I get asked about this often. Most of the news here isn’t good.

There is a stigma around the phrase “motivational speaker”. The stereotype is a preacher or a snake oil salesman, all promises and slickness, delivering little substance. Or infomercials that promise if you just read this book, or follow this program, you’ll get everything you heart desires.

I did a simple poll yesterday and the results match my assumptions. Of course, readers of this blog might share my biases and a survey done to a wider audience might return different results (Also, we could compare the results here with the results for “public speaker”).

In practice, when I speak, I’m trying to motivate, but that’s true of all  teachers and speakers. I don’t know any demotivational speakers (although some bosses have this ability, intentionally or not). If you see a teacher or speaker on any subject, everyone knows his or her goal is to give you insights or inspiration to do something. All speakers of all kinds have the intent to motivate.

To motivate someone in the abstract, which is what a “motivational speaker” is asked to do, is odd. George Carlin also found it strange. To paraphrase him: “if you have the motivation to go to a seminar, why not use that motivation to go do the thing the seminar is telling you to do instead of sitting there listening?” No one can give you real motivation: you have to generate it yourself. The inspiration you feel because of someone else won’t last long after they leave: you need to cultivate your own motivation to achieve what you want in life. (Wait, do I sound like a motivational speaker now?). Whenever I’m asked to be motivational, I’m sure to address this paradox.

I’m a good and inspiring speaker, but I know the limitations. A great lecture can only do so much. Unfortunately, many “motivational speakers” make claims as if they don’t, promising much to many people with real problems, earning a negative and cheesy stigma (See I live in a van down by the river). Perhaps motivational speakers aren’t the problem, it’s the impossible promises some of them make.

Folks like Tony Robins, largely taking up the can-do attitude of Dale Carnegie, do often offer good advice and genuinely seems to care about helping people. But that’s not always the case. And somehow its people who are interested in being motivational speakers who don’t seem to be aware of the stigma around that moniker.

Overall, when people say “I want to do motivational speaking” they just mean “speaking”. They want to be hired to go places and talk about things.

Here is the advice I have:

1. There is a demand problem, not supply. The world is filled with people who believe they have a good story to tell and can motivate others. This means the market is a demand market, not a supply market. Unless your particular story has great appeal, say perhaps because you won five gold medals at a recent Olympics , or you’ve been on a spate of talk shows lately, there is no demand for you. Your primary problem is to find audiences where there is some demand. This is likely in your profession, your neighborhood, or anywhere that you particular story makes you credible and interesting. You don’t instantly generate demand. You grow demand, starting with a niche where you are known and respected, and grow from there. This also means you won’t be paid for awhile. Pay comes with demand.

2. Demand is based on perception, not talent. Motivational speakers are typically hired because of their story, not because of their speaking or storytelling ability. This is counterintuitive, as it means people are hired not for the skill itself, but for people’s perception. It’s perhaps unfair, but we are not a rational species. More people will come to hear Lady-Ga-Ga give a talk about the life story of Scott Berkun, than will ever come to hear Scott Berkun talk about Scott Berkun.

3. There is a road but it’s slow and filled with work. There is no singular speaking circuit. The way to get asked to speak at places is to be seen speaking in other places and do a good job. Or get a video of yourself doing a good job, and make sure that organizers of other events get to see it. Many would-be speakers see books as the way to get credibility for speaking, which is both true and odd. If you write a good book that becomes popular, it can help you generate demand and credibility, but most people writing books for purposes other than writing books don’t write good books.

4. You will be hired for expertise first. The first speaking engagements you get will be in fields or about specific skills. If you were a sports star, you’ll find it easier to get asked to speak to high school athletes. If you’re a journalist, you’ll find it easier to speak to journalists or people studying journalism. Look for events about an expertise you have and start there. You’ll have more credibility with audiences that share, or at least respect, your specific background.

5. The good news: earning credibility for talented hard working people is easier than ever. And building an audience is easier than ever in history. Between a blog (free), a youtube account (free),  facebook and twitter feeds (free) and cell phone with a video camera (free-ish as you already have one), you can start right now showing your abilities and building interest in your ideas and talents. But there is no shortcut and there are many people in the race. It takes time to build a following, and to earn a reputation sufficiently good to have people come looking for you. Your best advantage is your community and network, who if properly motivated (ha ha) can help you spread word of your talents.

For more on the business of public speaking, read Why Speakers earn $30,000 an hour, a free excerpt from my bestseller, Confessions of a Public Speaker.

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24 Responses to “How to become a motivational speaker”

  1. Andy Nash |

    Thanks for the post, your information on speaking and writing is really helpful.

    Also, while there may not be any de-motivational speakers, there is a really funny website from a company selling de-motivational office supplies and tee shirts etc, after seeing the site I can’t look at all those “motivational” posters hung in offices without laughing … here’s the address: http://www.despair.com/viewall.html

    Reply
  2. Phil Simon |

    Excellent post, Scott. As I do more public speaking, your advice becomes more and more sage. The glut in speakers coupled with the paucity of demand means that it’s tough to get paid speaking gigs, as you point out. My biggest pet peeve: when conference organizers want me to schlep copies of my books to a conference to sell.

