17 Things I’ve Learned After 18 Years of Motivational Speaking

If you are a leader or a manager (or both), these insights will help you move people in a healthier, more productive direction. If you are building your public speaking tool kit, these points will help you, too.

After over 11,000 hours of practice, training and execution, this is what I’ve learned from my career in motivational speaking.

Motivation isn’t bad

I initially resisted this field of work, because of motivational speaking’s reputation. We see people come back from a motivational event with an uncanny glint in their eyes, and that scares us. Motivated people who lack skill make us cringe. Plus, it feels good to feel bad! We often don’t want to be manipulated into feeling good. Moreover, there are charlatans in the field who don’t walk their talk, and to a lesser extent, the people that deliver motivational speeches aren’t perfect either. (Yes, the finger is pointing at both you and me)

Despite these downfalls, the right motivation, delivered by the right person at the right time can lift the heart, inspire our spirit and drive us to be a little better today than we were yesterday. 

Ums and ahs matter much less than you might think

Um, ah, like, you know, right? Ok? Are all crutch words we use to hold attention and prevent interruptions in conversations that involve only a few people. On stage, you have the space to pause, and no one will interrupt you. As you speak more in front of people, you will become more comfortable with holding space and thinking while people watch you.

What’s worse than crutch words? A stiff, over-rehearsed message or a delivery that is read word by word. Be authentic. Be real. Be ok with being an imperfect person who is trying to be their best, grounded self. Read the next point, and speak from the heart.

Speak with love

Hidden deep within each of our insecurities is a need to belong. A motivational speech delivered with the right heart-set will allow the people in the room to feel like they belong. Focus on your heart energy before and during your speech. Train your ideal heart state with meditation. The people in the room are supposed to be here with you, and you care for them.

You are here to support and nurture, not to dominate and belittle.

Meet people where they are at

My tone and energy are different when I speak to a room full of engineers, versus when I speak with a room full of sales professionals. Low key people respond best to low key motivation. High energy people love high energy motivation. Motivational speaking is like a game of energy volleyball where you want to keep the rally alive as long as possible. Hit the ball too hard or too soft, and the energy evaporates instantly. 

Make sure you’re in tune with the energy of the people in the room. Begin at their level, and raise the positive energy with subtle power.

Enjoy the haters

Some of your audience will be naturally very critical. Being critical can drive success, but it also inspires our ego to make us feel better than we actually are. Regardless, finding mistakes in others makes us feel good. Motivation is naturally optimistic, which also elevates mood– but in a different, much more sustainable way. The art form of motivational speaking is designed to challenge negative instincts. 

Know that your motivational work is a spiritual battle against the darker forces in the room. May your little light shine and the dark side be put to bed!

You’re fighting an instinct of hierarchy

When you are peacocking on stage, some people will feel threatened by your success and be envious of the attention you are receiving. They will subconsciously belittle you and consciously pick you apart to make themselves feel better. Their animal brain is teaming up with their ego to be the silverback gorilla of the pack.

Come in with an attitude of servant leadership to lower guards and be much more effective. Be the pack mule on stage, not the peacock.

Make suggestions, not commands

A past mentor of mine, Peter Jensen, says there are three factors to success: Nature, Nurture, and Self-Improvement. You cannot force someone to improve themselves — ask any frustrated manager. You have to guide and encourage them.

Wartime generals can rely upon a solid command structure to deliver outstanding results. Yet, you are speaking to free, adult citizens. Is this an idea that is useful for you today?

Integrity 

How do you behave when no one is looking? You must walk the talk and own your state of being or people will instinctively sniff out your inauthenticity. It’s ok to feel unmotivated sometimes. Motivation comes in waves and takes work to maintain. Make sure you know what it takes to motivate yourself so that your tank is full before you speak. 

Be the person you are driving the audience to be. Easy to say. Hard to do.

Your audience wants you to succeed

People love being motivated. People love being led. They resist when you deliver a message with the wrong techniques, their values misalign with yours, or they’re suspicious of ulterior motives.

Trust that if your intentions are noble, people will do their best to support you – even as you learn and grow your motivational leadership toolkit. They want you to succeed so that they can too!

Motivate one person and you’ve motivated the room

When I first started speaking, I was terrified to look at individuals in the audience. The human connection pulsed uncontrolled energy through my veins. I would get scared when my eyes locked with an audience member and quickly look away. As in physical training where you learn to make peace with the discomfort and even enjoy it, with practice, eye contact with an audience member can become a very powerful, pleasing tool.

When you connect with one audience member, everyone else is watching. Their brains mirror the person you are speaking to, and everyone feels like you are speaking to them. That’s impactful. 

Listen to and act upon your instincts 

When your gut says skip ahead, even though you’ve planned to say more? Do it. When someone is giving you a funny look? Stop and ask the audience member what they’re thinking.

Your instincts exist to give you clues to the social dynamics in the room because your brain is too busy delivering a speech. Learn to hear your gut and use that info to pivot.

Be more interactive

I am amazed that people will instantly do what I tell them to do when I’m on stage. “Repeat after me”. “Tell the person sitting next to you what you had for breakfast.” “Pick up your pen and write this down”

Active participation creates more engagement, more learning and more positive experiences.

Walk around

I cut my teeth motivating teenagers. Teens are the hardest audience because they instantly let you know how unengaged they are with your speech. After showing up with a humble attitude, getting myself physically into the audience was the best tool I found to build rapport quickly. This works really well with adults, too.

Get off the stage. Be with the audience, in the audience. Watch the barriers drop as the motivation goes up.

Take activity breaks

Your brain shuts down when you sit for too long in a passive state. Plus, sitting is the new smoking. People appreciate the opportunity to move when they have been sitting too long — especially in a conference setting.

Learn the skill of stopping your speech when you see people fading out. Get them to stand up, stretch and sit down. They will instantly be re-engaged

Use the word “you” when telling personal stories

“You’re sitting on the start line of an Olympic final.” “You’re bobbing underwater in the Bermuda Triangle looking for air.” No, you’re not. But your mind just went there.

Switching out the pronoun “I” for “You” is a very powerful storytelling technique. It engages more emotions and is very motivational. 

Have fun with cell phones

They’re going to ring and buzz and distract, whether you like it or not. Interruptions happen. Learn to be playful. “Is that for me? They wish they were listening to this speech too?” “Thank goodness we’re talking about failure today. And now you’ll have the tools to learn from failure to put your phone on silent next time.”

The great improv teacher Dave Morris taught me the power of “Yes, and…”. Use this technique liberally when the unexpected shows up.

Know that public speaking is a skill that can take years, even decades, to develop

Be patient. Stay motivated! Keep practicing. Learn from your failures and grow. Eventually, you’ll be in a place where you own your words, own the stage and own your presence. That’s motivational to others. 

Think of the greatest motivator you know. They didn’t become great by chance. It took them years of skill and practice to get to that point.

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Adam Kreek is on a mission to positively impact organizational cultures and leaders who make things happen.

Kreek is an Executive Business Coach who lives in the Pacific Northwest. He is an Olympic Gold Medalist, a storied adventurer and a father.

He authored the bestselling business book, The Responsibility Ethic: 12 Strategies Exceptional People Use to Do the Work and Make Success Happen. 

Learn more about Kreek’s coaching here.

Learn more about Kreek’s live event service here.