Talking Out Loud

by Brittany K. King 2 years ago in advice

The Problems with Motivational Speaking

Talking Out Loud
Still from 'Tony Robbins: I Am Not Your Guru' [Source: Netflix]

Perhaps you’ve been obligated to sit through a company picnic that ended in a happy-go-lucky speaker bouncing around a stage yelling corporate bullshit, or maybe you’ve happened to stumble across an inspiring TED Talk online and got roped in. For a moment, you may have felt great about yourself and for a moment, you may have felt that this person held the secrets to every solution to your problems.

I listened to an episode of the podcast Stuff You Should Know (SYSK) and decided to dig around about some more simmering questions I had on the topic. After some research, I found the world of a public speaker is not quite as benevolent as one may think.

The industry, as it seems, is highly acquisitive.

The Craft

What exactly is a motivational speaker? Well, if I were to define it myself, I’d simply say, “a person who talks at you with motivational words.” The reason these people want to share a story or strategy is because they believe it is life-changing information for the masses; it worked for them, and it will work for you, too.

In my own opinion, and from what I found, there are two kinds of motivational speakers. The first are people who offer advice about an industry-specific issue, often involving money. The second are people who believe they have a unique story to tell, usually having to do with overcoming an obstacle or defying the odds in some way.

It seems that the key to motivational speaking breaks down to two general ideas: conflict resolution and empathy. A motivational speaker will begin with detailing an issue, they will relate it to your life, then explain how that issue was resolved. It’s a fairly basic three-step process:

  1. Pose a problem.
  2. Empathize.
  3. Present a solution.

This, however, is not just story boarding; no problem is ever this black-and-white. I couldn’t help but notice it eerily correlates to a map that marketers call the buyer’s journey. So in a strange way, motivational speakers approach their audience in the same way brands sell, say, fidget spinners:

  1. Anxiety affects many people.
  2. Including me! I’m also anxious.
  3. But I feel less anxious with a fidget spinner.

It’s a simple formula that involves roping people in and selling them a product, and it makes the consumer feel as if the process was tailored just for them. Except with motivational speaking, you buy time and the product is the speaker herself.

But who are these people? That’s where it gets tricky. A lot of them have legitimately made a name for themselves and are surely successful. However, a singular personal experience does not always make one an expert on that specific topic or industry. And it’s dangerous to blindly accept that any upbeat person with a nice story to tell can change your life. It’s dangerous to carelessly consider them an expert.

The Stars

Half the battle of becoming a motivational speaker is making sure the chosen stage persona is simultaneously relatable and extraordinary. The audience should feel that perhaps at one time, the speaker was once just like them, but now they’re larger-than-life. A speaker must be someone an audience wants to see on a stage and lecture, so a compelling story or solution is really only one slice of the whole pie. With enough charisma and charm, a speaker can take the stage and say just about anything.

Zig Ziglar (awesome name, by the way) is notable for the company he built around his motivational speeches, before passing in 2012. Ziglar published over ten books in his lifetime, including his bestseller See You at the Top. His company, now run by his son, prides itself on its personal development training and sales coaching and states that Tom Ziglar “[continues] to deliver his father’s inspirational message to high-achievers around the world.” There’s no other way to put it: Ziglar was a celebrity among motivational speakers.

Zig Ziglar on stage speaking [Source: The New York Times]

Suze Orman is another great example of a relatable, yet wildly successful figure. Orman rose to fame for her financial success, despite the fact that she suffered an expensive financial failure early on in her career. Nowadays, Orman speaks to audiences about handling their own personal finances.

It’s an interesting pull these speakers have on their fans. Do audiences gather for the Ziglars because they’re “Ziglar certified” in making people’s lives better? Do people flock to Suze Orman in hopes of becoming super rich, super fast? In truth, none of these seminars or how-to sessions guarantee anything, yet the crowds continue to gather.

On the other hand, there are the speakers who, as ordinary people, have bounced back from tragedies or have succeeded, despite others thinking they may fail. These speakers are less focused on “this is how I’ll make you money” and more focused on “this is how I’ll inspire you to be like me.”

I think the best example of this is Nick Vujicic. Vujicic has tetra-amelia syndrome, a congenital disorder characterized by the lack of both arms and legs. Clearly Vujicic is someone who has succeeded despite the obvious hardship of his disorder and his story is one of success and inspiration for both disabled and able-bodied people. Vujicic, it seems, is more focused on destroying stereotypes than he is on selling his “product”.

Motivational speaking goes beyond spoken-word seminar format we’re accustomed to; in fact, the same tactics are used in book publishing. Many of the speakers I mentioned are also published authors of multiple books that are meant for inspiration and success. These books take the same approach of empathy and conflict resolution, but in print.

CNN anchor Nicole Lapin published a book titled Boss Bitch: A Simple 12-Step Plan to Take Charge of Your Career. Lapin has authored a few books, including a similar one titled Rich Bitch: A Simple 12-Step Plan for Getting Your Financial Life Together… Finally.

And if you’re not familiar with Lapin, then simply think of the extremely popular Chicken Soup for the Soul series, collections of applicable stories from normal, everyday people. They’re popular, they’re inspiring, and most importantly: they sell.

The Payday

For motivational speakers, the practice becomes more than just a hobby and usually goes beyond good intention. What may start as pure good will quickly turn into a straight-up business scheme once that first paycheck is cashed.

Tony Robbins (the Godfather of motivational speaking) reportedly costs about $100,000 per booking.

Laura Bush apparently costs about $70,000 for an event. (What does she talk about? Being the First Lady? Traffic safety?).

Don Peppers’ speaking engagement cost begins at $30,000—and do YOU know who Don Peppers is? I don’t.

Hell, even signing up for Ziglar On Demand will cost you $10 a month.

Non-celebrities (AKA people who aren’t Tony Robbins) can cost anywhere from $1,500 to $30,000, which is still comes out to being a pretty good gig if you steadily book events. And remember: your client is most likely paying for your travel and hotel while you visit.

Nick Vujicic in Ehringshausen, Germany [Source: Wikimedia]

The Problems

The main issue of a motivational speech, or quote, or book is that they have an incredibly short shelf-life. You may feel the excitement in the moment and perhaps for a short while afterward, but it’s purely adrenaline.

Let’s go back to Nicole Lapin’s aforementioned book. The Amazon book information is one of most interesting descriptions I’ve seen in the self-help genre:

You don’t need dozens or hundreds of employees to be a boss, says financial expert and serial entrepreneur Nicole Lapin. Hell, you don’t even need one. You just need to be confident, savvy, and ready to get out there and make your success happen. You need to find your inner Boss Bitch — your most confident, savvy, ambitious self—and own it.

So what is this saying? The answer is, it’s not saying anything groundbreaking. Lapin insists you need to be “confident and savvy” and then go “out there” and “make your success happen.”

Now sit back and think to yourself: Did any of this need to be said? It’s a runaround that people pay $20 and their time reading a book that—in the most generic sense—explains that "confidence is key." We all know that idiom and nothing Lapin says is revolutionary, it just happens to be über positive and makes us feel good inside.

The Politics

When talking about motivational speaking, it’s difficult not to address public speaking as a whole. Public speaking is structured to inform, persuade, or entertain; this can come in the form of a doctor presenting his research to colleagues, or a politician campaigning on a specific platform, or even a stand-up comedian performing a set. Public speaking may be informative, but it is not always accurate; and it’s important to know that there is a difference.

Gary Bates has been a public speaker since 1990, and is currently the CEO of the Creation Ministries in the US. Yes—you guessed it—Gary Bates is a creationist. According to the CM-US website, “[Bates is] a biblical creationist with a heart to communicate this life-changing information to the average "person in the street.”

Bates uses his platform for promoting his Creationist beliefs, and this is where the line between public and motivational speaking becomes fuzzy. If Bates is advertised as a religious speaker, does that also make him motivational? Is he not inspiring you to learn more about his religion?

In the end, Bates is promoting himself and his belief in Creationism—and he may even promote his book, Creation Restored, while he’s at it.

Let’s talk about Abby Johnson, former clinic director at Planned Parenthood. Johnson has been criticized for speaking about her previous role at Planned Parenthood but recalling her experiences in incorrect ways. Specifically, Johnson explains she resigned from her role after apparently witnessing an ultrasound-assisted abortion at 13 weeks. However, upon further investigation, it was found in Planned Parenthood’s records that there were no ultrasound abortions that day, and that the so-called patient had an abortion at six weeks, not 13, as Johnson claimed.

In cases like Johnson’s, it’s important to question the legitimacy of any speaker, political or not. Are there fact-checkers and editors? More than likely, no, there are not. If a public speaker is an expert, most do not bother with further research. This might be the biggest issue with motivational and public speakers alike—we trust them.

The Internet

What makes motivational speaking fascinating beyond the oral act is the way the Internet has popularized it. Motivational speaking is no longer reserved for your annual company luncheon, or the random exposition you decide to attend on a weekend. It’s everywhere: even in the form of brightly colored quotes on your Facebook or viral, bite-sized video clips.

The problem here is the content we’re consuming from these. A positive quote may not be dangerous, necessarily, but the misinformed and misguided information can truly be harmful. Take Ben Shapiro’s viral video titled “Destroying Transgenderism and Abortion” as a perfect example.

No, this technically is not a motivational speaking engagement. This video clip is from a Q&A Shapiro did at a university, but the basic elements still stand. Someone has a platform for their voice and they exploit it in hopes that the audience will “join them.” Shapiro is well-known in the conservative arena and, therefore, trusted. And if you attended this Q&A and liked what he had to say, then you could go out and buy one of his many books (of course).


In many ways, the difference between motivational and public speaking seem like splitting hairs and it’s proven hard to keep them completely separated while learning about the speaking’ industry. If we break these down their most basic forms it all points to one main idea: public/motivational speaking involves a person talking at you, spewing ideas, in hopes that you absorb them whole-heartedly for profit. In no way does one person’s ideas (whether motivated by sharing success, sharing beliefs, or sharing their journey) exactly match another’s, and in turn comes the danger of the trust put into these so-called experts.

SYSK stated that many of these speakers promote positivity-driven motto's, such as “your thoughts will manifest into your reality” or “if you think positively, good things will happen to you.” But let’s be honest: this is absolutely not true in the least. Yes, a positive mind will help encourage you to do positive things, but thoughts alone do not hold the power to physically change anything. This kind of mentality will only encourage you to continuously seek out those “positive vibes” in the form of self-help books and seminars. AKA money.

If a happy quote is the extra push you need in the morning, then read a happy quote. If correlating your own goals with someone else’s makes you feel less stressed about your journey, then listen.

But as SYSK noted, it’s important to enter any motivational scenario (seminar, webinar, book) with a rational mind, taking each bite of information with a grain of salt. Your principles and motivation comes from the inside, not the outside.

An adrenaline rush is great, but an adrenaline rush cannot fuel your whole life.

Brittany K. King
Brittany K. King
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Brittany K. King

Brittany K. King is a Chicago-based writer. She spends most of her time avoiding saying the word ‘gyro’ out loud.

See all posts by Brittany K. King