How Motivational Speakers Work

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."