How Motivational Speakers Work

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].