How Motivational Speakers Work

Tony Robbins is perhaps the most well-known motivational speaker in the world, and has worked with celebrities from Oprah Winfrey to Bill Clinton. Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

In December 2016, San Francisco Bay real estate broker Irene Weisman crossed the country for Date With Destiny, a six-day immersive seminar with Tony Robbins, self-help author, entrepreneur and perhaps one of the world's most well-known motivational speakers. It was the second Robbins event she's attended in her year of devoted fandom. The annual event is billed as a journey that allows attendees to "connect with your ultimate purpose and ignite your passion to achieve the ultimate vision of your life, career, finances, health and relationships" [source:]. Weisman paid $3,500 for her ticket, and general admission for Robbins' 2017 event are listed at $4,995.

"It was a crash course in life, human nature, relationships, spirituality, health, understanding why we sabotage and why we succeed, setting goals for the rest of the year, and understanding how to prime your mind and body each and every day to be able to choose happiness and achieve your goals," Weisman says.


She's in good company when it comes to being a Robbins devotee: Celebrities have sung the speaker's praises as well. Everyone from U.S. President Bill Clinton to tennis phenom Serena Williams have hailed his inspirational abilities, and former "Access Hollywood" host Billy Bush is now crediting Robbins with helping him recover from the public shame of the leaked 2005 tape with Donald Trump that has so far effectively ended his career [sources: Rose and Guthrie,].

But for those who haven't experienced the Robbins effect or subscribed to the speeches of others in his industry, the concept of a motivational speaker may sound completely foreign, even fabricated. Is it for real?


What Is a Motivational Speaker?

Elite athlete Matt Long began giving speeches after he survived being hit by a 20-ton bus while cycling to work.

For anyone old enough to remember comedian Chris Farley's glory days, the phrase "motivational speaker" can only conjure up memories of one man: Matt Foley. Dressed in a checkered jacket, green tie and khaki pants belted in the least effective way possible, Foley was Farley's epic "Saturday Night Live" alter ego who aimed to inspire others with some, well, unconventional techniques (and topped Rolling Stone's best of SNL list).

"My name is Matt Foley, and I am a motivational speaker," he tells two teenagers played by a barely-stifling-a-giggle David Spade and Christina Applegate. "Now, let's get started by me giving you a little bit of a scenario of what my life is all about. First off, I am 35 years old, I am divorced and I live in a van down by the river!" Foley goes on to tell his rapt audience that they'll "amount to jack squat!" before picking up Spade and threatening to "wrassle" him into friendship. This is before he falls on top of the coffee table and crushes it.


While memorable, Farley's fictional character (shockingly) isn't quite the epitome of the ideal motivational speaker. While it's difficult to pin down a strict definition of the role, motivational or inspirational speakers are generally people who speak to crowds with the purpose of motivating or incentivizing them to achieve certain life goals [source:]. While some motivational speakers are celebrities or religious figures, others are ordinary people who have lived through extraordinary circumstances and/or overcome challenges.

Matt Long, an elite athlete from New York City, for instance, began his career as a motivational speaker after enduring a life-changing event: A 20-ton (18-metric ton) bus struck him while he was cycling to work, which led to him spending five months in the hospital and enduring more than 40 operations. After an intense three-year recovery, he managed to run the 2008 New York City Marathon.

"After a near fatal accident, I was asked to tell my story to a group of college students and families," he says. "After doing so, I realized the power of the connection I was able to make with this crowd and wanted it to continue. My goal is always to connect with at least one member of the audience. If I can deliver my message and convince just one that the hard work is worth it, I've done my job."

While there are no specific educational requirements to become a motivational speaker, possessing exceptional public speaking skills and a charismatic personality can certainly help raise a person's profile in the field. As Stacy Tetschner, the CEO of the National Speakers Association (NSA) told Inc. Magazine, there are people "who just have a story within them, and they go out there and start testing it... they go to a Kiwanis Club, and someone in the audience may come up and say, 'How much would you charge to come deliver that speech to this association or this group?' That's how it starts to catch fire."

"It certainly pays to own a pleasing, vivacious personality, however I believe any and all can learn to become professional public speakers," says Matthew LoCicero, a Thailand-based motivational speaker who focuses on issues like financial independence and business success. "I have personally witnessed shy, demure individuals develop to become dynamic speakers."

As the Los Angeles-based creator of coaching business GoKindly, Nanci Besser has long felt a pull toward public speaking. "I've always been a storyteller and enjoy interacting with an audience of any size," she says. "Being a speaker allows me to share my journey and to encourage others that it's up to them to change their life for the better. Ever since college, I've been the 'mediator' and 'cheerleader' amongst my group of friends. I went through several traumatic events, all before the age of 30, and my friends encouraged me to share my journey through these hardships with others since they observed me ultimately rising above each challenge rather than giving up."

In his 2012 article for Forbes titled "There's No Such Thing as a Motivational Speaker," self-described "communication theorist and coach and a speaker on storytelling, body language, persuasion and influence," Nick Morgan wrote, "Speaking is not a profession. It's an activity. It's a way to communicate your passion about a subject upon which you're expert." While he doesn't explicitly state that anyone can be a motivational speaker, it does beg the question can anyone be a motivational speaker?

"Well, if it were easy, everyone would be doing it, so no!" Long says. "You have to believe in your message. You must also believe in yourself, know that you belong on this stage. When I get on stage, I own it. No matter who is in the audience, I speak directly at to them, engaging them with questions so they need to think about what I am saying."

Besser's take is a little different, but she agrees that sincerity is a key component to success. "Anyone can be the hero of their life," she says. "I've met and observed many speakers. The ones that stand out are defined by their authentic intentions to encourage their audience to believe in possibilities rather than limitations."


What Is Motivation?

Psychologists generally define motivation as a type of internal state that activates and directs behavior toward a goal. In Pictures Ltd./Corbis via Getty Images

You might be intimately familiar with the concept of "motivation" (powering through a work week with the promise of a vacation pushing you forward, kicking butt in a workout thanks to visions of a rewarding burger at the finish line, etc.), but do you know the central role it plays in all your thoughts and behaviors? Psychologists generally define motivation as a type of internal state that activates and directs behavior toward a goal [source: Huitt]. That said, there's no single theory of motivation that all psychology experts subscribe to.

"Behaviorists and psychotherapists have been theorizing about this since at least as early as Freud and Pavlov and his famous dogs," says Alyssa Mass, a Los Angeles-based marriage and family therapist. "That question is at the core of the study of psychology and human behavior. Whichever theory — or combination of theories — a clinician subscribes to will be the foundation of their work with clients."


One specific psychological theory, however, that's often referenced in talks of motivation is Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Developed by Abraham Harold Maslow in 1943, the theory is based on the idea that people are motivated to achieve things based on their needs, and certain needs have to be met before other, less important ones, can be attended to [source: McLeod]. This hierarchy is visually depicted as a pyramid with basic needs for survival at the base. Maslow's belief is that without food, water, rest and warmth, higher order needs like safety, relationships and prestige can't be achieved.

"Maslow's hierarchy of needs is the most well-known motivational theory, but working backward, you could say that every style of psychotherapy — cognitive, gestalt, narrative, analysis — is rooted in the motivational theory of its founder," Mass says.

Maslow's theory, however, is one that's often incorporated into current motivational speaker philosophies. His broader philosophy called "self-actualization" refers to an individual's growth toward fulfilling their very highest needs in the hierarchy — often considered the quest for understanding life's meaning [source: Olson].

But each speaker has his or her own unique take and, well, motivation for inspiring others. In Besser's case, her academic background in various theories influenced the message she conveys in her work. "The focus of my graduate studies was conflict resolution and emotional intelligence (EQ)," Besser says. "Empathy is a key component of practicing EQ and for reframing conflicts. Being empathic with my audience allows me to tailor my presentation to their specific interests and needs."


Who Are the Top Motivational Speakers?

Motivational speaker and author Lisa Nichols poses with the audience during the Pennsylvania Conference for Women 2016 in October 2016. Marla Aufmuth/Getty Images

While there are plenty of people who bill themselves as motivational speakers (643 of the National Speaker Association's registered members are listed under the "motivation" category), Tony Robbins is perhaps the most well-known motivational speaker in the industry. According to Forbes, he reaches more than 4 million people from 100 countries with his products, books, speeches and services, and his net worth is estimated at $480 million [source: Caprino].

One of Robbins' differentiators from others in the field is his signature firewalk. An ancient ritual practiced throughout the world by different cultures, the firewalk is part Robbins' program called Unleash the Power Within and is supposed to help participants find "the tools you need to dig up everything it requires inside of you to take your life to the next level — so that you can create the extraordinary quality of life that you deserve" [source:].


During the firewalk, participants are instructed to walk across hot coals at a normal pace with their gaze fixed forward and slightly up. According to the website, walkers are also encouraged to "focus on a word or phrase — 'YES' or 'cool moss.' When you replace a negative with a positive, you can get through anything" [source:].

San Francisco real estate broker Weisman completed the firewalk a few years ago and found the experience quite moving. "The firewalk was amazing," she says. "It's funny because [it] was intense, but there was no fear associated with it. As my turn approached, the volunteers added additional hot coals right out of the fire onto the walkway, so it should have been doubly scary, but it was very peaceful."

