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: