Every year, companies spend millions of dollars hiring people whose job is to get up in front of people and motivate . Every day, millions of executives, salespeople, trainers and consultants step onto the podium with one goal in mind: to motivate or persuade people in their audiences to take what they are saying to heart and act on it. And every day, every year, millions more walk away from these encounters completely unmoved or unchanged in any way, grumbling about what a waste of time it was.
Some say the traditional motivational speech should be accepted for what it is - a short-lived jolt, an invigorating change of pace or even an entertainment reward for hard-working employees - and that problems arise only when people try to make it something it's not. Others believe that if companies intend to continue spending employees' valuable (and increasingly scarce) time on mass motivation, they are obliged to provide their people with something that has more staying power than a dose of uplifting-but-ephemeral rhetoric.
"Real motivation is much more than antics on a lecture platform, more than bellowing into a microphone," writes Saul Gellerman, a business management professor and internationally recognized motivation expert, in his book, Motivation in the Real World (Dutton Books, 1992). "Real motivation is the serious, never-ending task of creating conditions to which the natural response of ordinary people is to accomplish extraordinary things. Motivating people is extremely hard work that takes thought, attention to detail, know-how and, perhaps above all, flexibility to individual differences."
Volumes have been written about what motivates audiences sitting in auditoriums and employees working in cubicles or on factory floors. The scientific research on the subject could fill a few Amazon.com warehouses. Every month someone seems to come out with another management self-help book on motivation. The models are plentiful: positive and negative reinforcement, antecedents and consequences, intrinsic and extrinsic factors, the "sandwich" theory (slip a thin slice of criticism between two slices of praise), attribution theory and management theories X and Y.
We generally know people to be motivated for three basic reasons, though: to avoid some acute pain in their lives, to gain some form of what they define as pleasure, or to respond to a specific "driver-state" or emotional condition at a given time.
We also know that one person's motivation is another's empty slogan or cheerful idiocy. We are unique beings triggered in vastly different ways, with idiosyncrasies that demand, to the extent possible, customized, what's-in-it-for-me appeals, not recipes or one-size-fits-all propositions. A motivational approach that relies primarily on tugging heartstrings might resonate with people in certain human-relations professions, but lawyers, journalists, engineers or scientists hearing the same thing might well cry, "Where's the beef?"
"Nothing works all the time. People are too varied and complicated for that," writes Gellerman. "Instead, some techniques work some of the time. There's no magic to motivation, no miracles, no amazing results. Anyone who promises you any of these is either a naive fool or a con artist."
Scott Lee, a clinical psychologist in Kirkland, Washington, who studies the psychology of influence between speakers and audiences, believes one reason attempts to influence from the podium fall short is the presenter's failure to build an "emotional bridge" to the audience.
Lee says behavioral influence - a consistent change in behavior resulting from a concrete change in belief -happens primarily on the right side of the brain, and speakers' attempts to influence should target that area. While the brain's left side is designed to pick apart logic in arguments, presentation approaches targeting the right side - things like personal stories of failure or challenges overcome - travel through most filters "straight to your gut, belief system and world view, and that's where true change takes place," Lee says. "You have to first soften an audience before you can shape it, to create receptivity to a new message. It's hard to do that by citing research or data." But Lee acknowledges that connecting emotionally with an audience doesn't guarantee you'll lead them anywhere. People can always be persuaded to do something in the short term if you wave a big enough stick, Lee says, but it's far more difficult to get them to believe something and then persuade them to act on that belief. It's the difference between compliance and commitment. Successful organizations know that committed employees outperform compliant ones every time.
Speakers don't have the power to motivate anyone; they have only the power to create conditions that enable people to motivate themselves. So believes Marilynn Mobley, a former IBM executive who heads her own consulting company, the Acorn Consulting Group in Marietta, Georgia. Mobley, who does plenty of motivational speaking, also makes use of the philosophy behind an old sales maxim: People don't buy because they are made to understand; they buy because they feel understood.
"Motivation comes from the listener, and the presenter's job is to use compelling examples and personal stories that connect with the audience in a real way and give them something they can take away for their own lives," Mobley says. "All we as speakers can do is share experiences we've had that motivated or taught us and trust audience members to figure out for themselves what motivates them from that message." Indeed, Mobley often finds that audiences extract messages from her stories that she never intended or didn't recognize herself.
Mobley also knows that what inspires one person might fall flat or ring hollow with another. She tells a personal story about having a kidney transplant, getting pregnant and then having to make a life-or-death decision between keeping the baby and having a second kidney transplant. Women tend to respond deeply to her story, but men, although sympathetic, tend not to have the same visceral reaction.
Motivational speaker Jim McCormick knows his "reason-based" approach to motivating audiences swims a bit against prevailing tides and targets audiences less inclined to respond to overtly emotional appeals. McCormick, a world-record-holding skydiver who has parachuted into the North Pole, helps people and organizations improve performance and avoid "plateauing" by becoming more effective risk-takers. His pragmatic approach takes the form of a promise or calculation: If the audience members do A and B, they will experience C and D. "The emotion-based approach is wonderful for those who respond to it, but it's never worked for me, probably because of my engineering and MBA background," McCormick says. "I'd rather have someone make a very reasoned, almost airtight argument to me, and that's in turn what I try to do for my audiences. They're willing to embrace my risk-taking message, but only if I have a credible, irrefutable argument for it."
