How motivational speakers can do more harm than good

by | Mar 7, 2020 | Blog | 2 comments

If you’re looking for a “motivational” speaker for your in-person or virtual event, do yourself and your participants a favor and please reconsider.

At the risk of alienating anyone who likes a good cry when hearing a heart-wrenching personal story and the members of the National Speakers Association, I’m going to explain the rationale for my request. Plus, I’ll contrast two very different speakers who dealt with a similar subject.

First though, let’s start by acknowledging that these days any speaker should provide “edutainment” – that is, be entertaining and educational.  

To say it another way, speakers need to grab people’s attention, keep it, and share valuable content that makes the experience worth participants’ time and energy. Otherwise, we participants will question why we bothered to show up. Plus, we’ll be tempted to scroll through the messages on our devices throughout the speaker’s talk.

Speakers also should have a clear “call to action” – encouraging us to do something with the content they share.

When speakers rise to this bar, we enjoy an event similar to a 5-star fine dining experience. We eat healthy, delicious food (the content) in an appealing and comfortable setting with stimulating conversation.

By contrast, motivational speakers who tell us their personal emotional story serve empty calories. Their talk may be interesting and compelling in the moment, but it’s seldom all that useful. Here are three reasons why:

  • N = 1. When the sample size is one, inspirational-only speakers are sharing just their individual life experience. You may care about them and want to show empathy, which is admirable. However, you may not be able to draw any lessons from their life story that you can apply to your own life. That’s because the situation they encountered was so unique and extremely different from yours. For example, if the speaker is afflicted with a life-threatening disease and you’ve never had anything more severe than a twisted ankle, it may be hard to put yourself in their shoes.
  • Anecdotal. Because the inspirational speakers are so wrapped up in their personal story and journey, it’s not clear if what they’re talking about is grounded in reality, science or fact – unless you have prior knowledge about the topic they’re discussing. For example, if the speaker had a harrowing experience and is now doing well, but doesn’t explain that they have achieved “post-traumatic growth” as part of their healing, you might just think “Oh, that’s a remarkable story.” You don’t learn about how through focus and determination they were able to experience positive change as a result of their struggles.
  • Unintended consequences. Hearing their story may have an entirely different impact on you than what the speaker or you intended. For instance, you could inadvertently be made to feel excluded if you can’t relate, or if they position themselves as part of a special “in group” that doesn’t include you. Or, you may feel guilty if you perceive your troubles aren’t as bad as theirs. And as a result, you may stay quiet about your situation, your performance may drop, and if no one knows what you’re experiencing, neither your boss nor your co-workers can come forward to help you.

Recently, I went to hear a speaker address “resilience and success at the highest levels” to a group of tech startups. The talk was dramatic and voyeuristic, but hardly educational.

The former local TV personality kept us on the edge of our seat as she relayed the highs and lows of her career as well as described other life-limiting obstacles. Toward the end of her talk, after she had pulled our heartstrings multiple times, she presented her personal tips for coping and building resilience. But they were her suggestions; there was nothing new, universal or scientific about them. My reaction was “I’m glad she’s in a better place now.” But I was wondering why I was there.

Contrast that to hearing Sheryl Sandberg, the Facebook COO, speak on her 2017 book tour about Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding JoyShe wrote the book with Dr. Adam Grant, the top-rated Wharton psychology professor and best-selling author of two other books, as a way to deal with the 2015 sudden death of her husband.

Besides talking about her loss, Sandberg shared what she had learned from the wide range of people from all walks of life whom she had consulted. Their stories about how they had overcome their varied hardships plus research about grief and resilience formed the bulk of the book.

The two authors, Sandberg and Grant, also collaborated on sharing lessons for dealing with crises and building resilience, which Sandberg highlighted in her talk. I left that event with a deeper appreciation of Sandberg’s personal experience as well as more knowledge about the power of resiliency, plus a desire to read the book and learn about the tools.

Sandberg demonstrated resiliency as well as edutainment in action. The other speaker gave a three-hanky performance during the workday. Ask yourself: “Which is a better use of your colleagues’ (and your) time?”

2 Comments

  1. Maribeth Decker

    Great article, Liz! It’s an important distinction I hadn’t heard before . And it accurately describes some motivational speakers I didn’t enjoy. Wasn’t sure why. Now I understand what was missing.

  2. Liz Guthridge

    Thanks, Maribeth. This is a sensitive topic as the go-to guests for so many groups are “motivational” speakers. Yet we should question the value these speakers bring, especially considering their often hefty fees and how they suck time from other programming content as well as deep conversations the gathered participants could enjoy among themselves.

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