "Richard Bandler. He's the creator of NLP [and] probably the greatest living behavioral scientist in the world. He's consistently upped his game and encouraged me to up mine."
Best career advice received: "Know when to leave the fair," given by David Geffen, record industry veteran and Hollywood producer.
Guilty pleasure: "Well, I was born a Catholic, so I feel guilty for everything. In fact, I'm a recovering Catholic."
Last book read: The Singularity is Near, by Ray Kurzweil
Twitter handle: @ImPaulMckenna


What sparked your interest in radio?
Well, London in the '60s was communist country, or the next best thing to it. We were allowed an hour of pop music a week, and Ronan O'Rahilly came up with the idea of putting a radio station on a boat, outside of British territorial waters, so we could play pop music, God forbid, 24 hours a day. I joined Radio Caroline, the most famous pirate radio station, in the '80s. It was probably the greatest adventure I ever had. I was 20 years old. All we did was play pop music from this beautiful Icelandic Atlantic trawler. I had a lot of fun because it was rebellious, and it was pro-democracy. There's something about the process of radio that has a very direct connection with the listener, which I love.

Where did your interest in hypnotherapy come from?
I was always interested in yoga and meditation, and particularly in Zen Buddhism, those sorts of practices that have to do with the mind. I interviewed a local hypnotist for the radio station, and I had him demonstrate [his technique] on me. I was skeptical, but it worked. He lent me a book, Trance-Formations, by Dr. Richard Bandler and John Grinder, and it's the best book I've ever read on hypnosis. That got me hooked.

"People described me as a cross between Tony Robbins and Dr. Phil. But I would like to point out that I've got more hair than Dr. Phil, but nowhere near as much money as Tony Robbins, or as much energy!"

Soon, I began practicing on my friends to help them lose weight or quit smoking, and most of the time it worked. Then I started doing small shows. They got bigger and bigger. By then I had moved on from Radio Caroline and was working at Capitol Radio, the biggest station in the country at the time. My boss, Richard Park, helped me promote my shows in London. I think all success in life comes down to people backing you. In that moment, my life changed.

How did you land your first TV gig?
I started doing shows in a London theater. A television producer called Paul Smith came to see me one night. He liked what he saw, and I ended up doing a TV show with him, which turned out to be the most popular entertainment show in Britain that year. What I did was I modeled people who I thought were very good on television because I was very nervous. I took the elements that I liked, put them together and, lo and behold, it worked.

At what point did your TV show format change from purely entertainment to more serious forms of hypnotherapy?
Well, I'd started a little training company, teaching people hypnosis and self-improvement techniques. And for the first one, 12 people showed up. And then the next time, 50 people showed up. And then hundreds of people, and then thousands of people. People described me as a cross between Tony Robbins and Dr. Phil. But I would like to point out that I've got more hair than Dr. Phil, but nowhere near as much money as Tony Robbins, or as much energy! So I suppose I was Britain's equivalent for a while. That's when I stopped doing these shows where I got people to do daft stuff, and I began doing shows where I would show people how to change their lives.

What inspired you to start writing nonfiction books?
I noticed that at the time [2005 to 2006] all the self-help books were pretty much all saying the same sort of stuff. Everyone was rehashing everyone else's material. And I thought, 'I can do better than this.' So I went to various publishers and I said, 'I've got some ideas for some self-improvement books.' Random House said, 'Hang on a minute -- we really think there's something to this.'

"I sell solutions, whether they're books, whether they're apps, whether they're downloads, whatever they are; in my self-help world, I'm selling solutions."

And I signed with them, and the first book I co-wrote was called I Can Mend Your Broken Heart. And it did OK. But the next book, which was called Change Your Life in Seven Days, hit the ball out of the park. That book sold millions of copies around the world. And I did a revolutionary thing, something they told me just could not be done, which was to put a CD in the back of the book [with] a hypnotic trance on it. So after you'd read the book and done the exercises, you listened -- some people just listened to the CD and their lives improved.

Take me through your writing process.
When I'm writing a book, I imagine I'm holding a copy of the book, and I start to flick through it and I get a sense of the emotional tone, or I get a sense of the pace of the book, whether it's short chapters or long ones. The other thing I do is imagine the [reader] is sitting in front of me, and I think, 'What do I need to tell them to help them get better?' Because I'm in the solution business. I sell solutions, whether they're books, whether they're apps, whether they're downloads, whatever they are; in my self-help world, I'm selling solutions.

My readers need enough science to tell them that what they're about to do is safe and has been practiced on other people and is a worthwhile process and then I walk them through it. And I'm not interested in writing intellectual books for other intellectuals to read. I'm interested in helping as many people as I can, in as easy and painless a way as possible. The delivery system is as important as the actual message. The messenger or the style of the message is as important as the message itself.

And so how did your show on Hulu come about?
I was on holiday with Simon Cowell, who's a good friend of mine, and his boat was parked next to David Geffen's boat. And Geffen wanted to meet Simon, so he sent a request over, and we all went over for tea. After Simon watched me interact and chat with David, he said. 'Do you know what? I think you should do a talk show.' Then I got in contact with Paul Duddridge, a television producer who I've known for a long time, and he said, 'I'm working for this company that owns slots of Hulu and I think we should make a talk show with you, but it should be about how people tick.'

"I think you get more from people if they feel that they're being genuinely listened to and understood, and that they don't need to be on guard."

And that's how it got started. We came up with a format of very honest, straightforward questions. We're not interested in the scoop; we're interested in what makes [people] brilliant, you know? We didn't want shiny floors and sparkling neon lights and things like that. We wanted it to be very much about the people. What we wanted to achieve with this program is to get insight, and also to be uplifted by our guests. Because all of our guests are people who are game-changers, mavericks and achievers in their own genres.

What do you think makes a great interviewer?
Well, I'm not a journalist. So I haven't come from conventional journalistic training, which is to go for the jugular, you know, sneak one question in under another, try and get the other person [to] expose something. I'm just fascinated and curious. I think 25 years in the trenches, working with the most challenged of people you can imagine, has given me an ability to have a politely inquiring manner, I hope. I think you get more from people if they feel that they're being genuinely listened to and understood, and that they don't need to be on guard.

And you also have to have -- and I think this is what I may have gotten from years of doing therapy -- a sort of intuition about where to go next. I can't explain that. That comes from years of talking to people in a therapeutic context.

Your work has spanned radio, TV, traditional publishing, digital platforms -- which medium would you say is your favorite?
It changes from week to week. Right now I'm most excited about [McKenna], though I'm just starting work on a new book, and I've got a big feeling of excitement about it. So ask me in an hour's time; it might be something else.

What advice would you give to media pros who are just starting out?
Know what you want -- but you've got to be really, really clear about what it is you want. Because if you put vagueness out, you get vagueness back. So know what it is you want, know where you are. Figure out how you're going to get there, what's going to get in the way, and then with integrity take massive action and do it. Go for it, every day.

Aneya Fernando is the editorial assistant at Mediabistro. Follow her on twitter @aneyafernando.


NEXT >> So What Do You Do, Terrie Williams, Author, Activist and Public Relations Strategist?

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of Mediabistro Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of Mediabistro Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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