Unlike speakers who rely on their "expert" status or cutting-edge research to sway an audience, Mobley believes her success at inspiring depends on how well she positions herself as a content expert and as an equal. "For audiences to truly relate, you need to make yourself a bit vulnerable up there," she says. "You need to be willing to tell stories in which you're not the hero, when you failed or made a mistake and somehow bounced back. I think that's what more people relate to and are inspired by these days."
Indeed, according to a 2001 article in The Wall Street Journal, failure is trendy as a motivational speech topic. Amidst a struggling global economy and following the dot-com crash, audiences are embracing real-world stories of how people coped or bounced back from some professional or personal setback - and the lessons they learned along the way. Mobley herself developed a speech called "The Stupidest Things I've Done as an Entrepreneur."
"When you stride on stage in front of hundreds of people, there's this air that you're superior to them," Mobley says. "But when you begin to talk about some stupid things you've done or life plans that haven't gone so well, the [listeners] start to think you're one of them.
"The only difference is, you have a bit more nerve to get up on stage and tell the world about it."
Positioning yourself that way is among the best ways to build that all-important bridge to the audience, says psychologist Lee. A number of psychological studies suggest that "you can't truly lead anyone until you've walked alongside them," he says.
Lee says listeners have a natural "latitude of acceptance" to any new message - that is, limits on how much their belief systems can be shifted on a continuum from a one-shot presentation. Furthermore, presenters must first gauge where an audience stands before attempting
to move it anywhere. If the goal is to improve technical professionals' understanding and application of human psychology and interpersonal relations, for example, you should first ask them to rate their understanding on a scale of one to 10 - with the inward-looking techno-wonk at zero, and the technophobic people-person at 10. If most put themselves at four on the scale, Lee says the most a speaker might realistically hope to move them in one motivational presentation is one-and-a-half or two points, to about six on the scale. That's their latitude of acceptance.
"If you're too ambitious in trying to change beliefs, you not only might lose an audience, you may move them on the scale in the opposite direction of your intentions," Lee cautions.
McCormick believes audiences are increasingly cynical and resistant to motivational messages because they've been exposed to too many presentations that create little lasting impact. He takes a slightly different tack to the challenge of sustaining change. First, he strikes a deal with audiences: If they're willing to take certain risks and follow concrete steps laid out in his presentation, he promises them they will, with great certainty, experience specific long-term outcomes and rewards.
In a half-day presentation to 700 independent life-insurance agents, for instance, McCormick encouraged the audience to "intentionally do things differently than in the past" to meet new organizational and personal goals. The general advice was followed with a battery of specifics. Step one: The agents' own risk-taking should begin with trying to interest their established property and casualty insurance customers in life or health insurance. "That can be a difficult step - most everyone needs insurance for their home or car, but life insurance can be a tougher sell," McCormick says.
He then laid out incremental steps to sustain agents' efforts toward the new goal:
What outcomes does McCormick promise agents who take these steps? An increase in short-term and long-term income, the satisfaction of securing the financial futures of more clients and the personal rewards of their own risk-taking breakthroughs.
This approach requires McCormick to customize his standard message more than the average motivational speaker might. ''Any time we have the honor of speaking to an audience, we have enormous responsibility because we're using that company's most valuable asset, which is employee time," he says. "If I'm given 700 people for 60 minutes, that's 700 work hours, which is a valuable and expensive asset. We need to maximize our impact in that time, and the only way I can think of doing that is by heavily customizing my work."
Another theory holds that the most effective way to motivate is to present information, arguments or data in ways that allow audiences to draw their own conclusions. The "people don't argue with their own data" approach rests on the belief that we're far more convinced by our own experiences or research than we are by what someone else tells us to be true.
Anne Warfield, a certified speaking professional and outcome strategist with Impression Management Professionals in Minneapolis, frequently uses this approach in her consulting and presentation work. For example, she often encounters some audience resistance when talking about the importance of projecting a good visual image in the corporate world. Most people naturally want to be judged more on their inner selves than outer selves. But in making a point about "what should be" versus "what is" in the real world, Warfield wants participants to create their own "aha" reactions.
"Instead of trying to persuade them about the impact of a person's appearance, I want them to experience it for themselves," she explains. So she created an exercise where she projects onscreen the images of two different males, each of whom, Warfield tells the audience, is a suitor of a particular woman. She then asks audience members to pair up and jot down their impressions of the two men based only on physical appearance, including dress. Warfield polls the entire group to capture audience-wide perceptions, which tend to be very similar for both men. She then shows a slide summarizing how audiences around the world have judged these two men during the 10 years of doing the exercise - opinions that usually coincide with the current audience's impressions.
While the exercise may not change bedrock right-versus-wrong belief systems, the process of "creating their own data" validates for participants the importance of visual appearance to other peoples' perceptions.
Warfield also believes it's critical that leaders or speakers have more than a passing knowledge of the personality types they're trying to motivate or influence. One-size-fits-all approaches usually are doomed to failure, she says.
"It's important, especially as the leader of a team or work unit, to speak from the employee's perspective and to find out, by asking, what does or doesn't motivate each person," Warfield says. "What's most important to them? Is it a sense of stability or private recognition? Teamwork and public recognition? Freedom to make decisions or control over work? Accuracy? Whatever it is, try insofar as possible to create some of those conditions."