A Short Guide To Using The Force Like A Motivational Speaker

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So I went to a motivational speaker thing-y a little while ago and I really hated it.

First of all, I want to make it clear that I don’t think there was anything wrong with the speaker or what he was saying. But after about fifteen minutes, I felt like I was stuck in a room full of despairing souls having their brains happily tenderized by a mallet of charisma. Now, that’s not necessarily what was going on. There were probably plenty of folks in that audience having a perfectly good time, experiencing perfectly legit ‘ah hah’ moments. People weren’t being abused or manipulated.

But I realized later on that I was reacting strongly to the experience because I grew up attending churches like this. So I feel defensive—a just a tad bit cynical—when I find myself in crowds of people being whipped up by an admired leader-figure.

Anyway, in order to deal with my discomfort, I went into full-on analytical mode. I started taking down notes about the techniques this speaker had incorporated (consciously or instinctively) into his oratorical approach. I figured I might as well generate a ‘how to be a motivational speaker’ list while I was writhing inwardly in my business casual attire.

Understand that I have tried to make this list as non-snarky as possible. Once again, I’m not saying that there was anything wrong with the speaker I just saw or with the motivational speaking in general. For the purposes of this list, I am treating motivational speaking as a presentation style that is very effective in certain contexts. Ok? No hateration intended.

So without further ado, if you want to try out the motivational speaker’s presentation style, I say try the following techniques. (And, once again, please try to read this list in the least snarky tone possible. THANKS.)

1. Touchy-Feely

Tell stories that evoke emotions. Yours especially. Getting teary-eyed or even fully crying ain’t off-limits. To me, Touchy-Feely feels like the rule rather than the exception at this stage of the game. Blame Oprah.

2. Primal Dominance

Primal Dominance energy might sound kind of creepy, but it’s not. It’s highly ordinary, as everyday as the air we breathe, and we receive and expend it all of the time.

I’ve written about the power pose elsewhere, and I believe that dominance and submission are just facts of life. When I was a child wandering around groups of people rolling around ecstatically on the floor, I was taught to believe that the Holy Spirit was a great equalizer, causing every redeemed soul to glide around on a level playing field.

But that wasn’t true. In that setting, there were always naturally more dominant people who were able to influence how other people in the congregation felt and acted. Some of these influencers were perfectly benign; they would make others cry, laugh, think, bark like dogs if it felt right. No big deal. Everybody leaves feeling good. But other dominant people were much less savoury. They could make people believe weird and disturbing things about themselves when they administered ‘hands-on’ prayer and muttered ‘prophetic words’ into vulnerable ears.

Anyway, primal dominance is a fact. It isn’t an inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thing. It’s just The Force. Both Obi-Wan and Senator Palpatine have access to it. And generally, effective motivational speakers have learned to work a particularly splashy iteration of it. I’d love to have Tony Robbins measured for testosterone and cortisol levels immediately after he’s finished surfing the wave he creates out of a big crowd.

3. Audacious Reframing of Faults

Audacious Reframing of Faults is a pretty cool one. I like it a lot because all of my teenaged idols dipped heavily into this branding elixir when I was growing up. It’s connected to Touchy-Feely, Primal Dominance, and oftentimes to Origin Stories (which is coming right up). It’s when something about you could cause you to feel shame, but you instead hold it up as a banner of superiority. 

Punk Rock, my 14 year-old self’s favourite genre of music, was built on Audacious Reframing. Iggy Pop became a sexy icon because he strutted his weird, wiry, homely self around with such audacious confidence. The juxtaposition between his unconventional looks and his traditional Primal Dominance became his terribly unique selling point. This is the way of looooots of male rock stars, actually. David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Kurt Cobain…by all rights these freakily thin men shouldn’t have been worshipped as masculine rock gods, but they Audaciously Reframed themselves so convincingly that their aesthetic became the new dominant.

Motivational speakers will almost always have some kind of signature Fault to Reframe. Never having attended university is a big one. Having failed in tremendous ways is another. Learning disabilities. Physical disabilities. I think awesome Reframers are so inspiring to us because they stir in us a plangent primordial hope that perhaps NOTHING can stand in our way, and death itself can be overcome. Or just Reframed.

4. Appealing Promises

Appealing Promises are obviously the lifeblood of the motivational speaker. Nobody would be on a stage unless they were repping for a promise. A speaker has seen some kinda light, and he is here to describe it, and point the way to it. Appealing Promises are interesting because depending on the audience (or more correctly, the individual within the audience), they can seem totally plausible and crucially important, or totally laughable and pathetically futile. From the notion of being able to adopt a ‘millionaire mindset’ to the search for ‘stillness’ via mindful meditation, everybody has a Promise that fits them just right. And a Motivational Speaker who can point the way.

5. Personal Slogans, Repeated Often

Personal Slogans….you gotta have some good ones! Especially in the age of social media. Pithy, punchy, memorable distillations of Appealing Promises work best. Depending on the speaker’s personal brand, the Slogans should be infused with the essence of Reframed Faults, Primal Dominance, or Touchy-Feely. Or all of the above.

6. Origin Stories

The Origin Story is something I think about a lot. When I was a super-shy, friendless little kid, I bonded easily with celebrities, fictional characters, and imaginary people. I was (and still am, in many ways) a connoisseur of the parasocial relationship. All of these epically celebrated characters had stories about where they came from that gave dimension and heft to their personal myths. (Or ‘personal brands’ if you prefer. Same difference.) Kurt Cobain’s music made sense because we thought about how lonely he must have been sleeping underneath that bridge. Brian Wilson’s heartbreaking otherness seemed to stream directly from the font of his tyrannized childhood beneath a Father-Manager. Oprah’s incredible Primal Dominance is especially notable when you consider how kicked around she was by her own family members.
A motivational speaker understands what part of her past is especially pertinent to her present-day message, and she tells the story well. A good Origin Story makes everything that follows seem destined and meaningful. An Origin Story tells us WHY, and WHY is where it’s at.

In religious gatherings, from secular pulpits, and across Internet-connected time and space, motivational speakers keep doing their thing. Their Thing is obviously very, very important to us human beings, even if it also ruffles our feathers and abuses our trust from time to time. If you are on a mission to move the masses, consider incorporating the above techniques into your presentation style. On the other hand, if you are somebody with the muscle to actually move those masses, you probably started doing this stuff a long time ago without anybody telling you how.

[Author: Kristin van Vloten]

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February 20, 2015

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