    Reply
  3. Susan |

    Motivational speaking is different from public speaking. It’s a variety of public speaking defined by its subject: how to live, what matters in life. I don’t think what you do is motivational speaking, although from what I’ve read of yours and seen via internet video, you do speak from a broad perspective based in concerns that are essentially ethical or philosophical. So you do communicate your own brand of wisdom, but that isn’t your subject per se. Is it?

    Reply
  4. Leam Hall |

    Speakers are like bloggers; some dish out a tepid rehash and some engage your mind in overcoming internal challenges. Motivation is secondary to enlightenment. Reading Mindfire is slow going because each chapter sheds new light on dealing with old problems and requires deep thought. A good speaker knocks out some of the kinks in your thought process and gets your brain out of a rut. Motivation is the result, not the goal. Skip motivation, shoot for inspiration.

    Reply
  5. Nancy Long |

    Confessions of a Public Speaker is the best book that I have read about how to be a better public speaker. And God knows I’ve read most of them. Thanks once more, Scott.

    Reply
  6. Melissa White |

    Well being a speaker is quite hard. Overcoming fear is necessary for speaking in front, especially the fear of crowds. Well as time goes on anybody in the front gets used to it and simply overcomes the problem. Simply put becoming a motivational speaker is a huge achievement, since you get to express to others as well as overcome barriers.

    Motivational Speaker

    Reply
  7. Dean Bocari |

    Scott,

    I’m so glad I stumbled upon your site. I’ve been working diligently on speaking professionally. I look forward to reading your other articles.

    Thanks!
    Dean

    Reply
  8. MotivationalSpeakersAfrica.com |

    A very encouraging post here. I will definitely share this with our website followers in our Motivational Speakers in Africa website.

    Reply
  9. kato samuel |

    how i wish i can make it one day all your prayers thanx 4 ur work am glad

    Reply
  10. motivational speakers Melbourne |

    How to become a motivational speaker is not that easy. You have to overcome fears and stage-fright to perform in front of an audience. Thanks for your valuable advise.

    Reply
  11. Elise Perez |

    I want this so bad!! Thank you for your input! And you are right, the receiver has to be self motivated, we are just the inspiration to get the fire burning! I love being that!

    Reply
  12. simplifier |

    Really enjoyed this article, can you make it so I receive an update sent in an email whenever you publish a new update?

    Reply
  13. Julie Austin |

    Good advice as always, Scott. Part of the reason there are so few paid speaking jobs right now is because so many meeting planners are expecting speakers to speak for free. They pay people to sweep the floor, they pay the hotel for their conferences, yet want speakers to give away their hard work for free, and sometimes even pay their own expenses.

    This is why I started http://www.speakersponsor.com.

    Keep the dialogue going, Scott!

    Reply
  14. ALFRED OKOKO |

    Bravo Scott! This article has provided me with a lot of information to lay the foundation of my business as a public speaker and a writer on inspiration and motivational subjects. I believe many others will enjoy the benefits. Keep me updated please.

    Reply
  15. Chitofu |

    Inspiring. Though i think the best way to be motivational is not by intellect but by sharing your real life story. I have one but i dont know how to get a breakthrough so that one day i become a great motivational speaker. My audience would be the disabled and the sick. Please help

    Reply
  16. Bryson Moulton |

    Thanks for the writing the post above Scott, Im currently working my way through a number of public speaking opportunities…i’ve never really gone looking for an opportunity to speak publicly as such, but because of my expertise I often get asked to speak to groups, carry out workshops or consult/train people, and the feedback that i often get is “wow thats the most advanced and useful presentation/workshop I’ve ever been too’…i pondered why some of the people that come to my talks would say that talks are ‘advanced’ and I quickly came to the conclusion that, the vast majority of ‘experts’ in my industry are either journalists, (Seth Godin/Malcolm Gladwell types’) or good orators (i.e. Car/Real Estate sales men i.e. people that can spot a good opportunity like a shark can smell blood). To me the vast majority (95%) of ‘experts’ out there are charlatans. Because as someone who actually is ‘an expert’ through time served in the trenches day to day, with experience at the top of the game and educated to the highest levels. I KNOW what I’m talking about through tried and tested ‘hands on’ experience, personally. This is EXTREMELY rare in the public/motivational speaking industry from what I can see. I cringe at the majority of what I hear being peddled by ‘motivational speakers’, even though much of what is said is pretty good/true in general, its just that what is said is often stolen, shallow and superficial at best.
    So I intend to launch myself head-long into the Motivational Speaking game and see what happens. So far so good.

    Reply
  17. Sam Adeyinka |

    Hey Scott, it’s good to be here on your blog and to have stumbled on this great topic you shared so well. Thanks so much boss and I will be sure to work on myself in the coming days. :)

    Sam

    Reply
  18. Jeffjacobson Agency |

    Thank You Scott to provide very impressive information.

    Reply
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