What sort of image does the term ‘motivational speaker’ conjure up for you? For me, the first picture that comes to mind is a larger-than-life American exhorting a crowd to embrace their inner awesomeness, to repeat out loud the mantras that will help them do that and to make a commitment to change, right here and now. It’s an image that stirs mixed feelings: interest, hope, scepticism, discomfort. Interest and hope because I’m always open to learning new ways of thinking and behaving that will help me to live my life better. Scepticism because I wonder how much substance there may turn out to be to this talk, whether what’s on offer is food for thought or really just candyfloss. Occasionally I also worry whether I’m being manipulated (what exactly is this speaker aiming to motivate me to do?). The discomfort is social, essentially a fear of being required to interact with the speaker or my audience neighbours in a way I find embarrassing. Would I choose to go and listen to a motivational speaker? Well, yes, I would – but I would sit near the back and I would keep my guard up until the speaker earned my trust.
So how do I reconcile that with being a motivational speaker myself? At first, I was reluctant to take on that label but gradually I realised two things: 1) What matters is how the audience sees it. If audiences consider my talks motivational, then that’s how I should describe them, whether it privately makes me cringe or not. 2) Motivational speaking is a broad church.
But I still prefer to describe my talks as stand-up psychology.
What sort of person is a motivational speaker?
People have been giving each other pep talks and urging crowds to action since humans first populated the earth. What is new is people making a career out of it. Traditionally, motivational speaking was the preserve of leaders, such as politicians, soldiers and activists. Winston Churchill’s most famous speeches, for example, were designed to motivate the country to win the war. The speech Shakespeare put in the mouth of Henry V is admittedly fictional but it’s unashamedly motivational and an interesting contrast with Col Tim Collins’s modern into-battle speech. Martin Luther King’s speeches, including I Have a Dream, were instrumental in motivating profound social change.
Sadly, not every motivational talk has noble intent. Charismatic characters like the Wolf of Wall Street use their oratorical powers for ill – and at the extreme end of this spectrum we find Adolf Hitler.
What is the speaker’s agenda?
As the audience, we must tune into our consciences and make sure we’re not being pushed towards action, or even thought, that will harm others and/or ourselves.
Apart from incitement to violence, hatred or exploitation, the other danger is that we the audience are the mark. If the speaker’s primary aim is to sell us a product or service, we need to think carefully before allowing ourselves to be swayed by what we’re hearing.
The rise of the professional motivational speaker
The past couple of decades have seen motivational speaking become a career in itself. I welcome this inasfar as it’s great that people want to share their wisdom to help others and it’s equally great that people are open to learning from others in this way. However, it only works when the speakers really do have some wisdom to share. As with politicians, the good ones are those who get involved out of a desire to serve rather than a hunger for power and attention.
As well as asking ourselves what the speaker is setting out to motivate us to do, we the audience need to question whether this talk is for our benefit or for the speaker’s. If someone’s career goal is to become a motivational speaker, I tend to wonder whether in another life that person’s ambition would be to become a rock star.
Whether it’s a full-time job or part of another career, the impetus for motivational speaking must be having something useful to say. Otherwise, we end up in this situation (a spoof TED talk, 4 mins 16 s):
What’s the difference between a motivational speaker and an inspirational speaker?
The aim – and effect – of both is often pretty much the same and many people use the terms interchangeably. The difference between a motivational speaker and an inspirational speaker is that the latter’s talk is focused on telling his or her story, in a broadly linear fashion, whereas a motivational speech tends to be structured more by theme.
Inspirational speakers are often business leaders, explorers, disabled people and others who have overcome adversity or triumphed against the odds. Their messages vary in focus and intensity but are based on, “If I can do what I did, you can succeed too!”
If you’re looking for help with changing your own life, the most ‘useful’ speakers, if I can put it like that, are those who combine both aspects. They offer motivational solutions, explaining how these solutions have worked for them, while also relating it back to the audience and making the lessons universal.
How can you tell if a motivational speaker is any good?
Despite the wariness I expressed at the top of the page, I’ve learnt a huge amount from motivational speakers. One of my favourites is Les Brown, an American who, on paper, resembles my mental stereotype, yet his integrity, his shining goodness of intention and the sound sense he talks quickly eroded my scepticism. I’ll add a clip below, so you can hear him in action.
‘Good’ in this context is a subjective judgement: words that hit the bullseye for one person may for another be wide of the mark, depending on the issues they bring with them. However, my experience of listening to a lot of speakers over the years is that the good ones reinforce what I’ve kind of known deep down. I sit there nodding, thinking, “Yes, yes, that’s true!” This is reassuring and encouraging, often motivating me to keep pursuing my goals, with renewed vigour.
The great motivational speakers, on the other hand, change my view of the world and all the people in it, including myself. In these cases, I sit there thinking, “Oh! So that’s the truth!”
I hope, of course, to provide you with a few of these light-bulb moments through my talk. In the meantime, here are some from Les Brown: