Motivational speakers have something of a bad name in some circles, but the truth is that every speaking event has at least a little motivation in it, or it doesn’t happen at all.  The purpose of speaking, after all, is to change the world, and that requires persuasion.  And we can’t persuade an audience of something unless we motivate them to change at least in some way, even if it’s only to think differently for an hour or so.

How to motivate people best, when you only have a short time to bend their ears, then, is a problem that should be the particular worry of speakers of all kinds.

Too often speakers spend most of their prep time thinking about themselves and their content, rather than the audience.  This failure of imagination can and does lead to insufficiently motivating speeches – speeches that come and go, forgettable and forgotten as soon as the audience leaves the hall.  They might as well not have even happened.

And when you think of the opportunity cost of getting a crowd together – especially an expensive crowd of executives, say – then the lack of motivation in too many speeches today can be see for what it is:  an expensive time sink.

In fact, if you talk to conference-goers as I do on a regular basis, asking them what they like and dislike about these events, they’ll often tell you that they’re thrilled if they “come away with one new idea.”  Now, I applaud their realism, but the implications of these diminished expectations should be clear by now:  far too many people go into speeches knowing that they won’t remember much of what they hear, let alone be motivated by the experience to try, think, or become something new.

A recent study shed some light on this doleful state of affairs, pointing a way forward to figuring out how we can make speeches more persuasive, more motivational, and thus more likely to effect the change they are designed to accomplish.

It turns out that we lazy humans need two kinds of motivation to get us up off our chairs, sofas, and existential Lazy-Boys around the world and get moving.

First we need a clear, exciting, worthwhile goal.  That’s what catches our attention to begin with – something that the speaker holds out for our future, alluring and indeed irresistible.

If you want to lose weight, for example, an important part of getting started is to picture yourself sufficiently svelte, in those desirable latest fashions you’re eager to try.

That’s not particularly surprising – of course we want to know what we’re going to get out of that effort we’re now thinking about expending.  Is it going to be worth it?  That’s the question, and an alluring prospect helps answer it.

But then it gets interesting.  It turns out that the goal is not enough.  As you start to make progress toward your goal, you’re going to waver, because you’re human, and then you need something else to keep you on track.  You need to start thinking about the negative consequences of failure and inoculate yourself against them.  You need to become responsible and strong in your resolve, in other words, by focusing on what you could lose if you give up.

It’s this two-part understanding of motivation that can separate the successful speakers from the not-so-much.  Give your audience both an exciting goal and a scary list of negative consequences of failure.  Our human tendency is to focus on the positive in these situations, and it turns out that we need both the carrot and the stick to stay on track, like the donkey of proverbial note.

No matter what kind of speaker you consider yourself to be, you can strengthen the sticking power of your presentation by understanding the nature of motivation and using it to help your audience stay on target.


  1. Hi, Nick!
    There are some conferences I have attended and leaders and business owners offer really great products but fail to demonstrate it when they fall flat during their pitch.
    It makes me sad how they don’t realize the importance of mastering the art of public speaking for business progression.
    Glad I found this site 🙂

  2. An great and detailed article on focussing on your audience and the importance of goal setting. It is true that many of us stray from our goals and it is sometimes difficult to stay on track. Getting this across to your audience is imperative and how this is delivered is even more important. Thanks for an informative article!

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