Have you ever heard of someone described as a motivational speaker before? I’d be surprised if you haven’t! While there is nothing wrong with this term – and it’s an enormous accomplishment to become a motivational speaker – it’s sometimes difficult to shake the pejorative connotation that comes along with it. Most people have absolutely no idea the many years of hard work it takes to establish oneself as a keynote speaker because they only see the end result (usually a 45 to 60 minute speech) and don’t see the Friday and Saturday nights uploading videos to YouTube, creating speech content, practicing the speech, implementing marketing initiatives of all sorts, making nerve-racking cold calls, sending out countless emails, seemingly endless amounts of time writing and editing books and blog posts, getting rejected over and over but somehow finding a way to continue pushing forward…and that’s only the tip of the iceberg; but that’s a deep-dive topic for a different day. The post here today is to explain the 50,000-foot level understanding of this concept: most people don’t even know what a motivational speaker is. The term is a complete misnomer and provides false insight into what a speaker does.
Speakers Don’t Motivate Other People
You might be thinking right now, woah, Jeff – wait a second. Motivating people is the whole point, isn’t it?
Nope. A speaker’s job is to provide relevant and practical content mixed with insightful stories to educate, enlighten, and entertain. Can a motivated person be a byproduct of a person’s speech? Yes, of course. But here’s the key insight and core premise of this post:
No one can motivate you to do anything. You can only motivate yourself. Contrary to popular opinion, no one has ever motivated another person to do something and no one ever will. A speaker’s job is to provide content and insight that allows one to light the fire (sometimes dimly lit) from within. Put differently but conveying the same message, a speaker can only show the audience member the doorway. It is solely up to each person to walk up to the door, put in the key, turn the key to open the door, and physically walk through it.
Did the lightbulb go off in your head yet? Think about it like this: no one can make you, me, or anyone else do anything without our buy-in (please know I’m not referring to the one-in-a-million situation of someone holding a gun to your head, or something tragic and unexpected along those lines). Let me be very clear here to make sure that we are not splitting hairs over conceptual definitions when in reality we are in agreement: can a speaker who educates, enlightens, and entertains lead to motivation? Yes – through inspirational storytelling and content-based processes. But motivation is not what a speaker does! A speaker simply provides the key by which you motivate yourself if you choose to be motivated.
Do you think I’m getting lost in semantics here? I’d say so myself if there weren’t so many people who don’t understand what a speaker actually does. Since there are hundreds of thousands of people who don’t understand this process, my goal is to provide knowledge and information to remedy this situation and hopefully garner more respect for our industry. This is not anyone’s fault, it’s just one of those common beliefs that needs to be adjusted.
I was hesitant to mention Toastmasters because I want my main point to be clear, but on the eve of my 26th birthday I feel compelled to tell you that Toastmasters has been a HUGE part of my life. I first regularly attended Toastmasters meetings when I was 19 years old and I’ve been in the organization for nearly 7 years now. Since then, I’ve visited hundreds of Toastmasters clubs across 5 different states and 3 different continents. From the bottom of my heart, I’ve met some of the most sincere, genuine, and inspiring people in this organization a person could ever know. It’s truly been a blessing to be a part of such a warm and supportive community. I’m so glad I listened to my public speaking professor in college who said to me, “Jeff, in my 30 years of teaching here at McDaniel College, you are the literally the only student who took up my advice to join Toastmasters.”
There is power in continually putting yourself out there. And I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I were to tell you that half of my Facebook friends are from Toastmasters clubs around the world. Using Toastmasters as a springboard, I started speaking professionally in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, as well as in Eastern Europe.
What does this all have to do with “motivational speaker” being a misnomer? Everything! I’ve heard countless speeches from people of all walks of life and their speeches educated, enlightened, and entertained me – but they didn’t motivate me. I motivated myself by applying what I learned. And the same applies for you. As my friend Delatorro McNeal says, who I just spoke with in-person for the 2nd time at the recent National Speakers Association Conference in Washington, D.C., “it’s not what you know, it’s what you apply.” The application of the principles a speaker shares (or a writer writes, or a coach coaches, etc.) is 100% upon your shoulders. A speaker’s job is to provide a substance-rich message that affords you the know-how to go back into your life and motivate yourself, if that’s the choice you want to make.
Are there speakers out there who are all fluff, with lots of bells and whistles, but do not share any practical and relevant content and processes? Of course; there are always going to be a certain number of bad eggs. And those kinds of speakers give our industry a bad reputation. But I can genuinely say, having lived abroad and interacted with tens of thousands of success experts, coaches, philanthropists, authors, speakers, entrepreneurs, and otherwise noteworthy people, that most speakers are legitimate. It is up to each speaker to decide how much content they want to share versus how many stories they want to tell (and will vary with each audience), but it is essential to understand that this boils down to a substance-rich process, not motivational fluff.
Here’s an Example of What I’m Talking About
Take, for example, my recent TEDx talk. I can understand how one may potentially view this as a motivational talk. But in my opinion (and the opinion of dozens of people I spoke with both before and after I did the talk), this TEDx is a discussion of the idea of inner first, outer second. I shared some attention-grabbing examples, a few enlightening stories, and left the audience with tips on HOW to apply what I shared. Is this speech only the tip of iceberg when it comes to discussing this topic? Yes, but that’s why there is such a thing as a keynote for expanded discussion!
When contacting the TEDx organizers, I positioned myself as an expert who speaks, not a motivational speaker. The TED market is flooded with motivational speakers and my strategy paid off because it caught their attention for the final speaker slot.
I realize this is somewhat of a risk to use my own TEDx talk as an example of what I’m talking about. But, my friends, everything in life is a risk to some degree, isn’t it? As Randy Gage says, risky is the new safe (Randy and I have been playing phone tag for about a week, leaving voicemails on each other’s phones, but I’m confident I will connect with him further after talking to him in Washington, D.C.). And as my dad and Aunt Meg said, “the profit is for the risk-taker.” Yes, I am a self-confident person – after a VERY shaky and insecure start to my life, I made a transformation and learned how to reassure myself as opposed to constantly doubt myself (thank you Toastmasters). With that said, I swear on my own grave that if you were to meet me in person I would come across as humble, sincere, and genuine. Having received a positive response on this talk from my friends around the world – and with it tying into the theme of this post – I felt I owed it to myself to share this talk with you.
But the goal of this post is not to get you to watch some sixteen and a half minute talk because there are many examples out there of strong messages. The goal of this post is to get you to understand that there’s no such thing as a motivational speaker. If there’s one thing I want to leave you with, it’s this:
No one can motivate you to do anything. You can only motivate yourself.
On the eve of my 26th birthday, I think I deserve to watch some Netflix as a reward for spending nearly three hours writing and editing this post – don’t want to burn myself out too badly. You deserve a break too…but don’t forget to first motivate yourself!
To your continued success,
P.S. Thoughts? Comments? Responses? Please share in the comments below.
Jeff Davis is an author, world-renowned traveler, and professional speaker. Having lived in Budapest, Hungary and traveled to 51 countries across 5 different continents, he speaks about budget travel, time management, and college success. As a frequent flyer, you never know where you may find Jeff. Feel free to call his team at (800) 315-4832 or email Jeff directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.