Telling Tales: The Dangers of Motivational Speaking

I’Ve Received Standing Ovations After Delivering Speeches To Audiences Of Thousands. Along The Way, I’Ve Made Them Laugh, Cry And, Occasionally, Think.
And This Is Why I Can Tell You: A Motivational Speech Is The Last Thing People Need Right Now.

Motivational? Quite the opposite. In fact, motivational speeches can be limiting, discouraging and disheartening when in the wrong hands.

But before you start to think I’ve been on the receiving end of a backstreet vaccine testing programme and am attempting to talk myself out of a job, we need to look at how this industry was thrust into the spotlight…and why it’s time for the final curtain call.

Rallying The Troops

Giving a motivational speech is nothing new.

Alexander the Great, Caesar, Wallace, Lincoln, Churchill and Roosevelt were all well-versed in delivering some rousing verbiage when the situation arose.

You know the score: Man (why was it always men?) delivers a speech to the people which will empower them to do their duty for the greater good with smiles on their faces and fire in their bellies.

Sure, if you were listening to this speech, it usually meant you or your loved ones would soon meet a grisly and untimely death, but hey, at least you were feeling nicely motivated about it.

But about 30 years ago, something changed.

Show Me The Money

It began with the academics who were invited to businesses and institutions to impart their wisdom upon a wider audience.

Nothing wrong with that.

However, cheques soon started being written to compensate these speakers.

Again, no particular issue here. I’d give my right arm and one of my shiny, newly-sober kidneys to spend an hour in the company of certain experts in their field.

But the commas kept being added to those paycheques.

And all of a sudden, motivational speaking became an industry. An industry that is now worth over $2 billion in the US alone.

And then the problems started.

Because delivering motivational speeches was no longer a catalyst – an innovative way to deliver a certain outcome.

Delivering motivational speeches became the outcome itself.

Don’t believe me?

Ask yourself, would people be quite so desperate to deliver a TED talk if they had to sign a non-disclosure agreement first?

Let Me Tell You A Story

Take a look at LinkedIn and you’ll be forgiven for thinking it was a cocaine-fuelled dinner party: everyone jabbering away about being a motivational speaker…but nobody pausing the verbal diarrhoea long enough to do any listening.

Of course everyone wants to be a motivational speaker: You get to talk about yourself for an hour, everyone claps at the end…and then you get paid.

Let’s face it, it’s not exactly down there with ‘armpit sniffer’ or ‘bulletproof vest tester’ when it comes to career choices.

And to be clear, I’m not against motivational speakers. I’ve been driven to tears by some truly remarkable and inspirational people who have quietly battled against impossible odds to make their dreams come true.

But I’ve also been bored to tears by other individuals who have given talks that rivalled uncle Jack’s three-hour slideshow marathon of 16th century French forts. But, unlike uncle Jack, these speakers helped themselves to a slice of the company profits for the pleasure.

Money Where Your Mouth Is

I’ve turned down plenty of lucrative gigs because I knew I wasn’t the cookie-cutter performer that companies were looking for.

Because when seeking an outside voice to deliver a motivational message, the leadership of many organisations inadvertently make two key mistakes:

  1. They only think about what they would find interesting. And in doing so, fail to consider what’s on the hearts and minds of their audience. One of my old bosses was delighted when he secured a rugby world-cup winner to deliver a speech for the bargain price of a semi-detached house. Except he failed to notice that most of the warehouse workers in the crowd were distracted by thoughts of how they were going to pay their mortgage that month.

  2. They focus on motivation, but so what? Millions of loyal corporate workers have diligently listened to daring tales of Everest climbs, global circumnavigation and feats of human endurance…whilst saying to themselves “Yeah, but I could never do that”, and wondering how they were going to hit their impossible project delivery deadline. A speech without outcomes is just an expensively tall tale.

But really, you can’t blame the bosses. After all, they’re just trying to think outside the (speakers) box to energise a 2020-worn-and-weary workforce.

Maybe we should be paying a different kind of attention to the motivational speakers.

Speak Before You Think

Most so-called motivational speakers think they are unique, but really, they aren’t.

Many of these people are entertaining, some are even thought-provoking. But in terms of making a real difference to the lives of their audience, they are about as much use as hanging up a picture saying ‘Dream Big’ and expecting your life to change automatically.

Listening to a millionaire tell me to ‘stop chasing money’ didn’t really help when I wasn’t sure where my next meal was coming from.

Hearing a highly-energised adventurer excitedly recount the time they drank snake blood in outer Taiwan was mildly amusing, but it didn’t get me any closer to ditching the booze and finally signing-up for a Parkrun.

And when the business consultant breathlessly extolled the virtues of behavioural change theory, I felt as motivated as a travel agent during the announcement of a third lockdown.

Change Your Tone

Business priorities have changed. The needs of employees have shifted. Paying someone a lot of money to effectively tell you about what they did on their holidays doesn’t help anyone take real, tangible actions to change their lives for the better.

Motivational speakers: Stop talking and start listening. Don’t make it about you, make it about them.

But telling tales is one thing, giving people the playbook to change their lives is something far more difficult.

Which is why so many speakers shy away from doing it.

So the next time you’re watching someone get paid to serve you up the same, well-rehearsed life story that they’ve doled-out to similar audiences time and again, put your hand up and ask them:

“How are you going to help me make a real, positive difference in my life”.

But be warned, they might not hear you.

They’ll be too busy talking.

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