Let me start with a confession. I can’t tell you exactly how to write the perfect motivational speech. Despite all the self-help books, the TED talks and the promises on LinkedIn profiles, there is no magic formula. If there was, every speech would feel the same – and we become inspired by original thinking.
That’s the bad news. The better news is that you can maximise your chances by asking yourself a series of questions before you start preparing. Whether you are motivated by the words of Winston Churchill, Barack Obama, Vince Lombardi or Oprah Winfrey, they will all have asked themselves each of these questions along the way.
Who are you trying to motivate?
Like any speech, we are all most likely to get it right if we put our audience first. We may have a brilliant idea, but we need to articulate it differently to a group of school children than to a bunch of senior colleagues.
Different audiences have different switches. Each of them sees the world through their eyes, not yours. The best speeches understand that and, by definition, become relevant. Al Pacino’s locker-room address in ‘Any Given Sunday’ is a brilliant motivational speech for a group of athletes, but the style wouldn’t work at the Tory Party conference.
The following story is attributed to John Lennon “When I went to school, they asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up. I wrote down ‘happy’. They told me I didn’t understand the assignment, and I told them they didn’t understand life.” In this context, Lennon was saying they didn’t ‘get’ him. Which is precisely how to lose your audience.
What do you want them to do?
Once we know who we want to motivate, we need to be very specific about how we define ‘motivation’. It’s more than a sense of purpose and goodwill. In almost every case you want to motivate people for a reason. Do you want them to sell more? To vote in a certain way? To change the way they behave? To inspire others?
If so, you need to write that purpose and keep it visible as you write your speech. Never lose sight of it. All roads must lead there.
Charles Swindoll wrote “Life is 10% what happens to me and 90% of how I react to it.” Your motivational speech should be measured 10% by what you say and 90% by how your audience reacts to it.
What do you want them to remember?
Even if your eloquence convinces them to do exactly what you ask, it’s important they remember why. They need to take away a key message – a reason to believe. They should vote for you because they’ll pay less in tax. You want them to be more punctual because it sets a better example for the rest of the team. You want them to be more creative because their ideas will create jobs for others.
This is what we call ‘leading with benefits’. A great motivator doesn’t necessarily focus on the process but how their message works to the audience’s advantage. Obama famously repeated ‘Yes We Can’ in his 2008 New Hampshire Concession speech. The benefit was an America in which anyone in the audience could realise their dreams.
Is your core message positive?
The majority of great motivators focus on the positive. Steve Jobs felt that: “The only way to do great work is to love what you do.” And that’s a philosophy that underpins one of the world’s great corporate success stories. Working hard “because otherwise I’ll shout at you” may work very occasionally, but it isn’t a recipe for long-term success.
How would you feel in the audience listening to yourself?
Motivational speaking comes with a health warning. If you get it wrong, the impact can be horrible. The leader who fails to motivate may be in a weaker position than the one who doesn’t try.
The challenge is that many speakers aspire to the style and rhetoric of many high profile motivators. And even after the best part of two decades, it’s extraordinary how many speeches given by sensible, professional people teeter on the brink of David Brent.
The best way to cut this out at source is to imagine yourself in the audience. Would you react with cynicism or respect? Ennui or excitement?
As a rule, this sort of self-awareness, coupled with a willingness to be self-deprecating, will ensure you get it right.
Take this oft-quoted thought from Michael Jordan: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” It is inspiring precisely because it so humble.
Do you believe it?
“Believe you can and you’re halfway there” urged Theodore Roosevelt whose magnificent, motivational ‘Man in the Arena’ speech adorns our office wall – still relevant over a century on.
He asked his audience to believe. In this case, you, the speaker, need to. Because however well it reads and however positive the message, if it doesn’t feel right to you, you’ll never be able to carry it off.
This is a trap many wannabe-motivators fall into. They desperately want to inspire, and approach the task with the best intentions. But in doing so they try to ape others and don’t stay true to themselves. If you don’t believe in what you are asking others to, you’ll slash your chances of success.
Have you worked on the language?
Structuring a really compelling and relevant speech is half the challenge. Part 2 is turning it into something that sounds great. That happens in two phases.
The first is to write it for the spoken word. This matters for any type of address, but if you want to inspire, it needs to be perfect. You need sections that flow seamlessly into one another, never leaving an awkward pause or change of direction. The script will include pauses that resonate and highlight words that require particular emphasis. You’ll want fewer and fewer words to make a great impact. You’ll need to decide how often to make the same key point – the balance between asserting its importance and turning-off your audience.
This doesn’t happen by accident. As Churchill famously admitted, he kept busy preparing his ‘impromptu’ remarks. Great speeches will always appear to be given off the cuff, but they almost inevitably result from formidable levels of preparation.
Will you practise it?
And then there’s the second. Stand up and say it. Again and again. Make sure you are comfortable with the narrative. Can you carry off the requisite passion and emotion? How will you harness the requisite energy levels? Do you know it well enough to ensure you are looking right at your audience during the key passages? Practising isn’t just about rehearsal, it’s also about editing. It’s never too late to make changes, and in my case, some of the most important tweaks only become clear when you hear yourself delivering it out loud.
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Lawrence (+44) (0)203 651 7351