Simon Raybould is an English presentation coach. He’s opinionated and prone to challenge the orthodoxy, which, in our minds is a very good thing. We published his first article on here last year and it got great feedback, then we published his second because we liked the first, and within the day he was heckling us for spreading rumours about Ernest Hemingway! As we say in the UK, Simon could start a fight in a phone box (booth). He sent this article to us with the caveat ‘if you think this is too much, don’t publish it’. But we love it and we quite like him! Simon’s subject this week is the weird things that motivational speakers do.
I’ve listened to lots of motivational speakers. Lots. I’ve listened to some good ones. Sadly I’ve also listened to some tosh. I make no claims that this article is scientifically valid as it’s only based on my personal experience (an irony you’ll appreciate later, trust me!) but for what it’s worth, here are some rather jaundiced observations about motivational speakers… (Oh, and before you hit send on your hatemail, know that I’ve seen some great motivators, too!)
Gripe 1 – We’re not your therapists, get over it
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve listened to a motivational speaker who was saying something like “Ra, ra, rah! Look at what I overcame!”. Yes, it’s impressive that you were raised by alligators and learned to become a motivational speaker telling everyone you were raised by alligators, but then saying “…and I’m totally over it” is utter tosh. The fact that you’re standing there on stage broadcasting your pain and anguish is proof that you’re not over it. If you were, you’d not need us to validate the fact you coped with being raised by alligators by paying to hear you tell us you were raised by alligators and standing up to applaud you at the end.
Here’s some free advice: use the speaking fees you get to pay for a therapist so you don’t need to emotionally self flagellate on stage. It’s not big and it’s not clever.
Gripe 2 – Just because you did, doesn’t mean we can
To be honest, I’d not mind gripe number one so much if emotional self flagellation always came alongside specific, actionable tools for how I too could, say, cope with being raised by alligators. Better yet, given how badly some motivational speakers seem to cope with normal life with no alligators, I want to know how to avoid being raised by alligators in the first place!
Let’s face it, a lot of motivational speakers got to where they are by being in the wrong place at the wrong time. For fairly obvious reasons we don’t hear from otherwise would-be motivational speakers who were also in the wrong place at the wrong time but who didn’t quite make it. By definition, motivational speakers who talk about being raised by alligators is a self-selecting subset of the whole.
Sitting in the audience – I’m like all audience members for all presentations – thinking “WIIFM?” (What’s In It For Me). Unless you give me something I can apply, the answer is all too often ‘not much’ or even ‘nothing’. For a bad motivational speaker the answer is worse than a net zero, because they’ve not only given me nothing I can apply or use, but they have actually cost me money and time.
Gripe 3 – You haven’t proved anything, just found evidence
This is a gripe reserved for the kind of motivational speaker whose thing is based on “I’ve interviewed 32 very successful people like me and the system that they all use is this one! They can, so you can too! Just pay me $$$ for the details of the system”. Really? Fine.
But don’t mistake what you’ve done for science. It’s journalism. You’ve not proved anything: you’ve just found some evidence. Just because your 32 very successful people (and for now I’m going to generously assume you’ve got 32 real very successful people, not a Trump-esque grasp on success) doesn’t automatically mean that all successful people use your system.
Nor does it prove that yours is the only system to bring success. Your 32 might be the only 32 people out of a successful pool of 5215 who did what you claim brought them success – the others having got there by another route.
What’s worse is that if you’ve just looked at 32 people who were very succesful you have no grasp at all on failure. What if thousands of people used your system but because you were interested in success you only looked at a biased sample – the few, unusual successful ones?
A tongue-in-cheek example might make it clearer. Suppose you’ve looked at 32 football teams who won their matches and wore a red strip. Does that mean that wearing red strips is the key to winning? Well maybe – but until you’ve also looked at teams who wore red and lost, and at teams who wore blue and won, you can’t make any motivational claims.
