The 7 (Bad) Habits of Motivational Speakers

David McQueen
Dec 5, 2016 · 6 min read
(Source: Comedy Central)

I am going to get myself in so much trouble here, but as my Dad always said, I was never one to run away from trouble. So here goes.

For many years I have spoken about personal and latterly business development. Having given careers advice and coaching, been in positions of management and leadership, built and broken a few businesses and spent many a year both learning the art and science of presentation skills, I have honed these experiences into keynotes and programmes. I deliver these in the main to large private and public sector organisations as well as hosting public seminars for small to medium sized businesses and sometimes individuals.

Over this time period, I have watched many motivational speakers (I actually hate this term) build huge businesses and followings. Very often based on tapping into the naivete of their audience, the hard sell, social proofing on steroids and obviously the gift of oratory. Whilst I don’t begrudge anyone their success and acknowledge my own success as an international speaker, I think it is always important to self-reflect and check ourselves.

I will use WE throughout because I am part of this community and even if I don’t use many of the things I am critiquing, the perception is universal. This is how I see it moving forward.

1) Believing we are experts

One of the things I really detest about many speakers is how often we position ourselves as experts. On TV, radio, panels and in publications we are often quoted as experts and yet how often is that challenged? What is it that makes one an expert?

I have personally been a student of effective communication and public speaking for well over twenty years. In addition to communication skills I have explored anthropology, stand up comedy, storytelling, behavioural economics, drama, the Alexander Technique, sound theory and yet still, I wouldn’t consider myself an expert.

Dr Nick Morgan on the other hand, I would consider an expert. His extensive studies and research into this specific area for me qualifies him to this mantle that many others who self-define as experts don’t have. This kind of loose labelling also applies to those who self-define as entrepreneurs, gurus and thought leaders.

2) Sharing nonsense motivational memes

For the record, I am all for sharing positive visual memes. For me my own are quite tongue in cheek and rather than being a mantra for all to follow are an approach to life that I love to be challenged on rather than being seen as a silver bullet for success for others. What I find problematic is the one’s that make no sense for example.

Seriously? Because how do we define losers here?

I won’t even comment on this last one.

Now I get the intention. I do. I get the desire behind pushing these messages out but come on guys and gals, if we are going to share this kind of stuff let’s think about it a bit more.

3) Belittling those who don’t share your message

That assumption that everyone who doesn’t agree with you is either a hater or wants to see you fail. Err, the truth is most people don’t care. They have bills to pay and lives to lead and your success or failure is not a priority for them.

Of course there will always be people who will disagree with your point of view. I expect quite a few of those once this is published, but to dismiss it as being weak is wrong. I welcome challenges and creating a habit of dialogue is a positive one. Of course no one is encouraging those trolls who just want to rile you but there are genuine people who won’t agree with you and will challenge you. Belittling them actually makes you look smaller and less authentic than you purport to be on (or off) stage.

4) Blatantly copying other motivational speakers

One of the most intriguing things about seeing new and emerging speakers in the space is how much they copy others. If I had a pocket book for the amount of people who I have seen trying to copy Jim Rohn, Tony Robbins, Les Brown and Gary Vaynerchuk. Watching people produce content that is a blatant rip off, from tonality, body language, phrasing even down to merchandise is quite scary. I particularly see many English speakers using Americanese to try and “motivate” crowds at seminars. From the same hype music to the karate chopping of boards to bending knives on throats. Gimme a damn break already. Where is your originality?

Next thing you know people will be shooting videos from their garage talking about how they got their Tesla and selling you a 21 step programme on how you can do it too.

5) Making everything about work or money

Whilst most motivational speakers, including myself, are brought in by organisations to inspire staff on career-focused events, I find it a bit jarring how much emphasis is placed on work as if it was the only thing in our life worth chasing.

What does that even mean? While you are sleeping I am grinding? What is so brilliant about actually not wanting to sleep and letting your mind and your body rest so you can be fully productive and present the next day?

Too often these memes are bullshit. They give the impression that people are working at full pelt for sixteen hour days and that others should do it do. Whilst there are a number of people who do live like this (and I am happy for Gary V) for many speakers, whose main business is speaking, this is not the case. To then roll out these kinds of memes when you yourself aren’t doing it, and at best probably supplementing your income with a part-time job at Foot Locker or elsewhere, then it is disingenuous.

I can tell you as a speaker, I spend a lot of time writing, coaching, training and marketing, and sixteen hour days don’t come into it. So to my fellow speakers for whom this is not a reality (read most) please, stop.

6) The Alpha Male

Which leads me on to the next bad habit. The need for motivational speakers of both genders to assume that for effective impact that you need to be alpha male. All this hyped up “if you I can do it you can too”. What? Are you going to say that luck didn’t even play a role in your success? Come on now.

Often the lack of understanding of fortune and circumstance can be so swiftly ignored and the outlier becomes the rule rather than the exception, and if you cannot match up to that standard then you, …….well see below.

I am increasingly seeing many female motivational speakers lowering their tone too. Dressing with more power outfits to demonstrate authority and yet there are amazing examples like Brene Brown or Susan Cain who don’t follow that trend and have powerful impact.

It is too easy to see many of the more high-profile speakers exhibit alpha male body language as the only way to present and it doesn’t have to be this way.

7) Not finding out what motivates others

My final bad habit is about understanding motivation. Too often it is easy to go into organisation and audiences with the intention of motivating them without even exploring what motivates them. That’s a bit like a doctor giving you a prescription without even knowing.

Before we even step into a room, it is our duty as speakers to have a sense of the audience and what those who have booked us require as outcomes. Yes it might be your signature speech but if it is not tailored are you a motivational speaker or a talking parrot?

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Happy to hear your comments.

Frankly Speaking

Outspoken views on leadership, effective communication and workplace culture

David McQueen

Written by

Writing without filter.

Frankly Speaking

Outspoken views on leadership, effective communication and workplace culture

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