The problem with ‘motivational speakers’

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —June 20, 2011
Filed in Communication, Employee Engagement

So called ‘motivational speakers’ don’t motivate people to change behaviour.

Throughout my career I have been involved in organising, planning and developing a huge number of away days, events, conferences and the like. When you start working on ideas for the agenda, more often than not someone will suggest getting a ‘motivational speaker’ along. This suggestion is normally met with everyone getting very excited, throwing in ideas of who they could get and checking budget to see if it is possible. Everyone that is, except me.

Why am I so resistant to this idea? What it is about the whole concept of ‘motivational speakers’, whoever they may be, that I just don’t seem to get or be enthused by?

Simply put I don’t think they do what they say – motivate, and especially motivate people to change.

I have personally seen some fantastic speakers at different events over the years, and heard about many more. People who have achieved amazing feats. People like David Hurst, who was the first blind person to climb Mount Blanc, or Li Cunxin, the sixth of seven sons born to peasants in rural China who became one of the world’s greatest dancers.  I still remember to this day the stories told by Ben Hunt-Davis about how to ‘make the boat go faster’ as they were preparing for the Men’s Rowing Eights at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, which he subsequently won the gold medal in.

Let’s look at Ben Hunt-Davis’ presentation in some more detail.

Ben did a fantastic hour long presentation, where he told story after story about how he and his team mates changed from finishing, at best, fourth in European and Olympic events to finally becoming the first British winners of the Men’s Rowing Eights since 1912. He told the whole ‘big narrative’ of the journey to winning the gold medal, as well as telling stories of specific moments along the journey.

The stories were memorable – I can still remember a very specific Barry Manilow song one of his team mates sang when they were preparing for the Olympic final even today. They were entertaining, amusing and told beautifully with all the elements we discuss in our Storytelling for Business Leaders courses about the elements of a great story. People even a year afterwards could still recall some of the stories in a huge amount of detail.

However all of this did not equal motivation to create real change for the audience hearing.  It did not mean that three days after the event, when people were back in the office, that it had any impact on their behaviour one little bit.

On the website advertising his speaking services, it states that Ben; “can use his story to greatest effect explaining not only how he achieved his goals but how other can achieve theirs.”  A bold claim, and one that just doesn’t stack up.

I am no way criticising Ben here, you can take your pick of speakers and websites that claim to create motivation by coming to speak at your next event. But what I am challenging is this belief that you will actually get any change in behaviour from having one of these speakers along. There are a number of reasons why I think this is the case.

For a start there is too much of a gap between the sender and the listener. Winning Olympic gold, being a world class dancer, or climbing Mount Blanc while blind are just too far from the understanding and realities of most of the people they will share their stories with. It is too easy for the audience to sit back and say; “that’s great, fantastic, but I’m not like them, and they don’t know what its like for me“. In some ways it almost does the opposite because it doesn’t build a key element of personal behaviour change – self efficacy.

Self efficacy is a term coined by renowned psychologist Albert Bandura and relates to a person’s belief in their own competence and ability to undertake a task. Hearing one of these speakers does not build self-efficacy and belief that you can achieve something more – it may in fact do the opposite.

Also, although these speakers may create a short burst of inspiration that do not give people a specific set of behaviours to focus on to create change. They can not be role models for the achievement of change in the specific environments they go to speak in, as they are not part of the team / area / organisation.

If people do feel inspired after hearing these people, this inspiration to change, doesn’t seem to withstand the twin ‘attacks’ on voicemails and a full inbox back at work.

So, if you want to be entertained, hear some great, very well polished stories and potentially be inspired, by all means hire one of these speakers. However, if you really want to create change in your organisations please think twice about doing that, and instead focus on say, amplifying the great work someone in your organisation is already doing. Cheaper and a lot more effective in creating real, long term, sustainable change.


About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:


  1. Isn’t the problem you outline simple a case of using the wrong rhetorical mode? Since before Cicero we’ve know that you can talk about three things: the past, the present or the future. Talking about the past is to summarise lessons learnt, the present is for entertainment, and the future is intended to change peoples’ behaviour.
    Most motivational speakers – as you point – are talking about the past. They’re entertaining and you’ll learn some interesting lessons, but they’ won’t change your behaviour. There’s no imperative to do anything different after you leave the room. We should really call them “inspirational speakers”.
    If you want to drive new behaviour then you need to talk about the future – the future for each individual in the audience and what it means for them – and provide both the justification and the call to action which will drive them to act differently once they leave the room.
    It’s not really a question of finding someone from inside or outside the organisation. The real trick is to find someone who can paint a picture of the future the audience wants, and who can build a platform for change.