Okay, I suppose you can make all the claims you like, but they’re scientifically not worth the paper your oral presentation is delivered on. (And see my opening comments about the irony of personal opinions in presentations!)
Gripe 4 – You make me feel like a failure
Okay, so picture this – your motivational speech is intended to do a number of things (make you feel better and get you paid are a couple but let’s gloss over those!) and prime amongst other things is to get me worked up to take big action and change my life. But here’s the deal… you were raised by alligators! I can’t be raised by alligators and even if I was, I don’t feel like I could cope.
Your MBT is beyond me (Motivational Big Thing) and all that does is expose me even more to the pathetic/limited/small life I’m leading. I’ve listened to a lot of presentations by motivational speakers that totally failed to motivate me (or anyone around me!) because the speaker was so far removed from the experience and abilities of the audience. I can sit in awe of someone who’s run 32 Iron Man Triathons pulling a sledge with broken runners and loaded with all the water needed to sprint across the Kalahari Desert backwards with their legs tied together at the knees, but as I can’t currently run a half marathon in even ideal conditions, all I feel is inadequate by comparison! (See Gripe 2, about needing tools!)
A motivational speaker who makes me feel even worse is, well… not a success…
(I can’t begin to count the amount of science that suggests that challenging but realistic goals are more use for normal people.)
Gripe 5 – You’re rubbish
Just to state the obvious, having done something inspirational, or found out something inspirational, doesn’t mean you’re a good speaker (nor does it automatically mean you’re a bad one, of course) but all too often audiences come along quite reasonably expecting a certain technical ability for the speaker that they just don’t get from the stage.
Making money for being famous is a nice way to earn a living, but as SpiderMan says “With great power comes great responsibility”. I’m thinking of the responsibility to know how to work the remote clicker on a PowerPoint deck. It’s not too big an ask, really, for someone who figured out how to live with alligators.
Gripe 6 – And another thing; and another
This is a trivial one, I know, but it’s something I’ve seen happen over and over… motivational speakers are often part of an event and (not necessarily through any fault of theirs!) their material gets swamped. If you’re motivated by a speaker while you’re sitting in the audience, it makes sense to go and take action, right? But if you’ve paid several hundred (or even thousands of pounds/dollars) on a full day, it’s hard to drag yourself away when the motivation happened before the morning coffee break. After all, what might you miss?!?!
By the end of the day, audiences can be so overwhelmed with new material, ideas and resolutions it’s hard to know what to do next. The result is that nothing happens and the motivation is wasted.
Yes, I know if the motivation was good enough that might not be a problem, but back in the real world… the number of motivational speakers who are that good can be counted using only your thumbs.
As an aside, there’s a bit of me which wonders if this might not be accidental. Could it be a coincidence that, right at the end, when people are exhausted and more vulnerable, that’s the time the sales pitches start? Maybe I’m just cynical.
So what’s the solution? Where do we go?
I know, I know, it’s egotistical, but I’ve been doing this long enough to be arrogant about it. Stay with me here…
Motivational speakers are a handy part of the speaking mix, no doubt. I’m what people call a content speaker (it’s all about the tools) but without the motivation to use those tools nothing will happen for my audience, so I leven the content with motivation. Could people who self-identify as ‘motivational speakers’ sprinkle some tools in their schtick, too, please? If the aim is to help the audience, rather than our own egos and bank balances as speakers, that’s a no-brainer, surely!
And I don’t mean tools such as “buy my stuff” either. I mean tools you give people on the day.
And is it too much to ask that, before anyone is booked as a motivational speaker, the organiser checks that the speaker:
- Knows what they’re doing, in terms of the craft of speaking and presenting;
- Is a fit for the audience in terms of their achievements and how ‘distant’ they are from ‘normal’ people;
- Doesn’t make exaggerated claims such as “this is the way to achieve XYZ”
And what can you do, as an audience member? Any time you’re listening to a motivational speaker who’s not motivating you, or who’s a bad presenter, or who isn’t telling you exactly what works, tell them. They genuinely might not know they’re not working.