Rebel Uprising Podcast

How NOT to be a Motivational Speaker

How not to be a motivational speakerI love watching speakers! I usually leave feeling inspired and ready to take on the world. Recently, I've not been so lucky. I've seen a lot of awful “motivational speakers”.

Actually, I think there is de-motivational speaking industry a foot.

However, there's lesson to be learned from even the most agonizing of presentations.

#1 – Don't try to sell me anything before you even open your mouth

Imagine walking in the door, and shoved into your hand is an order form. It's like going out on a first date and trying to get to second base right after hellos are exchanged.

Presumptuous much?

I get that speakers need to make money. Back-of-the-room sales are an integral part of that process. If I like what you say and feel connected to you, I'll buy your book or CD, or maybe even take a course from you.

However, if you start selling me BEFORE you've said one word – I am not buying anything from you!

You MUST earn your ask.

You lost me before you even spoke. You sent a message that you are more interested in my money than you are in me.

#2 – It's not all about you

Rant ahead! Here's a crappy attention getter: “Please stand up & clap. You've given me a standing ovation. Now, I have to earn it.”


I have to give you a standing ovation before you even speak?

Really? Is your self-esteem that low that I have to motivate you to do your best?

Not only did you turn me off from listening – I felt robbed after you spoke because you didn't earn the standing ovation you forced me to give!


#3 – Don't put your audience on the spot

“What is your dream?”

Just reading this question made your heart flutter, right?

It's not an easy question to answer with your therapist let alone in front of a room with 150 people in it.

I'm all for audience involvement, but involve the audience in a way that is not absolutely terrifying for them!

Talking about hopes and dreams is intimate self-disclosure that is best not done with a motivational speaker in front of a live studio audience.

As a motivational speaker, the goal should be inspiration not making people feel crappy. When people leave a room feeling worse than when they walked in that is a giant FAIL!

#4 – I wasn't kidding!  It's not all about you

When a motivational speech sounds like an opera singer warming up – me, me, me, me, me – I get turned off. I don't care how great any speaker thinks s/he is!

[Tweet “It may be a speaker's presentation, but it is the audience's experience.”]

The stories told should highlight helping others or how others helped to change you or just be stories about other people.

The audience should be able to picture themselves in the story!

As an audience member, I want to know why I am listening to your story. What can I expect to learn or take away from the talk? (Yep, the old “What's in It for me?”)

Speaker Craig Valentine often points out that he is not special. He is not above his audience, and he is never the hero of his story. When it's me, me, me – no one cares!

#5 – For the love of all things good – PROOFREAD

In my opinion, the #1 way to undermine your credibility is not to proofread your material.

Confession: I make grammatical errors all the time. (Thank god, I am friends with a technical writer).  I'll give a pass on making an error!

However if it is a spelling error that Microsoft Office can pick up, that's just laziness.

Care enough about the audience to at least run spell check. It takes 2 minutes to make sure you don't torpedo your credibility!

We talked about what NOT to do, but who are the speakers that motivate or inspire you? How do they accomplish that? Love to hear your thoughts below.

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22 responses to “How NOT to be a Motivational Speaker”

  1. Jackie Bailey says:

    Hehe…Michelle, I know who you’re referring to regarding at least the first two of your points above. I’m so glad you pointed out why I wasn’t particulary fond of this presenter myself. I hadn’t taken the time to think too much into it, but now I can see why she didn’t motivate me at all!

    • Michelle says:

      Glad you felt similarly Jackie. I was glad the speaker didn’t ask me what my dream was I might have said “For you to shut up!” 🙂

  2. Mark Morden says:

    Nice article/rant. Under #4, I like your point about what am I sitting here for. That is something I ask myself when listening to a speaker, and what I want to make clear when giving a speech. Everyone in the audience should know why they are sitting there listening to the speaker, which means the burden is on the speaker to be clear and concise about the core message.

    You mentioned Craig Valentine. He likes to say we need to promote the process, not the individual. If the process is promoted, then it will work for everyone. If the person is promoted, well it works for them but maybe not for me.

    Good article.

    • Michelle says:

      Thank you Mark! I completely agree that the audience needs to know why they are there. If there is no reason to keep you in your seat, why should you stay.

      I loved what you said about Craig Valentine. We do need to promote the process not ourselves. Some of the speakers I saw – we are about themselves and not the process. Heck, I didn’t even know what the process was!

  3. brian a says:

    Michelle you got it right on several points. It is about the audience’s experience and the value they get…or don’t get as the case may be. A gimmick can work if if ties into the presentation…but not when bolted on almost as an afterthought.

    • Michelle says:

      Thanks for your comment, Brian! It is the audience’s experience and if you ask for a standing ovation at the beginning – there better be a really good point to it. It needs to make sense for the presentation.

