How Motivational Speakers Work

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 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
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."

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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