Weisman says the community aspect of the ritual made it particularly special. "Honestly, the most amazing part of that experience was that you had 10,500 people all waiting in a joyful and patient state for their turn to walk on the coals," she says. "It was 1:30 a.m. and we should have been exhausted, but it was the opposite. We were energized. It was an incredible lesson about the mind and overcoming limitations."

But aside from Robbins and his well-known tactics, there are other major players in the motivational field as well. "When I use the words 'motivational speaker,' I'm referring to the likes of Tony Robbins, Jack Canfield, Wayne Dyer, Esther Hicks, Earl Nightingale and Kevin Trudeau," Thailand-based motivational speaker LoCicero says. "These are men and women whom I've listened to for years — several of whom I know personally quite well."

You might know Canfield as the "Chicken Soup for the Soul"guy. According to his website, Canfield has sold more than 123 million books in that franchise over 30 years. He holds the Guinness World Record for having the most books on the New York Times Bestseller List at the same time — seven. And before his death in 2015 at the age of 75, Dyer was an Oprah-endorsed self-help figure who published the best-selling book "Your Erroneous Zones" in 1976. According to NBC News, his philosophy combined self-actualization theory and "nondenominational spirituality" [source: Johnson].

Another well-known legend in the field who passed away in 2012 is Zig Ziglar, who traveled more than 5 million miles during his 40-year speaking career. His 1975 book, "See You at the Top", sold more than 250,000 copies and is still in print [source: Eha]. And selling books can be a lucrative part of the deal. So lucrative some speakers charge miniscule amounts for tickets to their events just to get people in the door, only to pitch book sales — or even worse. A seminar called "Get Motivated" attracted huge crowds to see former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former first lady Laura Bush, sports broadcaster Terry Bradshaw and others speak for less than $5 a ticket. But what was sold as a motivation speaker's event was really a pitch to sell classes on investing for TD Ameritrade. Many attendees felt duped [source: Robinson].


Controversies Surrounding Motivational Speakers

In 2016, five people had to be taken to the hospital after sustaining burns at one of Tony Robbins signature firewalks in Dallas. Woon Hong Looi/EyeEm

Perhaps unsurprisingly to skeptics, Robbins and his famed firewalk have not escaped controversy. In 2016, five people were taken to the hospital and 30 to 40 more were evaluated after sustaining burn injuries at an event in Dallas [source: Izadi]. At the time, Robbins' spokesperson, Jennifer Connelly, told the Washington Post," only five of 7,000 participants requested any examination beyond what was readily available on site. We are pleased to have completed another successful fire walk for 7,000 guests and look forward to the remainder of an outstanding weekend with them."

Wayne Dyer also faced controversy during his 40-plus years in the spotlight. In 2006, PBS viewers began complaining that he was promoting a "specific religious worldview" on the public network that many felt violated editorial policies. In 2012, PBS spokesperson Michael Getler addressed the controversy by saying it was his sense that Dyer did in fact violate the policies, but the network's board disagreed.


In 2005, investigative journalist Steve Salerno coined the term "SHAM": Self-Help and Actualization Movement. His book, "Sham: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless," argued that the audience members and devotees of speakers and "gurus" invest money in products and enjoy a temporary feeling of inspiration, which eventually fades, prompting them to invest more money [source: Shermer]. Salerno explains that because there are no scientific studies to document the success of these SHAM techniques, there's no evidence that they're actually effective or whether consumers are just experiencing coincidental improvement (or no improvement at all).

Shawn Callahan, a leading business adviser says motivational speakers simply can't make people change. "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," he writes. "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."

Weisman, however, believes the proof is in each individual's personal experience. "The best way to tell if a speaker is a scam artist is to measure the results," she says. "Do you feel more positive, more fulfilled? Have you set goals and reached those goals? Is the community supporting, loving, giving, kind? Or, does a speaker prey on your insecurities and ask you to contribute money without results? If someone has to break you down to build you up in their image, then it's probably not the best motivational speaker. But it's important to pay attention to your intuition and your emotions. How does this person make you feel? If the answer is positive with good results, then you're on the right track."


Lots More Information

Author's Note: How Motivational Speakers Work

While there's no single method for motivating everyone and individuals are clearly motivated by varying methods and goals, it's hard to deny that plenty of people have found strength, solace and inspiration in the words of others. While I personally believe it's important to bring a critical ear to any speaker's words (particularly when they come at a high cost), if another person's story resonates with you and brings positivity into your life, it's hard to argue against the benefits of that connection.

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