How to become a motivational speaker

I get asked about this often. Most of the news here isn’t good.

There is a stigma around the phrase “motivational speaker”. The stereotype is a preacher or a snake oil salesman, all promises and slickness, delivering little substance. Or infomercials that promise if you just read this book, or follow this program, you’ll get everything you heart desires.

I did a simple poll yesterday and the results match my assumptions. Of course, readers of this blog might share my biases and a survey done to a wider audience might return different results (Also, we could compare the results here with the results for “public speaker”).

In practice, when I speak, I’m trying to motivate, but that’s true of all  teachers and speakers. I don’t know any demotivational speakers (although some bosses have this ability, intentionally or not). If you see a teacher or speaker on any subject, everyone knows his or her goal is to give you insights or inspiration to do something. All speakers of all kinds have the intent to motivate.

To motivate someone in the abstract, which is what a “motivational speaker” is asked to do, is odd. George Carlin also found it strange. To paraphrase him: “if you have the motivation to go to a seminar, why not use that motivation to go do the thing the seminar is telling you to do instead of sitting there listening?” No one can give you real motivation: you have to generate it yourself. The inspiration you feel because of someone else won’t last long after they leave: you need to cultivate your own motivation to achieve what you want in life. (Wait, do I sound like a motivational speaker now?). Whenever I’m asked to be motivational, I’m sure to address this paradox.

I’m a good and inspiring speaker, but I know the limitations. A great lecture can only do so much. Unfortunately, many “motivational speakers” make claims as if they don’t, promising much to many people with real problems, earning a negative and cheesy stigma (See I live in a van down by the river). Perhaps motivational speakers aren’t the problem, it’s the impossible promises some of them make.

Folks like Tony Robins, largely taking up the can-do attitude of Dale Carnegie, do often offer good advice and genuinely seems to care about helping people. But that’s not always the case. And somehow its people who are interested in being motivational speakers who don’t seem to be aware of the stigma around that moniker.

Overall, when people say “I want to do motivational speaking” they just mean “speaking”. They want to be hired to go places and talk about things.

Here is the advice I have:

1. There is a demand problem, not a supply problem. The world is filled with people who believe they have a good story to tell and can motivate others. This means the market is a demand market, not a supply market. Unless your particular story has great appeal, say perhaps because you won five gold medals at a recent Olympics , or you’ve been on a spate of talk shows lately, there is no demand for you. Your primary problem is to find audiences where there is some demand. This is likely in your profession, your neighborhood, or anywhere that you particular story makes you credible and interesting. You don’t instantly generate demand. You grow demand, starting with a niche where you are known and respected, and grow from there. This also means you won’t be paid for awhile. Pay comes with demand.

2. Demand is based on perception, not talent. Motivational speakers are typically hired because of their story, not because of their speaking or storytelling ability. This is counterintuitive, as it means people are hired not for the skill itself, but for people’s perception. It’s perhaps unfair, but we are not a rational species. More people will come to hear Lady-Ga-Ga give a talk about the life story of Scott Berkun, than will ever come to hear Scott Berkun talk about Scott Berkun.

3. There is a road but it’s slow and filled with work. There is no singular speaking circuit. The way to get asked to speak at places is to be seen speaking in other places and do a good job. Or get a video of yourself doing a good job, and make sure that organizers of other events get to see it. Many would-be speakers see books as the way to get credibility for speaking, which is both true and odd. If you write a good book that becomes popular, it can help you generate demand and credibility, but most people writing books for purposes other than writing books don’t write good books.

4. You will be hired for expertise first. The first speaking engagements you get will be in fields or about specific skills. If you were a sports star, you’ll find it easier to get asked to speak to high school athletes. If you’re a journalist, you’ll find it easier to speak to journalists or people studying journalism. Look for events about an expertise you have and start there. You’ll have more credibility with audiences that share, or at least respect, your specific background.

5. The good news: earning credibility for talented hard working people is easier than ever. And building an audience is easier than ever in history. Between a blog (free), a youtube account (free),  facebook and twitter feeds (free) and cell phone with a video camera (free-ish as you already have one), you can start right now showing your abilities and building interest in your ideas and talents. But there is no shortcut and there are many people in the race. It takes time to build a following, and to earn a reputation sufficiently good to have people come looking for you. Your best advantage is your community and network, who if properly motivated (ha ha) can help you spread word of your talents.

For more on the business of public speaking, read Why Speakers earn $30,000 an hour, a free excerpt from my bestseller, Confessions of a Public Speaker.

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