What’s Good — Even Essential — About Motivational Speeches
By Nick Morgan for Forbes.com
Motivational speeches have acquired a bad name in some quarters. In 2008-2009, the market for them tanked, and ever since meeting planners, speaker bureaus, and people looking for speakers have insisted on something called “takeaways,” meaning practical things you can do right away to increase employee morale, productivity, and throughput per pod-human (TPPH), or whatever your measure of efficiency is. So motivational speakers quickly re-tooled their speeches to include takeaways, and gradually the market recovered some of its former glory.
The tenor of the times has conspired to keep motivational speeches down and their speakers reluctant to use the label, however; we demand authenticity, irony, and roughness-around-the-edges from our speakers these days as a sign of integrity. As such, to the extent a motivational speaker is slick and effortlessly passionate, he will suffer in the authenticity stakes, fairly or not.
At the same time, TED has raised the bar on all speakers, and audiences demand more than a modicum of entertainment with their information. So a speaker that fails to provide some fun, a bit of a spark, or – better – the comic delivery and timing of Louis CK won’t be asked back very often.
It’s a complex set of demands, and one that speakers often struggle to meet. Aristotle distinguished among persuasive, informational, and decorative speeches and said that you had to choose one of the three to do well. Today, we expect our speeches to be persuasive, informational and decorative – all three, if we can loosely translate Aristotle’s terms to mean motivational, actionable, and fun. The translation only works partially, but it’s useful as a way of understanding what speakers need to be able to accomplish today.
The real purpose of a motivational speech, and in fact any speech, is to get you, the audience, to do something differently, because the speaker has got you to think differently. The only reason to give a speech is to change the world, and world-changing starts with the audience right in front of the speaker.
A professional speaker has two goals, really – to change the world as above, and to get another speech. Here’s where commerce meets purpose in a very real way. What causes an audience member to recommend to a friend, to some other group, to her boss that the speech she’s seen needs to be repeated in front of this other group X?
Simon Sinek’s wildly successful speech (and book) about “starting with why” provides a good example of how to do it right. The message is very simple – in order to get inspired to go to work, people need to know why they’re doing what they’re doing. So OK leaders tell you what and how to do your job; great leaders tell you why.
Simple, powerful, and clear. It’s motivational – and eminently shareable. It’s actionable, and Simon’s conversational delivery and storytelling keep it fun. It’s the sort of message that, if you hear it, you get it – and you want to share it. You want everyone else to hear it too – your co-workers, the other organizations you may know, your boss.
I’ve been arguing for a long time that it’s public speaking death to treat a speech as if it’s a data dump – speakers need to resist the temptation to tell the audience everything they know. Audiences may even feel edified by such a speech, if it’s done well, but they won’t jump to share it. Former academics beware! Your praiseworthy desire to teach the audience something – a lot, actually – may lead to glazed eyes and a lack of repeat business. Be tough on yourself and pare your ideas down to their simplest possible form.
And so I think it’s time to complete the rehabilitation of motivational speeches and speakers. We need to get the balance right among the desirable virtues of persuasion, information and decoration, as Aristotle termed them – or perhaps what we would call motivation, data, and fun. Speeches and speakers today need all three to succeed with the audience in front of them – and with that next audience too.