July 2, 2007

What Exactly is Motivational Speaking? Part One.

I’ve been giving speeches for 18 years now. After hundreds of speeches in front of all kinds of audiences large and small, I made a shift: I stopped focusing on content and started focusing on meaning.

Just last month, I delivered a keynote and a breakout session to a group of HR professionals on storytelling and presentation skills. I didn’t just teach them what to do and how to do it, however.  I talked about what it means to “Be Amazing” at the front of the room and in life. I spoke to their yearning to make a difference in the world and to be better people – to go beyond their desire to just give better speeches.

I challenged them to consider the meaning and significance of each speaking opportunity – the opportunity to inspire and lift people up.

After the applause had peaked, one of the organizers of the conference stepped onto the stage to thank me and give me a gift of appreciation. As he shook my hand, I could tell from his body language and demeanor that he was still feeling the effects of my talk. He looked into my eyes and connected with me as if the other 100 people weren’t even in the room. 

His handshake was firm and sincere as he said, “I want to thank you for your program today. I don’t think I’ve ever been so inspired and so uncomfortable at the same time. Thank you for making a difference in our lives today.”

I consider that one of the greatest compliments I’ve ever received.  When that gentleman said that he was uncomfortable, he was saying that I had moved him, that what I had said and done meant something to him at that moment in his life.  I had made him uncomfortable with his personal status quo. The way he said it though, with a deep sense of appreciation and respect, told me that I had done my job well. I had motivated him.  

The word “motivation” is derived from the Latin word “Motivus”, which means “to move.”  When we talk about being moved by something that we’ve experienced, we’re referring to a stirring of emotion. We were moved emotionally and perhaps at an even deeper level. On that particular day in that room, I moved people. I made them uncomfortable. They were moved because I was moved. They got emotional because I got emotional.

To motivate someone you must make them feel the power of your ideas and concepts emotionally. It’s not enough for them to think your ideas are provocative. Success takes place when they are moved to action.

Over the last few years, my work as a speaking and storytelling coach has informed my professional speaking and training engagements. By digging deep within myself for the meaning of the work I do, I have come to understand how to inspire others to dig deep for the meaning in their lives. 

Because of this personal transformation, I can no longer stand on a stage or at the front of the room and just teach skills. I have to call forth the desire in my students and audience members to use those skills to make a difference in the world.

I believe that most speakers have a desire to face the formidable challenge of standing in the front of a room and giving a speech because at a very core level, they want to help other people. It is a calling. A calling that comes from some deeper place than ego or the desire to get rich or the need to be appreciated. It comes from a desire to fulfill our soul’s purpose.

Performing at my highest level of excellence now includes challenging people to rise to their highest level of excellence. I’ve got to make them uncomfortable with being “average.” I want them to fulfill their soul’s purpose.

I’ve become a hybrid speaker, coach, teacher, wisdom-sharer and friend.

In that context, I believe the difference between true motivational speaking and ordinary (and often pedestrian) speaking is determined by the speaker’s ability to connect with their audience member’s deepest desire for meaning and purpose. It goes beyond the integration of intellectual and emotional stimulation. It is the ability of the speaker to make their ideas, principles and skills resonate in the very soul of the listener.

When Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech, he dug down into the depths of his soul for his words and then delivered them with incredible passion and fervor. It was one of the most incredible speaking performances of our lifetime.  He was speaking philosophically. He provided a vision of a more desirable future. He left the “how-to” to be determined by others. He knew the “how to” was not his job.  His job was to motivate.

Motivational speaking is as much art as it is science. At its best, it’s a powerful experience for both speaker and audience member. For the speaker, it’s a physical, emotional and spiritual workout. I know that when I am finished speaking, I feel both exhilarated and spent, like I’ve given it my all and held back nothing.  That’s because, in the moment of performance, I put my heart and soul into it.

When you speak, are you speaking from the depths of your soul? Are you sharing your deepest truth, based on the profound meaning you have discovered? Or are you only sharing what you’ve gleaned from reading books by others who have found meaning and purpose and have written about it?

Do you spend time in quiet contemplation seeking to understand the meaning behind the patterns of your life? Are you willing to look into the shadows of your past and illuminate them with meaning so you can help others understand their lives? Are you prepared to ask more questions than you have answers for?

If you are willing to go deep and explore the meaning of life, and to take the time to fuss and fight over the best way to communicate your revelations, you are on your way to becoming a true motivational speaker.

If you are brave enough to be vulnerable, to tell the unvarnished truth with emotional honesty, you may have what it takes to change someone’s life. After all, isn’t that what it’s all about?


Doug Stevenson, president of Story Theater International, is the creator of The Story Theater Method and the author of the book, Never Be Boring Again. His 10 CD – How to Write and Deliver a Dynamite Speech audio learning system, is a workshop in a box. It contains an 80-page follow along workbook.

Learn more at: Dynamite Speech Home Study Course

Doug can be reached at 1-800-573-6196    or    1-719-573-6195  
or at: Story Theater Website

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