  2. Kevinsbishop says:

    Thanks for your comments Peter.
    I agree that a more accurate term would be “inspirational speakers”, but it is not what they call, or sell themselves as. They make it very clear the see their role to motivate your staff.
    No matter if the person is internal or external, whether they are discussing the past, present or future, workshops, away days or events are merely one step in a longer change journey.
    The “easy” way out is getting someone else to come in and try and change and motivate your people. The proper way is to realise its your job, and these type of sessions are just one small step in motivating your people to create change.

  3. Shawn,
    Couldn’t agree more with your conclusion. Motivational speeches work for an afternoon and indeed may linger, but by the end of the day it’s entertainment, an incentive. I think one can stick to ‘motivational’ for the short term effect. A wise coach told me once that the reason for motivating people is fear and that the motive behind inspiring people is love. So, if a company hires a ‘motivational’ speaker… what do they really want to achieve?

  4. Even though motivational storytelling may not create a ‘leapfrog change’ in your staff’s motivational level, but the problem lies in expecting this ‘leapfrog change’. As a training manager I clearly have the limitation in front of us i.e. we cannot weigh ‘motivational talks’ in the same scale as ‘Excel 2010’ or any hard skill. Same goes for soft skill training sessions like ‘Leadership’ or ‘Teamwork’ as well; when was the last time you felt like Steve Jobs after attending a Presentation Skills workshop?
    However, many a time when the speaker is from your own practice area (and not Olympics or Sports) is does have lasting impact of participants.

  5. Lois Kelly says:

    Great post. I’m finding that what motivates people the most at conferences is being guided through sessions where they’re able to talk with people about unusual and relevant questions.
    Having time to have interesting conversations is a luxury and helps people create connections, see new possibilities, and play around with how those possibilities might work in their work. It doesn’t sound glamorous to conference organizers, but people love the salon experience.

  6. Kevinsbishop says:

    Lois couldn’t agree more!
    I have found it takes real courage to be the person who is pushing these kind of ideas – just giving people time and space to have great conversations.
    A lot of the time at work our interactions are merely ‘transactional’, so having a semi-structured way to get people talking and sharing their stories is a fantastic way to build momentum and lasting motivation to change.
    Thanks for taking the time to post your comment.

  7. Hi Kevin, I certainly agree with the underlying points being made.
    Stories are a great way to influence people, but without a process to embed change, creating a real shift, it s no surprise that few people will really be motivated.
    The real difficulty with these motivational stories/speakers – I can still the remember the naked rower – is that unless there is a connection with the listener, it is not going to change my behaviour, unless of course I wan’t to also row a little boat across an ocean.

  8. jenny says:

    Your blog looks very impressive. A motivational speaker has talent to inspire and motivate an audience to succeed. He motivates others through speaking. I also heard an International Motivational Speaker Kevin Kelly’s speech. He is highly skilled at motivating others through public speaking.

  9. @kevinsbishop
    Yep, the biggest barrier to change in any organisation is the operationally focused and risk advise culture that most management breeds. Even if someone finds the take stirring and changes their behaviour, they’ll just be slapped down in the following weeks as the company’s social norms reassert themselves. If you don’t change the culture (in itself a huge task) then all else is folly.
    Wasn’t there a paper call something like “On the Folly of Rewarding A, While Hoping for B.”?

  10. Teresa says:

    Interesting discussion…my take on this is around the nuts and bolts of integrating any of the learning that comes from motivational talks. It’s true that people can feel a strong, if not, profound emotional connection to how a speaker relates their story, yet, to really create any longer term sustainability, the recipient of the story likely has to set an intention or objective around how he or she will use what they have heard and set about consciously bringing it into their way of being. To me, this is where “strategy” comes into play. If you bring in a big name to motivate, influence or whatever, what are you hoping to accomplish, what’s the outcome you want to see and how will you know when you achieve it? If you want to create a feel good situation, go for it, if you want to create long-lasting change…align the process to the goal and commit the resources to it, and while you’re at it…let the people share their stories so that the greater community can benefit and shift in the culture can occur from the inside out.
    PS: Great website. Great team approach.

