Motivational Speaking: So much more than words
I’ve been a professional speaker for a decade now. I’ve come a long way from those stuttering, staccato, painfully nervous talks where I would learn my script by rote (with backup prompt cards on the table just in case) and the only part I looked forward to were the words; “thank you very much, good night”. As with life, I learned from my mistakes.
I’ve been very lucky to speak to just about every audience conceivable around the world; from after-dinner speeches in royal palaces and primary school assemblies, to Heads of business in FTSE 100 companies and keynote speaking to conferences of a thousand or more people.
In the early days I wrestled with how I would describe myself as a speaker. I have never felt comfortable being referred to as a “motivational” or “inspirational” speaker; visions of speakers-past encouraging audiences to stand up, high-five each other shouting “I am the best”, haunting me from a time I was the one sitting on the other side of the divide. I consider myself a story teller. Whether or not audiences are inspired or motivated by my story depends on what they choose to take from it.
Whether I’m speaking to a private dinner or a conference of a thousand, my story remains the same but, over the years, I have learned how and when to lift and emphasise various themes within it; resilience, overcoming adversity and how we manage change, all impacting audiences in different ways. A talk must have a heartbeat and rhythm. As a professional speaker, this in an acquired skill and one which becomes intuitive. The audience have a choice; they can simply sit back and listen to another human being tell their story; 30 minutes of entertainment with no requirement on their part to engage other than open their ears. Others may choose to engage. For them, elements of a story will resonate more profoundly and may touch upon aspects of their own lives, for example health, family or work. For these people, they will feel a sense of connection to a story that may inspire or motivate them to cope with an existing challenge in their life. Despite feeling uncomfortable with the moniker, having someone tell you that you have ‘inspired’ them is one of the most special things a human can be told. It highlights the power a speaker has as a communicator, plus it makes you feel good too..!
But with that power comes responsibility. Having been given the privilege of speaking to a group of people, having their undivided attention, that is a responsibility. And every speaking engagement brings with it a new responsibility, to not only interpret and fulfil the client’s brief, but to ensure each and every member of the audience is given the opportunity, should they choose, to take away something positive from the experience.
When I’m on stage, telling my story, it is a very personal performance. In every performance, I give a little bit of myself. I often leave the stage emotionally exhausted. That may seem melodramatic for someone who’s only job is to talk for 30 minutes, but I believe it is exactly that, giving a piece of yourself, which makes a speaker truly professional. I’ve come a long way from learning my lines by rote. Now when I speak, every word is there for a reason, every intonation and pause, carefully considered, even when freestyling! I’ve learned to take my audience on a journey, a journey which can make them laugh and cry but hopefully, they arrive at the end with a renewed perspective on their life.
I can not profess any understanding of group psychology but, as a solitary figure on a stage with an audience in front of you, watching you and listening to your every word, there is an undeniable energy. On stage, it is interesting to watch the faces of my audience as key messages in my story resonate; an involuntary nod of the head or a smile, give me live feedback on the success (or otherwise) of my talk.
And it is exactly for this reason that I believe I have a responsibility to avoid using my talk to use cheap throw-away motivational straplines. “Anything is possible if you put your mind to it”is one example. It is patently untrue, in fact, I would go further, I think it is irresponsible for a professional speaker to say such things. But not only that, if clients and audiences continue to hear nothing but these vacuous clichés, ultimately it undermines those stories with a true depth and a narrative. By all means encourage your audience to dream. By all mean encourage them to have aspirations. By all means help them lift their sights beyond their comfort zone. But telling someone they can do anything if they put their mind to it is setting them up to fail. A far more powerful, enduring and practical thing a speaker can do through their talk, even if only for 30 minutes, is to give people permission, perhaps for the first time, to escape their comfort zone. For some, listening to a disabled guy recounting his sailing adventures is unlikely to lead to any change in their life. Others will leave fizzing with ideas.
I would urge anyone looking to hire a speaker to look for the narrative. What is the thread which runs through that speaker’s life? What are the parallels in their story that can relate to the speaking assignment? Remember, more can be learned from a person’s failures than their successes, so long as those failures were from trying to succeed.
Public speaking is more than words. It is a craft that needs to be learned to do it well, to connect with an audience and meet the brief of the client. It comes with responsibilities and should be undertaken on that understanding. Speakers come and go, their rise and fall in popularity often mirroring their public profile. Story tellers are here for the end game.