  4. Simon says:

    You can probably hear the ‘Amen!’ from here! 🙂

    I’d add another one to your list (and have ranted about it myself…). To be a motivational speaker you need to give your audience *tools* – otherwise when the going gets tough they don’t know what to do.

    I’ve seen sooooo many ‘top notch’ motivational speakers do nothing but wind people up like clockwork Daleks and have them run out of the door. When it all goes wrong they (the audience) feels like it’s their fault and often signs up for another session with ‘the guru’.

    Keeping people ‘addicted’ to you is an accusation I level at quite a few of the big names, to be honest! 🙂

    • Michelle says:

      I admire and share your same cynicism. My follow-up post is actually going to talk about the content of these motivational presentations. They are pretty trite and share very similar characteristics. Get ready for another venomous rant!

      I do love your take on keeping people “addicted” to you. If they need your tools because they keep failing, then they will keep coming back. It guarantees your income stream.

  5. Donn says:

    It reminds me of similar conversations about salespeople. When I ask audiences about the best “salespeople” they know, they name stereotypes. I then point out they don’t think of the people who are really the best salespeople, because they don’t think of them as salespeople; they think of them as friends.

    In the same way, if you’re thinking, “Wow, this guy is really impressive as a speaker!” or, even worse, “This guy is the person Chris Farley was making fun of!” that’s not the best speaker. You probably don’t even think of the most effective speakers as a speaker–they’re just effective at getting their message across, probably by being plain, simple, and concrete.

    • Michelle says:

      In a van down by the river…man, I didn’t even think of that reference. I am so disappointed in myself.

      An effective speaker is just a guy or girl, communicating. They are sharing their heart and minds. They are never a “speaker”. You are so right Donn!

  6. Scott Danielson says:

    I’m still a little incredulous about the speaker from #1.

    That being said my favorite speakers are excellent at the slow burn. Instead of starting with a huge bang and working to maintain that energy, the entire time, they begin small and work their way up. This let’s the audience develop their own enthusiasm naturally. It’s the anti-“Who’s really happy to be here today!…..I can’t hear you!”

    • Michelle says:

      I think my favorite moment from #1 is when my friend took the order form that was printed on really nice paper and methodically ripped it into tiny bits.

      I agree a speaker needs to meet their audience where they are currently at. I’m not a high school pep rally! I don’t need to be motivated. I need to be excited about the message.

  7. Mike Wittenstein says:

    We all know or have heard someone like ‘that’ speaker 😉
    Regarding the point about delivering an experience for the audience. To me, that’s key. Speakers who are willing to take the time to get to know their audiences before the event are able to have a conversation with them (from the stage) rather than talk ‘at’ them. Speakers who get to know the industry (plant visits, shops, phone calls, etc.) can make that 1:1 connection better. And, those who ‘read’ their audiences and adjust the language, energy, speed, and stories are the best at delivering an experience attendees will notice, remember, and share. Thanks for stimulating conversation on this topic!

  8. Britt Reints says:

    Regarding #4 – I think a presentation can center around the speaker’s story, but should always be brought back to the audience. I only bring this up because I see a lot of people lately who back away from telling their story because they don’t value it, they think they have to have tons of research or interviews or something – but it’s our personal stories that are most likely to resonate.

  9. Dan Waldschmidt says:

    You, Michelle, are like the most amazing person I know. I read this article in my car and had to pull over so I could full “fist pump” without pushing the semi next to me off the road.

    HUZZAH for your bad-assery. I don’t often leave comments, but I love what you do. Can’t wait to work with you again. 🙂


  10. Nathasha says:

    This made me laugh. I really dislike fake stardom. I don’t give anyone a standing ovation. (for the record, I use a manual wheelchair! Haha! Seriously, I do.)
    Your article is similar to the rant I wrote about on my blog about being a social media expert.

    Thanks for the laugh.

  11. byron reaney says:

    My favorite speakers are Jack Canfield, Brendan Burchard, Louise Hay, Marianne Williamson and me. (Because I have to love myself in order to speak my message to others)

  12. Louei Ali, MBA says:

    Michelle, you have such a unique writing style that I am getting hooked. Thank you for that.

  13. 5 Lessons from 5 Years of Being a Communication Rebel says:

    […] Six months into my flailing blogging career, I attended an event. I witnessed a speaker who inspired an epic rant called, How Not to Be a Motivational Speaker. […]

  14. Is Telling Your Story Hurting Your Speaking Cred? | Communications Rebel says:

    […] and this speaker was just horribly manipulative to the audience. I wrote this epic blog post on how not to be a motivational speaker, like sitting in the room. It was the type of post that scares […]

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