  11. OK – so I get paid to speak but like you hate the motivational speaker phenemenon. My subject is social entrepreneurship and right now, help audiences make sense of ‘Big Society’ and what it means for them.
    For me it works best when my audience are interested or concerned about my subject and want to know more. I use storytelling, but not about my own exploits but about things I’ve seen and people I’ve met.
    I think they key to good speaking is to describe things your audience can do – rather than things you’ve done that they clearly never will do. Bringing out people from within the audience group who have done great things too, can work really well – particularly if handled as an interview.
    It’s not about making the impossible look even more impossible, but about making the seemingly impossible become just possible!

  12. Andy Edwards says:

    Good stuff. Great reasons not to use the ‘Celebs’. No behaviour change… Unless the speaker’s main thrust is all about how the ‘ordinary’ person can assess their current behaviour and (using a clearly defined and simple tool)try different behaviours in full consciousness – some of which actually address that darned in-box :-).
    Guess what I do for a living 🙂

  13. Ade Oduyemi says:

    I couldn’t agree with Andy more. The final paragraph of the article says it all – changing behaviour is not something that could be achieved in one afternoon with an ‘after dinner speaker’, it’s something of a long slog, perhaps HR directors could earn their keep.

  14. Chris Howard says:

    I’ve always thought that they are a great rationale, allowing management, and the like to continue to ignore real problems in the work place. It’s a bit like The Secret. The successful deserve it, via wishful/magical thinking, as do the unsuccessful. They, generally, ignore the fact that much in life is outside our control, and that which is within our control isn’t a guarantee of success.
    Most of the industrial psychology data I’ve seen indicates that workers who are “non-plussed” with their jobs, not necessarily “happy” or ascribing to “happyism” (yet another complex, misunderstood concept that may actually create billions in losses by creating an uncritical “positive/yes” culture), are actually more productive than their “happy,” (whatever that means) counterparts.

  15. Ed says:

    I don’t think they make much difference to anyone. Human psychology is so complex that most of us are just going through the motions of living whilst trying to please nearest and dearest, pay bills, not get too depressed by the aspirationalism constantly thrust upon us, find some purpose, deal with the great injustices of life. These kind of motivational talks are entertainment – as is most of the self-help industry. A mere distraction. I’ve worked for largish companies and I’ve never seen any sort of management psychology strategy ever work. If your boss is relatively understanding and the company treats you relatively fairly the rest is pretty much down to zen thinking on the part of the individual. The success or failure of a company is tied into a myriad of factors – motivation being only small part of that.

  16. Erika says:

    I think many of you sound very pesimistic and are ignorant of what the purpose or goal of a motivational speaker is. To put it succinctly, the goal of a motivational speaker is to provide you with a motive to do or maintain a state of being. Every year, thousands of people are motivated to lose weight as a new year resolution, but how many actually keep this motivation? Some of you even said, that you are intitially “excited” but then as the time continues, it dies down. Just as there is a difference between the people who are motivated enough to actually lose the weight and those who do not, there is a difference between one keeping the provided motivation and those who do not. What a person does with the motivation provided in the long run is up to them and can not be blamed on the Motivational Speaker. The speaker has done their job; not the listener must do their job.

  17. Raymond says:

    According to Dr.Jim Taylor, Inspiration is necessary but not sufficient contributor to positive change. Also motivation and direction aren’t even sufficient if you lack the knowledge, skills, or support necessary to catalyze action towards your goals.
    Motivation that comes from other people is manufactured from the outside. This “synthetic” motivation simply can’t last long because when the source of the motivation (i.e. the talk, film, or book) is gone, its shelf life is very short. Motivation that comes from talks, movies, or books is designed to provoke maximum motivation (that’s what sells), but provide minimal follow-through.
    True and lasting motivation can’t, unfortunately, come from outside. It must arise from a very deep place within us. This life-changing motivation verily forces its way out of us, demanding that we take action. That is the motivation that propels people to monumental acts of courage, willpower, perseverance, and, ultimately, change.
    Not some speaker that sells lies which led to inevitable confront with reality that destroy dreams.

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